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Women's entrepreneurial journeys: executive summary

Profiles of leadership in an era of new opportunities

A group of women in an office

During the last 50 years, the number and scope of women-owned businesses have risen at a virtually unprecedented rate. This historic expansion is due to the efforts of courageous women who have been willing to take the leap and become entrepreneurs, at times capitalizing on groundbreaking legislation specifically related to equality. Today, women are starting and growing their own businesses at record rates; they own nearly 13 million businesses, employ nearly 9.2 million people and generate $1.9 trillion in annual revenues.1 Given what these numbers reveal about the economic growth and societal impact driven by women business owners, this paper examines whether there is something distinct about how women approach entrepreneurship, create and direct wealth, and define success.

Since the 2008 economic crisis, research on entrepreneurship has been on the rise, with much of it concentrating on startup companies and so-called unicorns — a recent phenomenon of companies with valuations of at least $1 billion. What’s distinctive about this white paper is that it takes a broader view, examining eight entrepreneurial journeys from conception to the startup phase, through an expansion period, to the sale of a business and beyond. Notably, this paper focuses on individuals who were quite possibly the first wave of modern women entrepreneurs, most of them so-called baby boomers (born between the mid-1940s and early 1960s) and all of them unique and intrepid individuals.

Author Sally Helgesen calls female baby boomers “everyday revolutionaries” —she used that phrase as a book title — in part because many engaged in pushing the boundaries of what women were able — or, perhaps more accurately, were permitted — to accomplish. Their actions helped lead to the passage of critical legislation and the rise of opportunities that the women entrepreneurs featured in this paper seized upon. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Other legislation passed in later years led to bans on gender-specific “help wanted” advertising and, with Title IX, gave women and girls equal access to any education program or activity that receives federal financial assistance. The Equal Credit Act of 1974 gave women equal access to credit cards, loans and mortgages, famously forbidding the longstanding requirement of a man’s signature on a loan application. The baby boomers interviewed for this paper were between 18 and 24 years of age when they could finally get credit on their own. Later, in the 1990s, new programs made government grants, loans and contracts and other opportunities available to women-owned businesses.

Over the past five years, employment growth at women-owned firms rose 8%, while for all businesses the increase was 1.8%.

This paper also includes the stories of two younger women. They give you a sense of how today’s entrepreneurs are benefitting from the experiences of their trailblazing predecessors and making more deliberate choices as they start and grow their businesses. Many are making an impact in just a few years and at an early age. Like the prior generation of women entrepreneurs, this group of women also focuses on “paying it forward” to the next generation in the hopes of helping other women.

Understanding this relatively recent economic history helps make the accomplishments of the panel in the white paper even more remarkable. Over the past five years, the annual growth rate in the number of women-owned firms has been more than double that of all businesses. The number of women-owned firms increased at a 3.9% annual rate between 2014 and 2019, while the number of all businesses averaged a 1.7% increase each year,1 and are a catalyst for change. As such, they have helped stimulate the economy by innovating and delivering for their clients, building businesses, hiring people, and giving back to their employees and communities.

Our goal in this paper is to uncover the journey to leadership of successful women business owners, their impact on society and the factors contributing to their success in creating wealth and growing their businesses. No two women followed the same path, but their collective journeys offer important insights that fall under five themes:

  • People and culture: The women entrepreneurs profiled focused on people — employees, vendors and customers — sometimes to the detriment of profit and personal wealth. Their goal is to create company cultures that helped people reach their  full potential.
  • Education, experience and a little luck: Many think entrepreneurship starts with a business idea, but there is more to it than that. The women entrepreneurs profiled earned degrees and gained valuable business experience that helped them identify a societal or cultural shift, gap or unfilled need that,   in turn, guided their business model.

Nothing replaces experience; it is invaluable.

  • Access to capital: There has been a dearth of equity investment, including venture capital, in women-owned businesses. Only two of the women profiled sought equity investors. The other six self-funded their businesses, wanting to control their autonomy and maintain their people- focused cultures.
  • Resilience and optimism: The women interviewed showed that launching a company requires optimism to make the attempt and resilience to continue despite setbacks. They all faced, and overcame, challenges.
  • The  importance  of  women’s  leadership:  All  of  the  women  profiled  said  that  having more female leaders in companies and boardrooms would have made their paths to success less arduous. Consequently, all of them support younger women, both in business and in their communities.

The Journeys

The stories featured in the white paper highlight eight different entrepreneurial journeys that fall into four main categories:

Founded and sold. Building from the ground up, these women created successful, innovative businesses that they eventually sold.

Inherited or bought. These entrepreneurs took over established companies from either a family member or the founders, and placed their own imprint on the businesses, molding cultures that aligned with their   visions.

Founded and still owns. This owner created a billion dollar business and remains active leading her company and takes advantage of her leadership role to mentor and motivate the next generation of women entrepreneurs.

“Next generation” founders. These women will give you a sense of how today’s entrepreneurs are benefitting from the experiences of their trailblazing predecessors and making more deliberate choices as they start and grow their    businesses.

All of these admirable women became successful business owners who have brought financial value, innovative skills, enduring cultures and job creation to the U.S. economy, society and their respective industries. Their journeys weren’t easy — they had to overcome many challenges, whether in the form of financial obstacles, gender bias or racist attitudes. Almost from the start of their entrepreneurial journeys, each woman has focused on people as much as on business, helping men and women provide for their families, gain a better education or improve their lives. Some of the eight have sold their companies; others are still at the helm. Believing that being a role model is crucial, most plan to continue to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to take a chance, be it starting, buying or leading a company of their own. What stands out in the stories is that each woman’s journey to success was distinctive, unlike the others in fundamental ways. And yet, they also shared more than a few significant parallels.

Their stories reveal that expanding educational and entrepreneurial opportunities for young girls and women goes beyond simply supporting gender equality; it is also about creating brand new pathways for women to lead and, just as our eight entrepreneurs did, contribute to the economy and society.  

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