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3 Challenges I Faced Being a Woman Entrepreneur

A while back, I had a talk with colleagues about the obvious lack of women representation at marketing conferences specifically (since our industry) and other business conferences more generally. What I pointed out to them was that I have seen an increase since 11 years ago when I first started speaking at these industry events. This trend goes along with a phenomenal general increase in the number of women starting and succeeding in business.

However, although there have been gains, my colleagues felt that conferences need a way to improve upon this.

Considering the current world climate, women do have a long way to go. Men have a long way to go as well in terms of understanding the importance of women’s voice and perspective in every facet of business and life.

I’ve recently started watching the Hulu hit show The Handmaid’s Tale which shows us how a challenging world dictated by men, where a women’s only purpose and worth is child bearing. It’s a terrifying prospect to consider that even today, in some parts of the world, women are viewed this way.

Although in the US it isn’t as blatant, very often women dismissed in meetings “nevertheless she persisted,” aren’t given a chance to succeed, and may be looked over for a promotion or a job they are highly qualified for. The reality is that women entrepreneurs still face cultural and economic challenges in all aspects of business, and this often hinders their growth and impact their business success. In terms of conferences, it may discourage them from becoming more visible and apply, since more than often they get rejected.

As a woman entrepreneur, I’ve witnessed first-hand the challenges women face in business. Some of these were mild speed bumps, some catastrophic pre-conceived notions that even threatened the success of my business. I’m going to share with you some of the challenges I’ve encountered and hopefully ways to overcome them.

1. Women entrepreneurs are still the exception, not the norm

Image source: Clarity

For all the strides made, there is still a large gap in male vs. female representation in the field of entrepreneurship.

The Institute of Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) shows that only 29% of all businesses in America are started by women.

In other words, for every 100 entrepreneurs you meet, 71 will be men.

In contrast, for every 100 dental assistants you meet, only 4 will be men.

Sure, there is growth — IWPR data shows that the percentage of women entrepreneurs has risen from 26% in 1997 to 29% today — but female participation in entrepreneurship is still low.

In real terms, this often means that clients, colleagues and future hires assume that I’m male if they haven’t met me or heard me speak. As an exception to the norm, I realize that I stand out in a field dominated by men.

It’s not all bad and bleak. There are some encouraging signs. Tech entrepreneurship — a domain once dominated by men — has seen more and more women starting companies.

I, as the co-founder of FigPii, have recently attended Startup Istanbul, a regional event that accepted 25,000 worldwide applications. Throughout the process, they narrowed the top startups (and entrepreneurs) through a series of reviews, interviews, and pitching rounds. I did notice that there were a number of female entrepreneurs, however, by no means did they make the majority. It is also worth noting that since the inception of the event, no women have ever made it to the top 3.

According to a Crunchbase report on gender, the number of women-led tech startups has grown every year since Crunchbase started keeping track of gender in its startup database.

Image source: Motherboard

It’s an encouraging sign but even at 18% participation, women are lagging far behind men in tech entrepreneurship.

In other words: we need more women entrepreneurs to even out the odds. Don’t let a rejection stop you from continuously trying.

2. Women face a “confidence gap” when it comes to entrepreneurship

This shouldn’t really happen in this day and age, but the stats don’t lie.

Consider this: according to the 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) U.S. Report, women entrepreneurs start their businesses with a median $8,000 in starting capital. For men, this figure was $30,000.

At the same time, the spring 2014 Bank of America Small Business Report found that 33% of surveyed women believed they had access to less capital than men.

The perception that women find it difficult to get funding and the actual stats showing significantly lower starting capital for women is an example of what Sheryl Sandberg calls the “confidence gap”.

Essentially, women undermine themselves when they start businesses due to a lack of faith in their capabilities. This, in turn, manifests itself in a lack of perceived funding opportunities and lower initial starting capital — many women entrepreneurs don’t trust themselves to succeed.

A fellow colleague, Stephen Spencer, who happens to be male, wrote an article on what is called “the Imposter Syndrome;” a syndrome in which a successful woman does not feel she is deserving of the success she has had.

Amazing, accomplished women such as Maya Angelou and Sonia Sotomayor have admitted to having these struggles.

The silver-lining is that women are overcoming these issues — the same Bank of America report referenced above found that businesses founded by women were growing faster than those led by men.

Similarly, the 2016 BNP Paribas Global Entrepreneurship Report found that women are “more ambitious and successful” than their male counterparts when it comes to business.

The lesson is clear: don’t undermine yourself. Close the confidence gap; female-led businesses are as, if not more successful, than male-led businesses. And if you feel you’re suffering from low confidence and feel you aren’t deserving of your success, seek help and talk to someone that can help you overcome that so it doesn’t hold you back.

3. Humility is the female entrepreneur’s strongest point (and biggest weakness)

There’s a very interesting paper on female entrepreneurship co-authored by Wharton Business School professor Ethan Mollick titled “Hubris and Humility: Gender Differences in Serial Founding Rates”.

In this paper, professor Mollick makes the claim that women are defined by humility, men by hubris. If something goes wrong, women are likely to attribute the error to themselves, while men blame outside forces or luck. If something goes right, women do the opposite — they attribute it to luck — while men see it as affirmation of their ability.

This phenomenon manifests itself in how often women chase entrepreneurship.

As a lot of readers must already know, entrepreneurship is a high-risk game. 90% of startups fail. Success is the exception, not the norm.

Professor Mollick’s research found that when women tasted failure once in entrepreneurship, they did not chase the idea again (because of humility). This was particularly evident when people were investing in ideas, not individuals, as on crowdfunding sites.

This “humility” — the desire to own up to errors — keeps a lot of women from succeeding in business. Instead of looking at the failure as a learning process, women entrepreneurs might see it as a fundamental problem in their own abilities, as Mollick’s research shows.

This ultimately impacts female participation in entrepreneurship.

Yet, this humility doesn’t have to be a weakness. When used right, it can be the female entrepreneur’s biggest strength since it leads to clarity.

Which is to say, hubris can be blinding but humility leads to insight.

Over to You

Women face a number of challenges in the workplace. When they are starting companies, these challenges are magnified manifold. Colleagues might question you, investors might doubt you, and worst, you might not believe in yourself.

As a woman entrepreneur, I’ve faced these challenges personally as well. However, I take strength from the fact that more and more women like me are starting businesses, and that women-led businesses continue to enjoy growth across verticals.

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