Media headlines routinely trumpet the era of the entrepreneur.
Lately, that attention tilts more toward the males who take new ideas and turn them into viable commercial enterprises.
Recent data indicates the number of women starting new businesses has leveled off considerably. And, if this is true, there are plenty of reasons why, ranging from various financial issues to age-old societal definitions of personal priorities.
“Women, in general, tend to put themselves and their dreams last. Family and family stability comes first,” said small-business coach Lisa Baker-King. “In uncertain and unstable economic and social times like we are currently navigating, the world of small business is more costly and more risky than ever before.”
But women who have made the choice to be in the entrepreneurial front lines and ended up as business owners have established strategies and practices that other female entrepreneurs can employ when they want to take that step.
The gender gap
According to the 2015 Kauffman Index, 63.2 percent of the people starting businesses in 2014 were men, compared with women at 36.8 percent. That marked the lowest level of female entrepreneurs since 2008 (36.3 percent) and was about 7 percent lower than in 1996, when 43.7 percent of entrepreneurs were women.
It isn't merely an issue of the number of women entrepreneurs. According to data from the Corporation for Enterprise Development, not only did men nationwide own more businesses than women, but also male-owned businesses, on average, were valued at three times that of businesses owned by women.
“Women-owned businesses make less money than male-owned businesses, and we have less access to capital,” said Katrina Schenfield, founder of Katixon Skincare.
Others don't take the statistical data too literally. Joseph Camberato, president of National Business Capital, a niche business financing company, noted that any financing beyond initial startup costs can skew the definition of who really owns a business.
“When it is up and running and requires additional working capital, the woman owner may partner with a financing consortium or male partner or partners," he said. "While the enterprise is still woman-run, it may no longer be entirely woman-owned and therefore accounts to some extent for what appears on the surface to be a declining metric.”
Sarah Thebaud, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote in The Conversation about research suggesting many people are hesitant to provide financial support to women hoping to launch a business.
“On an aggregate level, this dynamic suggests countless ideas that could have blossomed into successful businesses and benefited the economy never did, simply because the individuals who pitched them weren’t the ‘right’ gender,” she wrote.
Mansi Singhal, co-founder of qplum, a digital investment platform, said that lack of support goes beyond questions of finance.
“Most women lack the support system to feed the fervor needed to start a business,” she said. “That includes social support from family and friends, funding support from financing or savings and community support from professional contacts in the industry.”
More resources, interaction
One solution to the ongoing challenges faced by the female entrepreneurial community is greater access to resources, primarily financial.
The government has stepped up, to a certain extent. Effective October 2015, federal agencies began allowing contracting officers to award “sole source contracts” — buying preferences to women-owned companies whose industries have been underrepresented.
A more receptive environment at the local level may also boost women’s interest in pursuing necessary funding.
“Funding can be the game-changing factor for women. We need banks and other financiers to encourage funding for small businesses being started by women,” Singhal said. “If they have funding in place for their business idea, it can be a huge encouragement for women. Additionally, it can help them in gathering the required social support needed from family and friends."
Another commonly expressed obstacle is a lack of female entrepreneurial role models.
“There are a lot of female business owners, but many of them are either behind the scenes or unheard from," said Kenia Costanzo of StilettoCoffee.com. "I've had role models that I look up to, but often from afar.”
If female role models are few and far between, some say the obvious solution is to look to men for positive examples.
“This may sound somewhat controversial, but I think we should learn from men,” Schenfield said. “If the men are getting more business and creating the rules for business, then we need to learn from them what the rules are and how to win.”
Shift in attitudes
Pragmatic steps aside, women entrepreneurs also consistently pinpointed longstanding attitudes toward women in business as a global problem stifling growth. Rachel Maxwell, founder of Maxwell Biometrics, which produces fingerprint-coded door locks, noted: “I hate to say it, but women in technology are still seen as idiots.”
One strategy: Consider leveraging differences and not trying to blend in.
“While it can be difficult to be the only woman in the room, there is great power that comes with having a voice that is different from most people’s,” said Amber D. Scott of Outlier Solutions Inc., a business and operations consulting concern. “I’ve found that rather than trying to be, sound or argue like one the guys, it’s much more effective to listen to the conversation without feeling compelled to interject until I truly have something to say.”
But, Scott added, boosting women as entrepreneurs mandates a core shift in attitude and focus — on everyone’s part.
“It will take time and changes to the socialization of both men and women. It will take socializing people to look at one another as equal participants in education and business processes from day one,” she said. “I don't think the reasons for the statistics are a mystery. The real mystery is why we don't do more to change it.”