Our blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

October 6, 2009

Entrepreneurship for the Rest of Us: A Conversation About Women's Business Growth

(photo courtesy of Andrew Lee)

I wanted to share this really important post – Response: Sacrifice Your Health for Your Startup - from a woman named Darla Cohen. It illuminates a conversation that I have frequently, and in fact one that I have had the last two days in a row. A conversation about women’s business growth.

She wrote on her husband’s blog (Jason Cohen of A Smart Bear – a blog I like and read a lot) in response to his post: Sacrifice Your Health for Your Startup. Understandably, his post generated a lot of comments and interest, and Darla weighted in to offer a different perspective about her different entrepreneurial experience.

It is a perspective that we are very familiar with and one that tends to be under-reported and under-acknowledged.

We know from sources like the Kaufman Foundation that women-led ventures are smaller, less growth-oriented, and start with less capital than men-owned firms.

People often abhor these statistics and report them in the context of “studies show that women still lag behind men”. It is true, in terms of growth and access to capital women entrepreneurs do lag behind men. I get frustrated about these stories, not because of the lag but because the lag is really not the point. Many women entrepreneurs aren’t concerned about this lag, because it isn’t necessarily reporting on the things that they care about most. Perhaps surprisingly, running businesses similar to their male counterparts is not what all women entrepreneurs want. For some women, growth and sale price are neither the motivating factors nor the markers of success.

Why? Because they have different goals (something we work very hard with our members to be clear about).

Instead of size and scale they may prioritize flexibility and autonomy. And when I say flexibility, I don’t just mean the day-to-day kind, but I am also talking about seasonal and yearly flexibility. Many women I know don’t want their business to be on a growth path that they don’t have control over and want the ability to slow, relocate, or halt their businesses as they need to or want to.

Others may be more concerned with building something that is sustainable in the long-term, that they can run for the next 10 years. For these women working for themselves may be the next step in their career path or a destination that they have been working towards for some time.

And although these women aren’t following the traditionally glorified entrepreneurial path, they are still entrepreneurs and they still run businesses and they still contribute to the economy and still have an impact on their industries and communities. You can distinguish these businesses as lifestyle businesses if that makes you feel better, although to Darla’s point, that phrase does seem to undermine the amount of work and sacrifice that these ventures take. And I can’t tell you how many of these so-called lifestyle business owners I know are self-supporting…a reality that makes running a business a lot less lifestyle-ish.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I hate generalities and I recognize and work daily with women who don’t fit this description, women who are focused on size and scale and who are building great companies in the process. And there are fabulous resources out there (though not enough!) that help women to access the money, skills, and knowledge needed to grow their businesses quickly – Make Mine a Million, being a leader among them. And it is a shame that lack of access to funding and critical resources limits women who do want to grow businesses in this way.

But, I like Darla’s post because it authentically speaks about a different but common entrepreneurial experience. The reality is that there are many kinds of entrepreneurs, who need different types of support and various kinds of resources, but all of whom experience many of the same entrepreneurial challenges (innovation, positioning, motivation, execution, decision-making) and deserve the respect that goes with the territory.

And what I really liked were the responses to Darla’s post – all positive and supportive from other folks who also recognize that entrepreneurship truly encompasses a diversity of experience and purpose.


Jason Cohen said...

Hi Adelaide, thanks so much for writing this piece.

I know Darla will comment as well, but I wanted to throw my hat in as well in affirmation of everything you've said.

It's easy as (1) an American and (2) a man to get lost in the search for money. Sometimes it seems the only measure of success or value or worth in the world is the number just above the double-underline on a P&L sheet.

But that's so narrow-minded, and so not true.

This isn't just about building a business. This is your life. What do you want from your life?

Money might be one thing, and I admit that for me it's a huge thing! Nothing wrong with that per se.

But what about family? What about watching my new baby girl grow and learn and squirm on the bed after waking up and crying her eyes out during a bath?

What about having down-time, reset time, time to yourself, time to think, time to read the New Yorker, time to sit outside on the back porch on a beautiful day and listen to the birds and fountain (which I'm doing at this very second!), time to slap your wife on the ass (because hey -- I'm a big advocate for women's issues, but when it's my own wife in our house and she's getting up to get more water, you can bet she's getting a slap on the ass. :-D )

What about doing something in the world? What about making a real difference in people's lives?

Darla, for example, didn't just "cook and deliver food." That's how she made money but that's not what she did.

She would get calls from customers who said "I just ate the broccoli out of the cooler, cold! And I don't even like broccoli! Thanks for making me want to eat veggies."

In other words, Darla made people healthy, happy, and gave them more time with their own families.

How do you weigh that against "profits?" Does that make Darla more "successful?" Valuable?

You can't say, and you don't need to. You just need to acknowledge that there are other important things besides profits.

Women understand this tacitly more than men, but we all would do well to remember these things when designing our businesses -- and really our whole lives.

Thanks for the thought-provoking piece! Cheers.

Darla Cohen said...


Thank you for this insightful post. You bring up some important points.

So often, for the sake of making sure the world is "fair", we overlook what's really going on.

I appreciate your point that women are often interested in different aspects of business than men. It's Ok to want something different from the boys. Beyond the fact that some businesses aren't as glamorous on paper since flexibility doesn't show up on a balance sheet, there's an emotional impact too: It's easy to feel insignificant in a room full of people who raise millions in venture capital, sell businesses for large sums, etc. But as you point out, in order to make any business run you have to meet similar challenges ("innovation, positioning, motivation, execution, decision-making"). If you've succeeded at making a product that makes a profit, you're already well ahead of many businesses who have fancy office space and yet don't have paying customers. This is why I too hate the term "lifestyle business".

Starting your own business is clearly a way for women to get what they want out of work, regardless of the specific goals of any individual. I didn't want to be dependent on others' idea of adequate maternity leave, of reasonable work hours, etc. Instead of fighting the culture, I created my own job and worked on my own terms (which at times included unreasonable work hours!) Women all over are taking a similar approach and creating niches for themselves that allow freedom to work as they choose without relying on someone else to share their values. Instead of waiting around for the culture to change, they're just going out and getting what they want.

If that's not power, I don't know what is. And yet that power will never show up in the statistics. Which is Ok, because we'll be out there rocking anyway!

In Good Company WorkPlaces said...

you guys make a great team!

Jason - you are right! This is our lives AND sometimes the complete value created by a business isn't captured on the balance sheet. Here's to acknowledging multi-faceted businesses!

Darla - I couldn't agree more. I think that learning to work for yourself is an increasingly important and valuable skill - especially in this economy. And working for yourself (instead of someone else) changes the entire landscape of what is possible.

And yes, it does seem ironic that pre-revenue businesses can get so much glory while established but so-called lifestyle businesses are dismissed.

thanks for the really meangingful dialog!

let us know when you are next in NYC.