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Claire Topalian Headshot

You Can't Be What You Can't See: Carving Paths for Female Entrepreneurs

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"You can't be what you can't see." These words have lately taken on a fresh meaning in my own life, and inevitably, I'm more compelled to see these words manifest in the lives of others around me as a result. You can't be what you can't see: it is true for all of us -- we rely on stories, examples, leaders or, in the purest, most basic form, images that inform us about who we are and what our potential is, and without these, we are left unaware and unable to be that which we cannot see.

Consider the path of the businessperson or the entrepreneur. Starting small, consider the role of an individual in a workplace that is heavily dominated by men. Imagine that the workplace, though it is inspiring and open-minded, does not boast any females on its leadership team (a very common reality). What might the experience be of a new female employee, hoping to carve for herself a successful career path? Would she assume that women were rewarded with raises, promotions and eventually, through the reward of hard work and consistency, a high-profile, integral position in the organization? Pay close attention to the word "assume."

Unfortunately, women are left with the inability to assume much in the way of a professional path in environments like the one described above. What women can generally assume, though, is that the men around them will be encouraged and pushed into new roles -- and not even because of a rampant sexism at work -- rather, the men around her continue to excel at a greater pace because they have been given the implicit path to walk; they see it every day. Perhaps one of the more tragic elements of this reality for women is that they often are unaware of the lack of path in front of them, and one destructive outcome of this lack of awareness is the unfair belief that their lack of progress may be due to their own shortcomings. The repercussions don't end here; we should never underestimate the value of having a path to walk.

Despite this real problem that is all too pervasive and even parasitic to our beliefs about entrepreneurship and business altogether, I believe that founders in particular have a rare and significant opportunity. The opportunity lies in Jessica Lawrence's perspective from her recent article for the Harvard Business Review, "The Signals That Make Startups So Homogeneous." She writes, "As Stacy-Marie Ishmael of The Financial Times astutely pointed out, if a startup is not thoughtful about what type of organization they want to build when they are three white men, before they know it they will be 45 white men, and they will wonder why they are not attracting any significant numbers of women or people of color to work at their company."

What if more and more founders were intentional about their vision for diversity -- before they even made their first round of hires? Rather than tapping their old college roommates for open positions -- who likely have a shockingly similar background -- might they consider a broader network, or a new one altogether? And would this type of innovative hiring not only support underrepresented yet talented future leaders, but lead to a stronger company altogether? After all, it's been found again and again in recent research that:

Lawrence puts it succinctly and brilliantly: "In the face of ample evidence that diverse workforces produce better results than homogeneous ones, we can make an argument for diversity as both a business imperative and a moral imperative, but we will not make headway within the technology industry until we, in greater numbers, loudly challenge the notion that thoughtfulness and diversity are things that we don't have time for."

I know we can do better. I personally believe in entrepreneurship and in founders specifically as people who can change the course of our society both economically and socially. Founders hold a rare opportunity to shape their own company cultures -- and if we can agree to pay attention to the need for diverse, welcoming workplaces, then we can expect our leadership and examples to pour out into our communities and our world. There are real and tangible remedies that start with hiring and culture and extend all the way into how organizations talk about their work and their values ("Demonstrate that by bringing women into senior roles, they have an opportunity to succeed there, "It's how you portray your company culture to prospective candidates").

Let's show more women what they can be and enjoy the benefits of doing so. If these numbers indicate anything, let it be that we owe the women around us a great deal more support -- and far more opportunities -- than they are currently given. So much of these efforts rest in our humility and openness to disrupting the parasitic tendency to leave things "as they are" -- to suggest that there is no real problem. The problem is real, the challenge is heavy, but entrepreneurs in particular are more than capable of dramatically shifting our narratives of inclusion and diversity.

If we can help a new wave of female entrepreneurs carve their own paths, I know that we will see many more walk in the same confident direction - leaving behind permanent pathways for future generations to walk.