Earlier this year, when American Girl announced their "Girl of the Year" was an entrepreneur, I was thrilled at the company's decision to introduce young girls to the idea of owning their own businesses.
As an EY Entrepreneurial Winning Woman, who knows the value of a good business plan, I was especially impressed that American Girl executives worked with the University of Iowa's Jacobson Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship. They not only helped the company create a real world storyline, but they put together a learning guide that teaches children about the real issues entrepreneurs face.
Their new doll, Grace, is starting a bake shop from scratch and step by step, girls around the world will literally learn how to make some dough. I'm not talking about the cookie stands a lot of us set up on our parent's front lawn. Today's girls are learning the skills it takes to make their product stand out in the marketplace and to bring in a profit.
Those are lessons that even established entrepreneurs learn time and time again, as they strive to scale their business. The good news is many of us are making great strides. But the story for women-owned businesses is still bittersweet.
American women in business
A study commissioned by American Express Open on the state of women-owned businesses in 2014 indicates that women are starting businesses at a rate of 1.5 times the national average. The less than stellar news is that women still find themselves at a disadvantage to their male counterparts. While they may be starting more businesses, women-owned businesses are not growing nearly as quickly.
On average, a woman-owned firm employs just one person in addition to the owner and has average annual revenues of just over $155,000. That's half the size of a typical privately held business, which employs two people in addition to the owner and generates average annual revenues of just over $400,000.
Our research at the National Women's Business Council (NWBC) shows that in 2011, even the top 25 women-owned firms tended to employ less people than companies owned by men.
So what's holding women back? Some might say it circles right back to the lessons young girls learn with their dolls.
While certainly attitudes towards child-rearing have progressed over the years and there are many men playing an equal or even primary role in raising children, the great majority of women I know -- even millennial women -- still feel like their careers come second to that of their husbands, when they're raising a family. "Internally, we feel like it's our responsibility," Holly Bartman, CEO of Superfly Kids , explained. "We're the nurturers. We raise the children."
Holly, like many women, opted to start her own business so she could set her own hours. But as her company, which creates custom superhero capes, began to take off, the demands forced her to think twice about how large her company could actually grow. "I was getting up before the kids and cutting out shapes and initials," she recalled. "I'd stop to get everyone ready, go cut out a few more, take my daughter to pre-school, and then go to the office. After school, I'd bring her back with me to finish up, run home to put dinner on the table and go back to sewing. I had to ease up on the amount of orders I was willing to take, because it was taking too much time away from my kids."
Holly's situation was far from unique. The NWBC has found that self-employed women with dependent children at home are less likely to have employees, hence less likely to grow their businesses. Their biggest obstacle? Exactly what Holly was struggling with -- child care.
"People are spending more on childcare than they are on their mortgage," Holly sighed. "They're working simply to pay for child care and a lot of times, it's just not worth it."
According to Child Care Aware of America, in 2013, in 30 states and the District of Columbia, the average annual cost for an infant in center-based care was higher than a year's tuition and fees at a four-year public college. While there have long been government programs that offer subsidized child care to low income families, those who earn more are expected to make their own way. For an entrepreneur trying to start a business, that's money that could be going towards operational costs. All too often women are forced to make a choice -- assuring their child's well-being during their early stages of growth or growing their business -- and because they can't afford quality child care, many are sacrificing their own futures.
Holly eventually brought on a partner, which enabled her to bring more balance to her life. She began hiring moms like herself and allowed them to bring their children to work. They all chipped in to hire a babysitter who watched their young children in a nearby conference room -- allowing the women peace of mind and an affordable way to continue contributing to their family's income.
That creative solution allowed Holly to build a business that was named one of America's fastest growing private companies by Inc. Magazine in 2013. As we talked, she pondered what it might mean to other entrepreneurs, if they could get some help -- if there were government programs that subsidized child care.
"A lot of European countries have child care at work. We see that here in the U.S. at some of the larger, more innovative companies. But that's cost prohibitive for small companies and it's holding a lot of business owners back."
We can't afford not to make child care affordable.
Today, women like Holly, own firms that employ 23 million workers (16% all US jobs) and generate over 3 trillion dollars in revenue -- holding a tremendous potential for economic impact. Imagine what would be possible if we had full economic participation of women entrepreneurs running successful businesses?
So while I applaud American Girl for providing our daughters with inspiration at a young age, if we want them to be competitive in today's world, we're going to need to make some changes that balance out the playing field. Affordable child care is the first step.
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