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Karin Kamp

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Women Entrepreneurs and Female Stereotypes

Posted: 02/16/2012 12:04 pm

The Story Exchange "reinforces stereotypes" of women, some have said. That's because -- or so we've been told -- many of the women business owners we feature started companies that produce products and deliver services in areas typically associated with women, known in the back streets of entrepreneurship as the 'pink ghetto.'

Hearing those words was a huge weight on my 80s 'women can do anything' shoulder-padded shoulders. So I decided to dig in our archives and see how much pink I could find.

First I found Elizabeth, who started a company baking quiches, then Adrienne, who runs a luxury goods e-commerce site, and Deborah, who produces an organic sanitizer. Pink, pink and pink enough.

I stopped searching and pondered how an organization devoted to inspiring the next generation of women entrepreneurs could get caught up in allegedly reinforcing stereotypes?

It also came to my attention that some women, including Venturebeat's Jolie O'Dell, found some of these female startups downright shameful. "Women: stop making start-ups about fashion, shopping and babies," she tweeted a few months back. "At least for the next few years. You're embarrassing me,"

This, after I had worked so hard to keep a pixel of pink off of our website!

I decided to attend my local Small Business Administration's Women's Business Center in Brooklyn -- where a group of twelve aspiring and new women entrepreneurs were meeting on a Friday morning to hear the center's director Sujatha Sebastian talk about how to go about starting and growing a business.

At the event, Sujatha asked the women to introduce themselves and describe the businesses they had or planned to start. One woman, Lorraine Le Tac, had started Bobinette, a boys clothing company, after her first son was born and she noticed a shortfall of fun, colorful clothes for the little men in her life. She also wanted to be her own boss. Another, Brandy-Kay Corniffe, had started a website selling fashion, jewelry and accessories. Others were involved in hair care products and services, daycare and fitness.

Many of the start-ups ideas were in those "embarrassing" sectors of fashion, shopping and babies. I thought about jumping on the table and telling these women they had gotten it all wrong. I'd say: "Your realities are all stereotypical. Go start a more 'manly' business. Pick something you know nothing about and are completely disinterested in."

But that didn't make much sense at all, so I decided to show them Deborah's video instead. I thought they would relate to her story. And they did. Over and over again I was told how "hopeful," "encouraging" and "inspiring" Deborah's story was to them.

Then I remembered why we had chosen the women entrepreneurs on The Story Exchange in the first place. They had interesting and inspiring stories to tell! The type of business they had started wasn't really important to us. We weren't interested in the 'what' of the business, but the why. Why they started -- and why some women haven't -- has always been much more important to us than the what.

By answering the 'why,' we found that Elizabeth started her quiche business because she had learned the art of cooking from her mother and persistence in business from her father. Adrienne had watched her tough-as-nails mother build up a women's fashion brand and wanted to use that knowledge to enter the booming luxury e-commerce market in China. And Deborah had found inspiration from her grandmother who used herbs as 'god's medicine,' leading her to develop a product by mixing oils in her kitchen.

The reason they all had started was because they had a deep passion for a specific type of business based on the uniqueness of their individual lives. Their knowledge and life experiences had led up to the moment when they decided to turn their passion into a business. It wouldn't make sense for someone like Deborah to start a business in another sector -- all of life's forces had pointed toward her organic sanitizer. So that's what she had to do.

In the why we also found that all of our entrepreneurs are doing something they love. That love and passion, they told us, is critical to get you through the ups and downs of starting a new venture. When your business is struggling or you're going through a tough stretch, that love will keep you going. We found that some of our entrepreneurs started their own businesses because they wanted to carve out a lifestyle that worked better for them than a traditional work environment could offer.

For some this meant having more flexibility to spend time with their children when they wanted to. For others it was the ability to create a better and more ethical work culture than they had experienced in the past. Some just wanted unlimited income opportunities. And for all of our entrepreneurs the why included giving back to their communities in some way.

We want women to feel confident and inspired to start any business they want -- whether in baking or high tech. We also want to see women ask for and get the money they deserve for starting and growing their businesses. These are areas women need to catch up on. And we applaud the efforts of sites like Women 2.0, which aims to increase the number of female founders of technology startups. That is a worthy cause (We even blogged on their site about our entrepreneur Melissa, who runs a multi-million dollar bio-tech firm, a decidedly unpink shade of business.)

We want to support ALL women who start a business... for whatever reason that makes them passionate enough to do it. Let women do what they love and not try to measure up on a metric defined by someone else.

Let them be happy because they are following their passions, improving their working lives and making lifestyle choices that suit their personal needs.

Now that's a stereotype we will definitely be reinforcing.

Note: We want to keep this conversation going and will bring you other blog posts on the topic in the weeks and months to come and we welcome any ideas for further discussions.