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Rachael Chong Headshot

Lessons From Coco Chanel, a Self-Made Woman

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My Saturday night was spent enthralled by Audrey Tautou's rendition of Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel's incredible rags to riches story. After hours of my afternoon had disappeared in frustration as a result of entrepreneur's block (like writer's block, except worse because there's just no time to wait for creative genius to strike), I decided to clear my head by going to the movies. Coco before Chanel could not have been a better choice. Here I was, an aspiring woman entrepreneur in 2009 learning from and relating to a woman entrepreneur who existed at a time when I'm sure that "woman" and "entrepreneur" were never uttered in the same sentence.

Coco Chanel, the epitome of a self-made (wo)man, singlehandedly redefined suffocating French fashion from constraining corsets and feathery displays of wealth to simple, feminine elegance that allowed a woman to breathe. A woman ahead of her time, Coco Chanel was a true entrepreneur, who brought women freedom through fashion.

The relevant questions that this biography sparked for me were: Why was Coco so different from the male entrepreneurs of her time? A century later, why are women entrepreneurs still so different from their male counterparts? What makes a woman's journey to becoming her own boss so different from that of a man's? And, most importantly, why are there still so few of us?

Sure, the first question may be easy to answer - Coco lived in a time when it was truly a man's world and women's rights were a thing of the future. Fine; but why is it that even today, in a more gender-neutral world, only 10 of the 1,125 Forbes 2008 billionaires are self-made women? Why is it that only a minuscule number of women have made their fortunes by launching big companies? The fact that I can name many of the biggest women entrepreneurs of all time by their first names is clearly not a good sign. Hats off to Coco, Estee, Oprah, Martha, and Arianna.

A USA Today article from last year asks a similar question: Why is it so rare to find women who have built big companies? Their explanation falls largely into two camps: 1) men have easier access to start-up capital from banks and venture capitalists, and 2) that women are naturally more devoted to family, and "even those who out-earn their husbands often remain responsible for children and households." While I can understand anyone (man or woman) who chooses to make family a priority; I have trouble understanding why, all things being equal, women are not as fundable as men?

The House of Chanel wouldn't exist if Coco's love, Arthur "Boy" Capel, hadn't provided her with the startup capital to fund her first hat shop. Back then, it wasn't even an option for women to get a loan to start a business from the bank, but today, banks (at least those in the developed world) don't discriminate based on gender, so why is it that women aren't getting funded as readily as men? Does the corporate glass ceiling for women also exist in entrepreneurism? Are women not getting the proper education or experience to succeed as entrepreneurs? Or are women just not coming up with as many good ideas as men?

A bit of research reveals some startling statistics. Although women launch twice as many businesses as men, only 6% of all venture-backed startups are women-led, only 1.7% of venture capital-backed technology startups are founded by one or more women, and only three companies on the Fortune 1000 were founded or co-founded by women.

The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) last month spotlighted the issue of women and girls in the developing world. Women perform 66 percent of the world's work, and produce 50 percent of the food, yet earn only 10 percent of the income and own 1 percent of the property," President Bill Clinton said. I applaud the global companies, nonprofits and foundations that made over a dozen commitments to empowering women and girls in the developing world at CGI last month. But we also need commitments to help empower women and girls in the developed world, because even in the developed world, decreases in inequality can improve overall productivity. Goldman Sachs reported that different countries and regions of the world could dramatically increase GDP simply by reducing the gap in employment rates between men and women: the Eurozone could increase GDP by 13 percent; Japan by 16 percent; the U.S. by 9 percent. To learn more about the campaign for women and girls check out the Girl Effect. If I could make my own girl effect video to make the case for more women entrepreneurs, it would go something like this: "Woman Entrepreneur + No Funding = Glass Ceiling, Gender Imbalance, Lack of Role Models." But, "Woman Entrepreneur + Funding = Job Creation, Gender Equality, Better Role Models."

The stark statistics of women being underrepresented in entrepreneurism is sad and disappointing, but I hope that these statistics prompt entrepreneurs out there to action. Entrepreneurs (women and men alike) have very little tolerance for what should be done, because it's all about what can be done. So as I reflect on the story of Coco and the sacrifices she made to build her empire (she never married or had children), I draw hope from the fact that despite all odds, Coco succeeded. I believe that this is a good sign for us women entrepreneurs of the 21st century. If Coco could do it, so can we.

Resources for women entrepreneurs (again, there are too few): Women 2.0 in Silicon Valley, Young Women Social Entrepreneurs, Womensphere, and Forum for Women Entrepreneurs & Executives. If you know of other websites, please share!