In 1972 the record album and illustrated book, Free to Be You and Me, was released to the U.S. market. The major theme of the songs and stories was that anyone, boy or girl, could be or do anything. The values of individuality, comfort in one’s-own-skin and tolerance wove threads through the theme.
I was working as a secretary at the time.
The television special, by the same name, aired in 1974. I was still working, and also attending college in environments that were at times less-than-kind to my gender.
By 1980, the suite of Free to Be You and Me materials had garnered an Emmy and a Peabody and the book had spent months on the New York Times bestseller list. I had graduated from college and opened my own all-female real estate brokerage.
We were here: we’d arrived and equality in the business world was ours to be had!
Or was it? Were we then, and are we now, truly “free to be” women, equal to men, in the world of business?
Recent reports about lack of access to venture capital funds (VC), which I’ve written about before, and inability to secure business loans, not to mention the ongoing wage gap, suggest that we are not — not yet.
Especially if that business is starting your own business.
In fact, the biases against female founders are so prevalent, and frustrating, that some women are relying on the oldest trick in the book: fake men. Specifically, a fake male co-founder. When Witchsy founders Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer introduced the fictional “Keith Mann” to their business, they found the response to, and respect for, their business was like night and day.
This tactic might be effective in the short term, and has certainly drawn attention to the VC and startup culture of inequality, but from a big picture perspective it’s not the game changer we need.
Yes, it’s true that, based on the basic statistics, it’s easier to start a business if there’s some man, real or fictitious, on the founding team.
For instance, Ethan Mollick, a professor of management at Wharton, said that while 38 percent of new business are started by women only two percent to six percent of those businesses receive venture capital (VC) funds. In 2016, men had a 25 percent greater chance of having a business loan approved, and those loans were generally larger than those granted to women.
Anecdotes about the difficulties facing women who are seeking VC funding, like those related to Entrepreneur by Kathryn Minshew, co-founder of The Muse (which, by 2015, had sales numbers in the tens of millions, according to Minshew) permeate the media.
According to the article:
“While trying to raise capital for The Muse, Minshew repeatedly encountered closed doors, as numerous VC firms claimed they weren’t in the market to hear her pitch. When she pushed further, she received hateful responses -- tones mirroring the likes of saying, “Don’t get too big for your britches.” Even when her pitch was heard, she felt most mistook her leadership and confidence as charm, rather than signs she could effectively grow a business. Eventually, Minshew did obtain funding, only after contacting more than 200 capital firms.” (Emphasis mine.)
Bloomberg did a study, in 2016, of the 890 U.S. startups that were founded from 2009-2015 and received at least $20 million in VC and other equity funding. The results?
“The vast majority of venture capital goes to companies founded by men. Just 7% of the 2,005 founders on our list are women. Companies founded by women also get less money—an average of $77 million compared with $100 million for male-led startups.”
So, clearly, while women have made great strides, we still don’t have equal access to the tools needed, particularly funds, to reach our full potential in the business world.
Does that mean we all need to make up fake male co-founders to succeed? No, it doesn’t. Because even if it’s easier, it’s not necessary — and the numbers on women’s efficacy in business don’t lie.
My first business, Bach Realty, which I founded in 1980, had an all-women sales team. Based on my prior work experience I made sure that the basics, like, getting paid on time, happened. So, they had my back and I had theirs in the face of a male-dominated culture. As in, people would call or come in and ask, “Where’s your husband?” Equally popular was, “Where’s your father?”
It was unfathomable, at the time, that there was no man involved. Yet, the brokerage was a financial success. It wasn’t easy, but we did it, purposefully. Much of what I was trying to do at the time was teach women how to be independent, how to make their own money, and not rely on someone else.
Fortunately, the numbers prove that women are, in fact, very good at making money. They don’t need men, real or fake, to be successful.
In March, 2017, CNBC released a story based on The 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, (commissioned by American Express Open). Women entrepreneurs, the report found, have been at the forefront of the economic recovery. Female-owned companies grew at a rate five times the national average over the last nine years. (Emphasis mine.)
Numbers don’t lie. Not only do businesses started by women outpace those started by men, businesses that have women in leadership positions also show higher profits than those that don’t.
A 2016 study of nearly 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries, by the Peterson Institute for International Economics and EY (the audit firm), demonstrated that an increase in the share of women in leadership positions from zero to 30% was associated with a 15% increase in profitability.
Armed with this information, women can prove that they deserve funding and respect. But there are still cultural barriers. Venture capitalists tend to be white men, and funding tends to flow most freely toward like demographics.
Fortunately, female entrepreneurs are less and less in need of dollars from male funders. The women who’ve already made it are stepping up. Female Founders Fund and BBG Ventures lead the way with stated missions of supporting female-led startups. More recently, there’s XFactor Ventures, whose investment team is made up of women who are, themselves, VC-funded entrepreneurs, and the Toronto-based SheEO (which expanded to the United States.) SheEO brings together 500 women who each put $1,100 toward the fund.
So, with the numbers on our side and a growing community of women-helping-women, why shouldn’t we be be free to be female founders? We may not be there yet, completely “free to be you and me” but that doesn’t mean we give up, turn back the clock and say, “my husband’s not available, can I help you?”
At the end of the day, the fake male co-founder is good for one thing: exposing sexism in business world. But if we hide behind male monikers, we blunt our power to demand the credibility and respect we deserve as we are. It’s an opportunity and responsibility we owe ourselves in 2018 more than ever.