What You Need To Know About Women Entrepreneurs

Speaking on May 5, 2017 at her alma mater, Brown University, the Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen asserted that policies making it easier for women to work could significantly improve the nation’s economic growth. Bringing more women into the work force with policies like expanding the availability of paid leave, affordable childcare and flexible work schedules could help lift the American economy from a long stretch of slow growth, she said.

According to The New York Times, Yellen then cited a recent estimate that raising women’s participation in the work force to the same level as men’s could increase the U.S. annual economic output by 5 percent. She also cited research showing that although the gap in pay between women and men has shrunk, it is still significant, with women today making about 10 percent less than men.

Immediately there were commentators questioning her logic, her facts and the true impact of working women on the growth of the U.S. economy, one example being this Forbes.com article by Tim Worstall, Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London.

Clearly, this is an important time to rethink women’s role in the work force.

To Yellen’s point, could women’s expanded participation in the working world as paid employees really make a difference in America’s economic growth?

By way of an answer, consider this: the U.S. unemployment rate is the lowest since 2007 and there are over 5 million jobs waiting for someone with the right skills (and ambition) to fill them. Why not fill them with women? Put another way, why not put in place the policies referred to by Yellen so that it’s possible for more women to fill them? And, why not do it in corporate cultures that balance the workplace needs with the demands of the family?

Millions of working women are making their presence felt but there is room for so many more.

Since the 2008 recession, and perhaps even before, women have been transforming the U.S. work force (and it has transformed them), as data from PEW Research Center suggests:

  • Women now make up almost half (47%) the U.S. labor force.
  • The employment rate of married mothers with children has increased from 37% in 1968 to 65% in 2011.
  • The ratio of mothers stating that their ideal situation would be to work full-time increased from 20% in 2007 to 32% in 2012. Those preferring not to work at all fell from 29% to 20%.

Often, these women entering the labor force have done so as entrepreneurs or small business owners. As The 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report states:

  • Between 2007 and 2016, the number of woman-owned firms increased by 45%, compared to a 9% increase among all businesses.
  • There are now approximately 11.3 million woman-owned businesses in the U.S., employing nearly 9 million people and generating over $1.6 trillion in revenue.
  • Women are now the majority owners of 38% of U.S. businesses, up from 29% in 2007.
  • One in five firms with revenue of $1 million or more is woman-owned.

Can business leaders create a culture where women, and men, and companies all can thrive?

With the recent uproar around Uber and its culture, and the much-reported anti-woman business environment in Silicon Valley, I have been interviewing women entrepreneurs who have built successful companies, often with teams of both men and women. These women all created cultures that foster better businesses where women, and men, work well together.

What could others learn from what these women achieved?

Stephanie Breedlove, Co-Founder of Care.com HomePay (previously Breedlove & Associates)

Stephanie Breedlove started her career at Accenture but quickly realized that corporate culture was not very accommodating to a professional with children. Realizing that there were millions of other working women in this same situation, Breedlove looked at the broader issue of managing childcare workers, focusing on the financial aspects of salary, FICA, withholding tax and Social Security. In the process, she saw an unmet need waiting for a smart entrepreneur to fill, and in she dove.

In 1992, Breedlove and her husband self-funded and slowly grew Breedlove & Associates into a $10 million company with 10,000 clients and 50 employees, providing payroll as well as tax and labor law guidance for families needing help managing the financial and legal aspects of in-home care workers. Believing that her people were the key to her success, she set up processes that gave them a quality work environment while encouraging them to take the initiative to solve client problems, to collaborate (with each other and with customers) and to be accountable for delivering bottom line results. Twenty years later, in 2012, Breedlove & Associates was sold for $55 million to Care.com, a perfect fit for the culture imbedded in her original startup which intentionally employed staff who understood the balance between doing good and doing well.

Kim Shepherd, former co-owner and CEO of Decision Toolbox

My second story further illustrates the power of female-created cultures in building successful businesses. A serial entrepreneur in the employee recruiting industry, Kim Shepherd has, for three separate organizations, re-directed strategic positioning, turned stagnation into innovation and sold the company for massive profit. Her latest rendition is Decision Toolbox.

No matter the business, Shepherd’s mantra has always been “the customer first, then the bottom line. From there, the business culture emerges.” With employees dispersed throughout the country and working virtually, Shepherd empowered her staff to proactively come up with solutions for clients even before clients asked for them, giving them the autonomy they needed while she simultaneously put in place the processes the business needed to thrive. The result? Phenomenal success, three times (and counting).

Corporate cultures in women-run businesses reflect their personal beliefs and values. And those businesses tend to be highly successful.

These examples reflect a growing pattern I am seeing in my research of women entrepreneurs who know how to create great results. But it is how they create results — i.e., the corporate culture, the “secret sauce” — that interests me. More than building better businesses, they are changing the way people work, a point emphasized by Lisen Stromberg in her new book "Work Pause Thrive." It is now time for companies to change their cultures to better align with the needs of women, not the other way around, she argues. Fortunately, these women are showing others how to do it and why it works so well.

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