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Why Our Economy Doesn’t Work for Women (and What to Do about it During DSW)

Shana is a single mom with a four-year-old son. She works as a financial advisor for a mid-size wealth management company. Despite an impressive client roster, her sales have been steadily declining over the past few years. “I can’t make it work,” she tells me. “I can’t swing the 7 a.m. breakfast meetings or the 5 p.m. happy hours. It’s the best time for my clients but there is no way I can tack on that extra care in the mornings or after work. It’s too expensive, and I’d never see my kid.”


Marie is an entrepreneur with a law degree. When she had kids, she left her firm to strike out on her own. “I wanted more flexibility. Instead, I gave myself two full-time jobs: lawyer and business owner. I feel like I am not doing either as well as I should. And my pipe dream of more time with my family has completely evaporated.”


Angela is a college student who also works as a server at a popular restaurant. Her mother has Parkinson’s Disease and it falls to Angela to help with her care. She’s a first-generation college student but can’t imagine graduating. “For me, it’s about taking care of my family and making money. School seems like a luxury and not something that works for me right now.”


Each of these stories represents thousands of women and as I listen to them—all unique but startlingly similar—I can feel the patterns emerge like mountain-size braille. The obligations of family and care work. The desire to find a better, more manageable path. The moment of realization when it becomes clear any route circles back to discontentment, exasperation, or failure.


Does the Economy Work for Women?


Anyone familiar with a few alarmingly standard statistics—54% of women have experienced unwanted sexual advances at work, per national averages women make anywhere from 53-77% of men’s earnings depending on their race/ethnicity, women hold only 6.6% of Fortune 500 CEO roles—would have to answer no.


So, what’s a girl with entrepreneurship in her eyes supposed to do? How can we, as women, win in this system?


Here’s a bombshell for you: I’m not sure we can. And an even bigger one: maybe we should stop trying.


Women have been leaving traditional jobs for entrepreneurship at breakneck speeds. In the past 9 years, growth of women-owned firms has been 9 times faster than the national average. Women are now majority owners of 38% of the nation’s businesses. Since 2007, nearly 1,100 new women-owned firms have been launched each day. While these figures seem like something to celebrate, they also tell only part of the story. Morran Aarons-Mele, founder of Women Online suggests “Perhaps instead of unquestioningly cheering women starting businesses, we need to more critically examine why so many women are leaving [bigger companies] and how we might get them to stay. Entrepreneurship has been marketed as a great alternative to the strictures of a traditional job—but that vision is often a fantasy.”


Women leave their traditional jobs with a company for a variety of reasons, each one of them betraying a deeper satisfaction with how the current economic and labor system serves women: more flexibility, the freedom to charge a higher wage more in line with women’s value, greater opportunity for advancement, and brighter professional prospects. Entrepreneurship—going off on one’s own—seems like an excellent alternative, yet as women ditch one system for another, they too often find neither is designed for their success.


The Real Story of Women’s Entrepreneurship


Despite impressive growth rates, women-owned businesses tend to be smaller, in both revenue and number of employees. Nationally, 88% of all women-owned businesses generate less than $100,000 in revenue per year; in contrast, only 1.7% of women-owned businesses make over $1 million. Of the nearly 200,000 women-owned businesses in Colorado, a majority are “microbusinesses”—businesses with five or less employees, including the owner. In fact, 87% of women-owned businesses in Colorado have no employees other than the owner.


While microbusinesses are an economic force themselves, they are more at risk for failure and their limited resources create challenges for scaling the business and fostering growth. If we envision entrepreneurship as a continuum with, at one end, informal “survival-oriented income generation” and “formal, growth-oriented enterprise” at the other end, we see the majority of women exist at the end of survival-oriented income generation. And what does a business require in order to grow? Yeah, you know it.


Access to capital is one of the most challenging issues women entrepreneurs and small-business owners face, not only at the onset of their entrepreneurial journey but throughout their businesses’ life spans. Women-owned businesses generally receive only 4.4% of all dollars lent to small businesses each year. Further, women are often penalized with higher interest rates as well, paying, on average, 6.4 percentage points higher on personal loans 5.4 percentage points higher on short-term loans than male entrepreneurs pay. As greater numbers of women fall into the microbusiness category, their business revenue tends to be lower. On average, women-owned businesses make 30% less annual revenue. Because annual revenue is a factor in credit eligibility, “women-owned businesses, with poorer access to credit, may be stuck in a cycle of more difficult growth.” Finally, women also face a dearth of venture capital funding. In 2017, women founders received 2% of all VC dollars, up from 1.9% in 2016.


Out of the frying pan and into the fire.


Women are slowly waking to the realization that any success they achieve is in spite of systems not designed for them. Imagine what we could do if we worked within systems that facilitated our success? I’d like us to do just that during Denver Startup Week. Spend a little more time imagining. Engage in out of the box thinking. Challenge each other not simply to figure out how to work within our existing system in a smarter way, but to envision and create new systems. Denver Startup Week is an opportunity to be inventive and to think big. To all the women attending: every so often, ask yourself, how can we (re)design our product/this pitch/our business/VC lending/the banking industry/carework/our expectations/etc. to better serve women? 


References: 

 American Express. (2017). The 2017 state of women-owned business report.

National Women’s Business Council Fact Sheet (2012).

The Urban Institute and U.S. Small Business Association. (2008). Competitive and special competitive opportunity gap analysis of the 7(a) and 504 Programs.

Fundera. (2016). State of small-business lending: Spotlight on women entrepreneurs.

Zarya, V. (31 January 2018). Female founders got 2% of venture capital dollars in 2017. Fortune. 

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