Move over, boys club – female entrepreneurs are here, and they’re changing the way we look at business.
According to data gathered by Entrepreneur Magazine:
- Women own 10.6 million businesses in the United States.
- They employ 19.1 million workers – one in every seven employees.
- Their businesses account for $2.5 trillion in sales.
That’s a big impact, and it’s a growing one. The 2016 BNP Paribas Global Entrepreneur Report found that “Companies helmed by women entrepreneurs had 13% higher revenues than those run by men, and finished 9% above the average for all entrepreneurs surveyed.” Further, their research concluded that more female entrepreneurs expect their companies’ profits to grow or remain stable than male entrepreneurs.
That said, despite strong drive and ambition, female entrepreneurs face myriad obstacles in fulfilling their growth projects, not the least of which is a lack of fundraising options. Kimberly Weisul, Inc.com editor, reports that “Female CEOs get a dismal 2.7% of all venture capital, the fuel for building fast-growth companies.”
While female-led capital programs and women’s entrepreneurship organizations aim to change that, it will be a long road to economic parity. In the meantime, women entrepreneurs must learn from others who have gone ahead of them to create successful enterprises – including the ten women profiled below.
1. Jewel Burks Leads an Industrial Revolution
Jewel Burks may not look like the type of person you’d expect to revolutionize the world of manufacturing, but her Partpic app is poised to do just that. Fresh off a stint with Google’s enterprise sales team, Burks took a position with McMaster-Carr, but was stunned by how often the industrial giant struggled to find specific pieces within its massive inventory:
“I was surprised that there was this huge company that was having fails in their technology on a daily basis. I wanted to create a better way.”
Since its founding, Partpic – which enables users to snap a picture of a part and instantly order a replacement – has won 2015’s SXSW Accelerator and Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest, in addition to raising $1.5 million in seed capital.
Burks’ efforts to find retail and commercial partners who will embed the app into their own technologies are made even more impressive by the fact that she juggles entrepreneurship with her full-time role as one of Google’s “entrepreneurs in residence for diversity markets.”
Her passion and drive are evidenced by the 100-hour weeks she routinely works, as well as by the hurdles she’s overcome as a woman of color working in a historically male-dominated field:
“It is still frustrating knowing that Partpic has defensible technology, huge market potential, a qualified team, and we have had such a hard time with fundraising, but I don’t get discouraged because I have faith we will make it. I’m also fortunate because I’m in a unique position to participate in and change the narrative about diversity in tech so that it won’t be as hard for the people of color coming up next.”
What Can You Learn from Jewel Burks?
- Solve pain points your audience has accepted. It’s astonishing that a company as big as McMaster-Carr would simply accept the problem of inventory management challenges. In so many cases, companies fall back on the notion of “that’s the way we’ve always done things.” Savvy entrepreneurs know that every time this is said, opportunity exists.
- Lift others up. Burks’ work as Google’s entrepreneur in residence for diversity markets takes her to conferences, speaking gigs, and other opportunities to support female entrepreneurs and business owners of color. Seeing their eventual success drives Burks; you can experience the same satisfaction by bringing others along with you on your rise to the top.
- Work harder than you’ve ever thought possible. One hundred-hour work weeks may not be possible for you, but you certainly aren’t going to achieve the kind of success Burks has seen by committing just a handful of hours to your project. Go all-in. Commit yourself to doing whatever it takes to succeed. Yes, you’ll work harder than you ever thought possible, but the results will be worth it.
2. Jory Des Jardins Breaks Down Barriers for Female Entrepreneurs
Known first as one of the founders of the popular BlogHer digital lifestyle company, Des Jardins’ latest venture is Virago, a strategic advisory for female founders and the ecosystem of investors and advisors that support them.
Describing her early entrepreneurial leanings, as well as the driving force behind her decision to launch Virago, Des Jardins shares:
“I always wanted to build something – whether I was working for someone else or myself. I had ducked into and out of entrepreneurial ventures several times before starting one in earnest. It was meeting two other like-minded women who shared my passion for blogging and who shared a similar work ethic that inspired me to build BlogHer.”
“With Virago, both Stephanie Agresta, my co-founder, and I had this intense desire to figure out how to eradicate the “Brick Wall” that many female founders we’d encountered were facing. They achieved some level of success with their ventures, and were clearly talented and passionate, and they just needed a helpful push toward access to capital and scale expertise.”
What Can You Learn from Jory Des Jardins?
- Get clear on your vision early. Des Jardins is quick to point out a question that many entrepreneurs – male and female – forget to answer: are you setting out to build a venture-backed, scaled business, or a more sustained, slower-growth company? If you can’t answer this question, you risk wasting time and energy building the wrong resources for your business.
- Understand what’s required for hypergrowth. If you’re on the venture-backed track, Des Jardins emphasizes caution. “Be realistic about the capital and expertise you will need to get there. Here’s a hint: more than you think. In 99 percent of cases, you need all the help you can get. We’ve found that many female founders seek out scale expertise, but they don’t always raise enough to meet that scale.”
3. Rashmi Sinha Exits In Style
Though she’s since exited her company, SlideShare, in a $119 million buyout by LinkedIn, founder Rashmi Sinha is still a major part of the entrepreneurial community. As a speaker, she makes regular appearances at industry conferences and, as an angel investor, she’s committed to helping grow the next generation of female business owners.
In an interview with India Knowledge@Wharton, Sinha answers the question of whether or not she expects to see growth in the number of female entrepreneurs (particularly those of Indian descent) with the following:
“Yes, I do. I base that answer on evidence, actually, from what I see at all the events I speak at. I’m seeing more and more technically-inclined Indian women nowadays. There is definitely potential to bring that talent, with a little bit of mentorship and encouragement, to foster a wave of female entrepreneurship.”
Sinha, who entered the tech field after growing bored working in the field of cognitive neuropsychology, went through several startups – including Uzanto and MindCanvas – before launching SlideShare with her husband and brother. Reflecting on her experiences with Mixergy host Andrew Warner, she had this piece of advice to offer to entrepreneurs who hope to follow in her footsteps:
“What have I learned? I have learned that, if somebody is paying money for the thing that you have built, it’s really the ultimate compliment for your product, you know. People will [sit and] use your product for free, but if people are paying for it, that’s really saying that we have succeeded. So I’ve really learnt to value that and to build for that.”
What Can You Learn from Rashmi Sinha?
- Don’t be afraid to change course. Have you ever stuck with a project you knew wasn’t right, all because you were afraid to give up the progress you’d made? Take a page from Sinha’s book. Abandoning her neuropsychology Ph.D. program for the tech world couldn’t have been easy, but following her interests has clearly paid off for Sinha.
- Build for your customers’ needs. Sinha’s comments on people paying for your product as the ultimate compliment should strike home with entrepreneurs everywhere. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how great your idea is or how innovative your solution is if no one will pay for it. Start listening to your customers (or potential customers) and give them what they’re asking for.
4. Meli James Transforms a “Quarter Life Crisis” Into a Top Wine App
Meli James’ star first began to rise with Nirvino, a #1 ranked wine app she launched with friends following a “quarter life crisis,” during which a career advisor offered entrepreneurship as a way for her to better align her passion with her work. Released in the early 2000s, Nirvino preceded the launch of the iPhone and Apple’s App Store, giving James’ team a first-mover advantage that helped the app become an Apple Platform Top 100 App and a Top Ten Lifestyles App during its time.
Today, James is the Head of New Ventures at Sultan Ventures, the Program Director at the University of Hawaii’s XLR8UH program, the President of the Hawaiian Venture Capital Association, and the Founder of HonNewTech. Unsurprisingly, Entrepreneur Magazine named her one of its 5 Women to Watch in 2016.
What Can You Learn from Meli James?
- Plan for delays. James shares, “Any time you think something will take a certain amount of time, it takes 2 to 3x longer in the world of an entrepreneur.”
- Get frugal. Surviving to hit that next inflection point – especially if you aren’t yet cash-flow positive – takes serious hustle. According to James, “One of the hardest things was going from a monthly paycheck to not. I had to budget and rejig spending habits to essentials only because I had this passion and goal with my business. This was especially hard as in my mid- to late-20s I had been making good money and all of a sudden had to become frugal again because my business wasn’t yet revenue positive.”
- Leverage opportunities that exist today for female entrepreneurs. James, in her experience, has seen plenty of examples of “affirmative action” attempting to account for the low rate of women’s participation in the entrepreneurial space. Her advice? Own it! “You will probably be afforded opportunities and invitations to speak at events and attend big meetings with VCs because of your gender. Don’t say no because you got asked and might not be the expert on a subject – say yes, and own your power. This is the time to ‘lean in’ and let your inner badass entrepreneur seal the deal at the dinner.”
5. Jilliene Helman Disrupts Real Estate Investing
In 2012, at age 25, Jilliene Helman left a steady, well-paying job as a VP at Union Bank to seize an opportunity she saw to bring crowdfunding practices to real estate – an industry that had seen relatively little change or innovation over its 100+ year history. The result was Realty Mogul, which launched in 2013 and has since raised more than $45 million in venture capital.
For Helman, the decision to pursue entrepreneurship came naturally. The daughter of an entrepreneur father and the youngest of seven siblings (many of whom also chose business ownership paths), Helman grew up surrounded by positive entrepreneurial role models:
“[G]rowing up in an entrepreneurial home benefited me in more ways than merely sparking my passion for business at a young age – although it certainly did that as well. I also gained invaluable real-world business experience long before many of my peers began their path to entrepreneurship.”
Since its founding, Realty Mogul has raised more than $200 million and funded more than 330 properties. Although her investments haven’t all been winners, Forbes writer Geri Stengel credits Helman with sparking a movement to open up the once-private club of real estate investing; an assertion Helman herself seems to agree with, stating:
“I realized that the highest net-worth clients had made their money in real estate, and it’s still an old boys’ club. It’s a hard asset class to get into in a way that’s simple.”
What Can You Learn from Jilliene Helman?
- Find outdated industries and practices to disrupt. Helman’s real estate agent mother gave her a unique insight into the world of property investing, as well as a clear vision of how ripe the industry was for innovation. The passage of the JOBS Act gave Helman the opportunity she needed to forge her path.
- Take the leap. Though Helman admits she’d set enough aside to cover her expenses for one to two years, leaving her Union Bank job still represented a major risk. It’s a risk that’s paid off, though, as Helman now finds herself among the women who have raised the most venture capital ever.
6. Kathryn Finney Boosts Black and Latina Voices
As an editor alumna of Des Jardins’ BlogHer platform, Kathryn Finney found herself attending tech conferences and speaking on the subject of women in tech – only to realize that there were “virtually no women, virtually no black people and definitely no black women” in her audiences.
The result was Finney’s company digitalundivided and its FOCUS100 conference series. Launched with support from BlogHer, Andreessen Horowitz, and Ogilvy & Mather, both events aim to nurture companies helmed by black and Latina women with space, funding, and expert mentorship.
Finney’s strict qualification guidelines ensure these resources go to the founders that need them most, stating, “In order to be eligible, at least one of your founders has to be a black or Latina woman, and she has to be an equal or majority owner. If you have three founders and two are white guys and one is a black or Latina woman, she has to own at least 33 percent of the company.”
Going forward, Finney anticipates expanding the company’s FOCUS Fellow accelerator, while also continuing to invest in her work on Project Diane, which aims to collect data on “racial and gender representation across the startup landscape.” Speaking on the awards she’s won for this work – which include a White House Champion of Change Award and the South by Southwest Black Innovator award, among other honors – she states:
“I look at the awards as a way to show others it can be done. I know how important modeling is for my community. You don’t know that you can create and scale a business until you see someone like yourself creating and scaling a business.”
What Can You Learn from Kathryn Finney?
- Don’t be afraid to change course. Finney got her start in politics, only to realize how difficult it can be to get anything done on Capitol Hill. She’s since pivoted from political work to earning a master’s degree in epidemiology and scoring a book deal based on the Budget Fashionista blog she built, proving that it’s never too late to pursue entrepreneurial ideas you’re passionate about.
- Amplify underrepresented voices. Speaking on digitalundivided’s success in helping its mentees raise more than $13 million in angel and venture financing so far, Finney shares, “Technology touches every part of our lives. When certain groups are not included in the creation of these technologies, then we’re not a part of the future. So everything we do is toward making sure that we participate in creating the future.”
7. Marcela Sapone Says Hello Alfred
While a student at Harvard Business School, Marcela Sapone faced a common problem: her life was so busy that household tasks like grocery shopping, laundry, and general housekeeping fell to the wayside, resulting in an untidy mess that kept her from inviting friends over.
Her initial solution was to hire a woman off Craigslist to handle her weekly laundry and grocery shopping needs. Her neighbors took notice. After repeated requests from them to get in on what Sapone had created, Hello Alfred – a weekly errand-running startup – was born.
Initially, Sapone and her classmate and co-founder Jessica Beck thought of their idea as a small company, but a growing and enthusiastic customer base – along with a big win at San Francisco’s Disrupt competition in 2014 – led the pair to think bigger. Today, buoyed by $12.5 million in venture capital from Spark Capital, New Enterprise Associates, Sherpa Capital, and CrunchFund, the service is available in Boston and New York City, with plans to expand as interest grows.
Recognized as one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30, Sapone had this to say about the potential of women entrepreneurs:
“Women start businesses that seem cute on the surface, but that’s when you should be really afraid. What we’re doing is really meaningful and is going to change how people live.”
What You Can Learn from Marcela Sapone
- Find everyday problems and solve them in new ways. Messy houses aren’t exactly a new problem, but Sapone’s approach to solving it is. Don’t assume that everything worth doing has been done already. Look for new ways to solve the problems people still experience.
- Listen to your customers. When Sapone and Beck tried to shut down the service, their customers begged them to stay open – even offering to pay more to keep Hello Alfred afloat. When your customers are this insistent about your product or service, you’ll know you’re onto something big.
- Expand carefully. Because Hello Alfred hires client managers as employees, not independent contractors, Sapone has kept growth small – limiting the program to two cities, rather than attempting to scale too quickly. Only you know what’s right for your business. Don’t be swayed by the temptation of quick growth if doing so could compromise your ability to deliver successfully.
8. Tory Burch Raises Up Female Entrepreneurs
Tory Burch is hardly a rags-to-riches entrepreneur, though her transition from fashion publicist to fashion mogul is fascinating nonetheless. The daughter of a wealthy investor father and an actress mother, Burch was employed by names like Zoran, Harper’s Bazaar, Vera Wang, and Polo Ralph Lauren right out of college, before launching her fashion line in February 2004.
Today, the success of Tory Burch, LLC has Burch ranked as number 73 on Forbes’ list of most powerful women. Burch’s 180 stores worldwide retail everything from fashion and accessories to fragrances and housewares, putting estimates of her net worth as high as $1 billion.
In her line’s early days, Burch earned a number of important breaks, including an endorsement from Oprah, the Fashion Group International’s 2005 Rising Star Award for Best Retail Concept, and lucrative product placements on the CW’s hit show Gossip Girl.
Beyond the brand-building power of these achievements, Burch is quick to acknowledge the role hard work played in her company’s successful growth, stating in an interview with Business of Fashion:
“There were a lot of people doubting what we were doing in the beginning. I’m an information gatherer, I like hearing what people feel and think, but at the end of the day, you have to believe in yourself and go with your instinct and gut.”
In an interview with Businessweek, Burch also shared what she felt was her biggest challenge in launching a fashion empire: “Gaining confidence to really believe in myself was a big one.” It’s a sentiment that likely resonates with other female business owners, but that still may be surprising to hear from someone as successful as Burch.
These days, Burch commits much of her focus to her namesake The Tory Burch Foundation, which offers capital, training, and other resources to female entrepreneurs, and which recently selected its first ten-year-long fellowship program participants. Speaking to Media Planet, Burch shared why she’s passionate about supporting female entrepreneurs:
“It makes no sense to tap only half the population’s innovative ideas and leadership capabilities. Helping women entrepreneurs realize their potential is important not only because it’s right, but because women entrepreneurs create jobs and drive economic growth. When they succeed, their families benefit and their communities and our economy do, too.”
What Can You Learn from Tory Burch?
- Leverage your connections. Burch didn’t have a high fashion pedigree when she first entered the field. Instead, she used her publicist positions with prominent magazines and designers to learn about the field and, more importantly, how she could enter it herself.
- Never be afraid to dream big. Through her work, Burch saw an opportunity for a moderately-priced line featuring staple wardrobe essentials with a worldly aesthetic. Launching any new company is a major undertaking, but by staying true to her vision, Burch was able to dream big and see her ideas realized across multiple product lines.
- Give back. Burch is putting her money where her mouth is by supporting up-and-coming entrepreneurs with training and educational resources. Even if you aren’t ready to launch your own foundation, giving back is an important part of recognizing the support you’ve received in your own entrepreneurial journey.
9. Tyler Haney Takes on Activewear Titans
Apart from their fashion credentials, Tyler Haney, founder of the technical activewear line Outdoor Voices, shares several experiences in common with Burch.
Not only did they both launch their first retail stores in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood – albeit nearly 13 years apart – both benefited from the recommendation of trendsetters. While Burch’s line took off thanks to Oprah’s endorsement, Haney’s products gained a cult-like following after being featured in J. Crew’s spring 2014 “Brands We Love” series.
Despite going up against competitors like Lululemon, Athleta, Nike, and Under Armour, Haney sees an opportunity for activewear that celebrates activity – not competition – and that focuses on high-end materials that minimize the appearance of sweat. Haney herself is no stranger to sweat, having originally intended to attend college on a track scholarship, before leaving for Parsons School of Design and pursuing her interest in technical fabrics.
Her instincts paid off. Apparently unswayed by competition in the space, investors have rallied to the company’s side, raising a total of $22.5 million across Series A and B rounds; largely, Haney suspects, due to the company’s innovative approach:
“I think the space is intriguing to big investors, looking at the Lululemons of the world, and how they were able to kind of bust through this more macho, traditionally competitive activewear scene. They saw me, this up-and-comer, addressing a pain point with an entire generation. Traditionally, these brands have been quite exclusive. I was coming to them saying, let’s think about activity differently.”
What Can You Learn from Tyler Haney?
- Be ruthless about quality. Outdoor Voices succeeds in large part due to Haney’s unrelenting focus on finding the best quality materials for her products. Don’t settle. Exceed your customer’s expectations and delight them when it comes to quality. When done successfully, this can help you gain a customer for life.
- Don’t be afraid to go after the big boys. The thought of going up against the likes of Nike and Lululemon would scare off most would-be entrepreneurs, but not Haney. By identifying an underserved niche within her target market, she was able to find an opportunity to distinguish her products and build a channel-defining brand.
10. Shalini Bhalla Beats Depression with Dance
Shalini Bhalla is the creative force behind Just Jhoom!, a Bollywood-inspired dance and fitness accreditation program she developed to help UK-based teachers capitalize on the trendy dance form.
Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, Bhalla recognized that teaching a few dance classes a week wasn’t enough; she wanted to share her passion for dance with people far and wide. Since her launch, Bhalla was named “One of 20 Female Entrepreneurs Energising Britain” by Real Business, and received an Asian Women of Achievement Award in Arts and Culture. In 2016, Just Jhoom! was shortlisted as one of six finalists for Cranleigh & District’s BIG Awards.
Bhalla shares that her biggest challenge when launching Just Jhoom! was sticking to the business plan she’d set for herself:
“I had so many ideas – and I wanted to fly before I could walk. So I really had to be practical and listen to the advice of others who had been in business.”
What Can You Learn from Shalini Bhalla?
- Don’t listen to those who say you can’t do it. According to Bhalla, “If you have a vision – then it is your duty to make that a reality. Otherwise you will always wonder ‘what if…’”
- Celebrate your successes. For Bhalla, making entrepreneurship sustainable in the long-term requires taking time to stop and take stock of what you’ve already achieved. In her experience, it’s too easy to simply move on to the next challenge without stopping to recognize everything you’ve already accomplished.
- Don’t burn out – pace yourself. Another key component in sustainability for Bhalla is maintaining work/life balance – something that’s even more important to her considering her past struggles with depression. In her words, “There will always be too much to do. Do what you can without burning out.”
Know another female entrepreneur whose story needs to be told? We’d love to hear your suggestions – as well as the lessons you’ve learned from their examples.