Last Thursday’s panel on Women Entrepreneurship featured a dynamic group that had launched successful businesses in a wide range of industries. Panelists included: Andrea Horblitt Founder of Sukitz, a line of energy and weight loss lollipops; Jeanne Sullivan, General Partner at StarVest Partners, a venture capital firm; Ouidad Founder of Ouidad Hair Salon and Products; and Jessica Rovello President and Co-Founder of Arkadium, a casual games developer. Lori Hoberman; Partner at Chadbourne and Parke LLP, moderated the event.
Hoberman asked the question that is truly unavoidable on any panel of this nature, “Why aren’t there more women entrepreneurs?”
Sullivan answered, “I never thought of myself as, ‘oh, I’m a woman entrepreneur’ or, ‘oh, I’m a woman VC.’” She went on to talk about how boys and girls self assess differently, and that girls are apt to become discouraged when they receive a bad grade in a subject, whereas boys shrug it off and keep moving forward. Her advice was that women should embrace one of the stem fields “You have to have one of them to play,” she said, and added that we need to be more encouraging of girls to pursue these subjects.
“I build my businesses based on consumer behavior. I’m a girl and I build businesses that girls like” Horblitt volunteered.
“I built my business on my gut feeling. I went by gut. There was not an option. It was just who I was and what I was” Ouidad added.
“Notice you all have fearlessness,” Sullivan piped in.
“That’s the hallmark.” Ouidad agreed.
“I call it the “Terminator Syndrome,” Rovello added. She went on to describe a scene from one of the Terminator films where Arnold Schwarzenegger was burned and chopped in half and still kept going. “That is a hallmark of it, I don’t know if it’s female or not, but a great entrepreneur… never ever stops. That’s a big part of why people succeed or fail.”
An audience member asked, “Do you think it’s passion?” in reference to the drive that would keep someone going even under the worst circumstances. And another audience member unexpectedly jumped in to answer the question. “There is great power in negative energy,” she offered and quoted a mentor who’d told her, “Turn shit into fertilizer.” The panel seemed to greatly enjoy this advice.
Rovello picked up Sullivan’s earlier point about entrepreneurs having a quality of fearlessness, and said, “Teaching girls, or teaching anyone that failure is just something you have to get to success. Being able to swallow and deal with that adversity, to move forward.” Hoberman added, “I coach a lot of women entrepreneurs…I’m not sure how you convey that fearlessness.” Ouidad responded, “Not caring what anyone else thinks and being truly authentic.” Rovello added, “I think the fearlessness matters more with a female entrepreneur. The number of important meetings where I am the only female in the room…it’s like 99%”
“It comes down to the fact that people want to look around the table and see people that look like themselves,” Sullivan offered. “Something that is related though is, why aren’t more women on boards? What the F is up with that!” She explained that women make most of the online and offline retail decisions, and continued “Why are there all these stuffy old men on the boards making these calls when we influence so much of the buying?!”
Sullivan mentioned that while it did make a difference for panels featuring all female entrepreneurs to discuss these issues, it would still take a few generations for them to be solved. She proposed that one measure that helped were groups that taught women to be angel investors. “You don’t just have to take your wallet out for philanthropy. You can take your wallet out to fund a woman-run business and make jobs.”
An audience member directed the conversation back to the topic of fearlessness by asking the panel to describe a moment when their backs were against the wall and how they’d moved forward. Ouidad told the story of a time when she took a bunch of orders and got stuck with the inventory when her buyers backed out. She said it took six months to recover, and when the audience member asked what she would have done differently, she said, “Nothing. I would have done it again.”
Horblitt told the story of starting Sukitz and only learning that she should have chosen different business partners when she aggressively marketed the product, made advance sales and then discovered that they had not held up their end of the bargain and she had no merchandise. “You have to be very careful about who your business partners are and make sure they’ve done what they need to do before they market.”
“In the course of building my business, there are probably no less than 2,000 times when I should have quit, so there is no way to isolate one,” said Rovello. “There have been times when things have gotten scary from the cash flow management side. That is a lesson that you learn hard and you learn once.”
“What were some of the lessons learned in getting that financing?” Sullivan asked. Rovello answered, “I don’t want to sound bitter when I talk about this, I don’t know if it’s just the way the VC thing is set up, but there is not a lot of respect given to companies like mine that have been successful on their own terms. You are more likely to get a higher value if you have no product, no clients and you are not in the market, because you ‘could’ become a million dollar product.”
“What areas have you found that a man is not good at in pitching for money?” Hoberman asked. Sullivan described her personal pet peeve being the guy who is in love with his product and wants to show her a demo before talking about the business model. She observed that one of the strengths men tend to have in pitching for money is a sense of confidence. Hoberman agreed, “There is that bravado. I wish women had more of it.”
An audience member asked if women in business are supportive of each other.
“I think it’s getting better and better. I think women are a little more confident,” said Ouidad. Horblitt agreed, “Whenever I meet a woman in business, they are always willing to support me. I find in business that it’s not catty at all.” Hoberman took a different view, “When I was growing up as a young associate, I learned how not to be from the women partners in my firm. I vowed how not to be when I became a partner.” There was a general observation that some of this cattiness seemed to be generational and becoming less of a problem.
Hoberman then asked the question that seems to end every conversation on women in business precisely because it’s the one we should care about most: “Is the playing field level?” “I would say yes,” Ouidad responded. “I can only speak for my own experience. If you do have a vision, and a passion and you stay focused, that is important.” “Wow, that is really difficult,” Rovello said, “I want to say yes, but I’m very rational and empirical in my thinking, and just the way the numbers play out, I have to say no.” “Do you think it is woman-side or marketplace-side?” Hoberman asked, to which Rovello answered, “I think it’s both.”
“For me it is a clear ‘no,’” Sullivan said, but she added that it seems to be tipping in women’s favor. “We have to work harder, stronger, better, bigger to get somewhere and we all know that. And the guys are just starting to figure that out.”
“It’s more level than it’s ever been, but it’s still a boys game,” Horblitt concluded.
While it seems unfortunately accurate that business is still a “boys game,” we can take comfort in the fact that with women entrepreneurs as successful, outspoken and sassy as these mentoring and encouraging other women, things are changing and the barriers are beginning to show their signs of age. Perhaps the most significant barrier is our own exhaustion, but the support of others goes a long way in alleviating this strain and reminding us that when we fall we get up stronger. At least, that’s the lesson that all of these women seem to have in common and they may be on to something.