I’ve just spent a thought-provoking and engaging day discussing how to “drive collaboration, energize the global discussion, and create a road map for increasing women’s participation in high growth entrepreneurship” at the second annual We Own It Summit, organized by Astia with support from the Kauffman Foundation and other growth-focused groups. The summit, an invitation-only event limited to under 150 participants designed to have an engaging, roll-up-your-sleeves dialogue, offered 12 thematic discussions, scheduled 4 at a time. More’s the pity, as they all sounded interesting. I attended three, including one in which I was a panelist.
The order of the day was to challenge assumptions and look at things from multiple points of view, which was helped by a diverse mix of viewpoints – from women entrepreneurs, equity capital investors, researchers, policy makers, and entrepreneurial support organizations. I heard several recurring themes or areas of (positive) tension during the day, so I thought I’d dash off my impressions and take-aways, while they are still fresh in my mind.
- Cultivation vs. Gardening: One key undercurrent throughout the day was whether the focus on fostering high-growth women’s entrepreneurship should be on “picking winners,” that is on identifying and cultivating high growth potential women entrepreneurs, or on “fixing barriers,” meaning doing a better job tilling and preparing the soil so as to improve the overall yield of high growth women entrepreneurs. My reaction: why should it be either or? In business development as in gardening, both are important.
- It Takes a Village: Even though I’ve heard some say that “eagles don’t flock,” today the importance of networks, introductions, mentors, and relationships was mentioned time and time again. In business generally who you know matters as much as what you know, and that is doubly important when it comes to the equity capital markets. That makes networks such as Astia critically important for growth-oriented women entrepreneurs. It also points out the importance of other champions as well: in government, in the equity markets, in educational institutions, and among entrepreneurial support organizations and associations.
- Validating Variety (on Taking the Road Less Traveled): For many women entrepreneurs, growth is not a linear journey. In their pre-entrepreneurial as well as entrepreneurial careers, women have more diversions – be they family-related or otherwise – and are more likely to “off ramp” and then re-enter the workforce. In addition, women entrepreneurs lead and manage differently, and often have broader goals for their businesses – such as desiring to make a difference as well as creating wealth. This variety in the pathways to growth should not only be celebrated, they should be legitimized. To do so, I strongly believe, will lead many more women to aspire to grow their businesses to a higher level, and will provide a much more robust pipeline to high growth.
- Do We Know What We Don’t Know?: In a growth-focused environment, data drive decisions, but we still lack data-driven intelligence on the ROI of different combinations of investment and support – especially over the longer term. And does the fact that, in the US at least, the value of angel investments now matches or exceeds that of institutional equity capital indicate a permanent expansion of funding possibilities or a temporary blip driven by recessionary times? What types of education and support are critical at various points in the entrepreneurial journey, and do they differ for women and men? More longitudinal research, including a look at the large number of high growth firms that eschew equity, can aid in the legitimization of the variety of ways that high growth can be achieved, and greater acceptance of the value of offering a blend of support services.
Overall, I came away with an overriding sense that – if we do indeed own it – we not only can re-frame and widen the lens on the discussion of what it means to be “high growth” – we must do so. The status quo, as it stands now, was not established with our input and experiences, so now that women entrepreneurs are entering into this realm in increasing numbers, we have the power and the obligation to redefine what it means to be growth-oriented, how growth is achieved, and how “success” is measured.
All Hail the women and men who showed up to engage in this important conversation. Let it be the start of a fruitful collaboration, and let the 10-year goals of Astia be realized!