A Womenabling Manifesto

Last week, during Global Entrepreneurship Week, I kicked off the FastTrac Global Women’s Summit at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City with an opening address focused on the key global and domestic trends in women’s entrepreneurship today. So, naturally, I touched on some of the most recent knowledge from the World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap report, the latest Women, Business and the Law report from the World Bank’s fabulous Gender Law Library, and US trends from the American Express OPEN State of Women-Owned Businesses Report (which I authored) that was published this past spring.

But I couldn’t stop there. Given that the audience numbered 200, and the address was webcast to countless numbers of others around the world, I closed this trend-focused keynote address with a bit of exhortation focused on what we all need to do next, which I called the Womenable Manifesto. In brief, here’s what I think we womenablers need to focus on in the coming months and years to REALLY advance women’s economic empowerment, entrepreneurial development, and thought leadership.

  • Words matter, changing our lexicon: Discussions and definitions of business growth are currently conducted using a very male-defined, testosterone-charged dictionary. When held up to this lens, women business owners often fall short and are described as “risk averse,” owning “lifestyle businesses,” or lacking the ambition to grow. Instead of thinking of women as falling short of a male-defined yardstick, let’s develop our own measures and descriptors, including thinking of women as more aware of risk as opposed to averse of it. Also, many women don’t want to grow just for growth’s sake, which causes some to see them as lacking in ambition. We need to talk more about growing businesses as a means toward a broader end of making an even bigger difference, impacting more lives and making the world a better place – that would be much more attractive too more women than a currency-based growth exhortation. And, importantly, “growth” is not a zero-sum game. It’s not either-or, and the term “high growth potential business” should not just be used when referring to multi-million dollar, equity-backed ventures. Yes, it’s true that only 2% of women-owned firms have crossed the million-dollar threshold, but only 5% of men-owned firms have as well. So we need to make thinking and growing bigger – not just huge – a more central part of the conversation.
  • Policies with possibility, not proscription: Our public policies also do growth-oriented women – and men – business owners a disservice. Entrepreneurship support from many state and local governments – as well as the SBA – is the equivalent of primary school: they will only get a business owner so far along the educational process. While some may say that the government’s role should only be to provide a kick-start and that other players should pick up later in the journey – I would say that it is in a nation’s best interest – for international competitiveness and for sustainable economic growth – not to drop support when it’s needed the most. A case in point are the “golden handcuffs” of the SBA’s Women’s Business Center program. More about that later – and it’s covered in much more detail in my full remarks – but suffice it to say that the legislative marching orders for the program, and the tone that’s set in its management, do not support growth-oriented clients. This needs to change.
  • Building an entrepreneurial road/canal system: I used one chart in my presentation (see slide #22) depicting the canal system around Birmingham England, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution – to make the point that it was only when this canal was built did the revolution truly take off. We need an analogous system for enterprise development: one that provides multiple pathways for an entrepreneur to start and navigate her journey; one that provides super highways as well as local roads, off ramps and on ramps, and scenic routes as well as straightaways. One size does not fit all in entrepreneurial development assistance, so there should be a variety of routes to business growth as well.

Of course, there’s a lot more than this to be done, and each of these ideas deserves a deeper discussion in and of themselves. However, I believe that many hands make light work and we’ve got to start somewhere – AND we have to invest in areas that will have a broad and lasting impact.

What do you think about the elements of this manifesto? Any others to add? Am I off the mark on anything? Let’s get a dialogue going about how we can all work together to embrace, empower, and legitimize women’s entrepreneurial leadership in ways that allow for growth “in a different voice” and through multiple pathways.

If you’re interested, the slides from the PowerPoint presentation accompanying my remarks is available on Womenable’s SlideShare page, and the archived webcast of my address will be posted on the FastTrac Global Women’s Summit web page very soon.

Three cheers for the triple bottom line power of entrepreneurial women – hip, hip, hooray!