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Why Shouldn't Women Do Startups?

After arguing that the world needs more companies founded by women, Jean Brittingham responds to critics who say that the world should stop telling women what to do.

I was a bit confused when I read Penelope Trunk’s blog telling me (and others) to stop telling women to do startups. If we get this kind of strong reaction when we support other women, maybe we need to keep talking about why we need female entrepreneurs and why so many women are, in fact, choosing to be entrepreneurs.

I am an expert in few things, but I do know something about sustainable futures and female entrepreneurs. But you don’t have to be an expert to notice that things are not working all that well on the planet. We need a new approach, and—in business—women are the ones most likely to bring a fresh perspective. At SmartGirls Way, we are focused on engaging women in entrepreneurship and creating solutions to the challenges they face.

As a three-time entrepreneur, I know it is genuinely hard work. On the other hand, I don’t know many women who don’t work hard, whether they are in a career, a job, or running their own company. Women are paying the price for this ambition in other parts of their lives, but we are also finding ways to work smarter, use technology to leverage our capabilities, and we are closer to "having it all" than ever before. We are also coming together in amazing numbers to provide each other much needed support and re-frame the idea of the grueling experience it takes to be an entrepreneur.

Why do women want to start businesses? The vast majority of the hundreds of women entrepreneurs we’ve talked to are not launching and scaling their own companies because they want to get rich quick—or even slow. Of course they would like to make money and most of them would also like to see a great exit. They wouldn’t be very good entrepreneurs if they weren’t thinking this way.

But the primary motivation is not monetary. It’s value driven. The women in our community believe that the product or service or solution they are creating will make a big difference in the lives of others—women, families, communities, the world. Whether it is a difference in the quality of life, the energy we use to run our lives and our homes, the way we think about and engage with fashion, or simply the way we enjoy food and use it to create community, it matters.

The world needs these ideas now. The customers whose lives will be improved by these products and services need the innovators and the economy that will be built through the energy and enthusiasm that women bring to business. Think of the employees (men and women) who will benefit from business cultures that value more than the concept of work-life balance. I’m sure more dads might choose to have a little extra balance in their lives if the companies they worked for made it a reasonable option. Women are creating these cultures right now in the businesses they are building.

This is why reactions like Penelope Trunk’s baffle me. Women make personal and complicated decisions about family and career every day. We need to be supportive of their choices, especially because today nearly 40% of all businesses in this country are owned by women. The challenge they face is growth (collectively those women-led companies contribute less than 4% to the GNP). Imagine the impact that these businesses could have if we grew the number of women-led companies to 55% (and, in fact, the U.S. Census predicts it will happen by 2025) and increased the share of revenue they generated to 50%.

My mission is to make sure that more and more women understand that their great ideas can be great businesses if they want them to be, that they should follow their passion, and that there are many of us who support them and will do what we can to assure their success.

Women’s entrepreneurship isn’t a gender issue as much as it is a social and economic issue. If we women do our part, we can and should expect the same opportunities as our male counterparts to realize our dreams.

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  • Sally

    I whole hearty agree!  My business partner and I just launched our on line business after two years of planning. ( funny note we both met playing an on-line game and have yet to meet in person) We both have a passion for the internet and applaud every woman out there for being brave enough to follow their dream. Yes it is hard work, but nothing compares to the feeling of walking YOUR OWN path. I thank you for this article it is inspiring.

    Sally & Marie with Be Loud SEO  

  • RichardLipscombe

    Start-ups happen everyday in small and mostly mysterious ways.  These events, mystical happenings, energy clusters are not gender specific. What these happenings lead to, how long they last, and whether or not they are well funded has little to do with gender and everything to do with people.  Some people have good ideas which they pursue to the point where others join in to make a new entity, practice, system, application, etc happen.  But the first simple truth of the matter is that deviants begin start-ups.  The second simple truth of the matter is that deviants can equally be male or female.  Every industry has its fair share of deviants both male and female. Deviants often have great social values - they just happen to be different to yours or mine at a certain point in time.  Deviants start-up everything that is long-lasting from religious faith, political movements (Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street), technological breakthroughs, theoretical sciences (Newton), and business (Jobs, Gates, Bezos, Channel, Roddick, etc). Deviants are start-ups waiting to happen and guess what they come with both female and male bodies. The person who lives next door to you could be a start-up so instead of reading this drivel (my words here) go talk to him or her.

  • Alisha Ramos

    Thanks for your thoughts. I'm a Harvard undergrad currently conducting research to put some data behind all of these op-ed articles that have been popping up recently on this topic. My research is about female founders and their access to VC funding, which is tangentially related to why women might be locked out of the startup ecosystem -- not simply "choosing" not to "do startups."

    You can contribute here:

  • sean O'Neill

    I would advise (based on my having attending many VC Pitch events) attending several of these and you'll find the "odd" female or several who can start a company as well as anyone else.  I would "argue" as working professional that women have certain advantages in pitching to what amounts to almost 90% of VC selection process of men...(not for that obvious reason) looking for solid scalable businesses that (for the most part) fall into Engineering and Computer Science (backgrounds) fo thier Founders...which brings most new busienss ventures to VC's.  These seem to reflect the same amount of gender breakdown in these kinds of subjects that you'll see (maybe this is changing) or have been seen on most college campuses. 

    I don't concurr (if this is your thesis) that women are shut out at all...I just believe that they bring (or start) business in other forms where VC Funding is not the most obvious option or the most preferrable option.  I believe women start companies that (for me) seem to be based on partnerships, co-sponsors and being able to raise capital in more creative and perhaps with less onerous (remember you are given up a large degree of ownership when you take VC funds) consequences!

    My own personal opinion is that VC's look for the best (scalable with a return on investment) business model and really don't give a....(fill in the blank).  It's all about the best idea, business model that will yield a return...not gender..Most VC's are very bright and very open minded!



  • MichaelSmythe

    While supporting the core cause I am bemused by the underlying 'genderalization' that women are inherently more socially responsible than men. Women have been dominant in fashion /make-up /slimming industries which trade in manufactured dissatisfaction and high-volume consumerism.

    I accept the research finding that female entrepreneurs are motivated by something other than money but where is the evidence for the implied assumption that male entrepreneurs are not? The drive to 'make a positive difference' is not gender specific.

  • nicolewhittle

    As a woman that has had 4 start-ups, in each case, I choose the mindset of starting something "better" which encompasses both the need to create a better mousetrap (therefore smarter way to make money) as well as a philanthropreneurial pursuits (therefore smarter way to make life better for others, while still making money). I encourage ANYONE of any gender to start companies and have some measure of control over their own life and finances. Being the lucky one while 3 rounds of major downsizing happened to co-workers, as well as the daughter of a serial entrepreneur, I'm especially attuned to the reasons behind starting a company. And so, I think both men and women should re-consider their "employee" status. Is starting a company wiht many paychecks (clients) better than waiting for 1 paycheck (your employer) to be paid?

    For those of us that are truly "meant" to create new organizations, I say go for it. However, I can look around my circle of entreprenurial contacts and note that some people that start a company shouldn't. I'm not meant to be an accountant or a physician or a garbage (wo)man. Because of my personal skillset, running a company (not personally creating a product or service) is why I create companies. Being a good designer or crafty person or widget maker doesn't necessarily make you a good entrepreneur. What we need is more people taking advantage of tools such as education and networking groups to help women and men to succeed (it's there but many don't take advantage of it).

    So for those that have an opinion that some GENDERS should start or shouldn't-isn't it more important to find out if the INDIVIDUAL is actually suited to it?

  • Dia

    I absolutely agree that a workplace that makes having a balanced lifestyle a viable option is the need of the day but a woman at the top does not ensure this. In many ways, business still remains a boy's club and most of us women MBAs are taught early on, that if we want to survive we need to think and a man.

  • Douglas Wolf

    Steven Pinker's books clearly show that the biological differences between men and women in this respect give men a decided edge. 

  • $2353470

    I expect some readers will say I have no right to make a comment here because I'm not a woman, but so be it.  I absolutely agree with the core premise expressed in the title, and I think Jean still missed the point.  It is great to encourage *all* people to pursue their dreams, be all that they can be, and translate aspirations to reality.  But, "women" like any vast group is a truly diverse population. (One would think that after all the required diversity training more fem-activists would understand that.)

    Affirmative, aspirational statements like "Women make personal and complicated decisions about family and career every day." may encourage some but ignore the fact that *some* women do not, do not want to and are not fully capable of that.  Why should they be told what to do and be ?  It really can be a stressor to feel that one's inner self does not measure up to such an articulated norm.

    For decades, before the preponderant image of the stumbling moronic husband took over media, boys and young men were inundated with similarly demanding messages: "Men are strong", "Men are leaders", "Men instinctively can fix cars and household issues".  Did that encourage some to step up and become those things ?  Sure.  But it also plants a seed of dissonance in some that can grow into self-doubt, self-inadequacy or self-loathing that can lead to some really ugly things.

    I'm not saying women (and men) should not be encouraged, but it would be better to include nuance of self-selection and self-determination than make unsubstantiated sweeping generalizations, which are troubling whether they express positive or negative attributes.

    “Have the courage to follow
    your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to

       --Steve Jobs

  • sean O'Neill


    I like you points (well made) and perhaps why when I look at the vast majority of the startups I see all round me my eyes (and heart) start to glaze over.  Most are classic "male" left brain (I know but just go with for now)  thinking in that the whole start-up paradigm is focused on how and ONLY HOW to Make money and Value Driven comes from well...more money being either extracted or effeciencies gained...snooore!...and heart freeze!

    I really believe (and some men) women for the most part define VALUE differently and look to start something that NEEDS to be started because it creates a whole other kind of value tha adds something more than just metrics, enconomies of scale etc..

    I  look to find and help co's grow revenue that actually move my heart (I know this is business but I see plenty of room for more heart and less, cold, analytic logic in most "male" startups.


    Sean O'Neill

  • Panoptika Partners

    Jean, your last paragraph is the best part - about how we can and should expect the same opportunites. Many women still fail in this respect, I fear. But your blog gives me hope.