The leap into entrepreneurship: how and when women should make it

I recently attended a Geek Girl Dinner, which raised, again, the extraordinary challenges of talking about women and entrepreneurship without getting sucked into a black and white discussion about how it ‘should’ be done.

The topic for the evening was ‘The Leap towards Entrepreneurship’, with the panel made up of Aisha Pandor (co-founder of SweepSouth), Jess Mouneimne (founder of Jam Media), Richard Bezuidenhout (founder of e-magination) and Nwabisa Mayema (co-founder of nnfinity).

It was an animated discussion with lots of differing opinions, all handled with grace and humour, about how important passion is, the nature of sacrifice when starting a business, and what failure really means.

The most telling difference of opinion was around how and when to take the leap into starting your own business, which is – for me – one of the biggest challenges facing women in the industry.

Bezuidenhout was promoting that people just got out there and started ‘doing it’. “Bet on yourself,” he said. “There are enough people betting against you. Don’t add to that negativity.”

His advice to a question in the audience of how women ‘of a certain age’ (whatever that is) start businesses was simply: “Even if you are 60, you still have 20 years of your life left. Just start now. Get out there and start doing it.”

Although this felt positive and inspiring, it didn’t sit easily with me. If it were this simple, why weren’t more women doing it?

Pandor’s response to the question was much more measured. She mirrored Bezuidenhout’s position on taking immediate action, but recommended less gung-ho measures, including taking all the responsibilities into consideration first.

This felt much closer to the reality that we face as women entrepreneurs. For women, taking the leap into entrepreneurship takes more than a ‘just do it’ attitude because we are up against more than the normal entrepreneurial challenges of access to money, markets, and skills.

I started my first business when I was 28 and pregnant. Since then I have closed a business, tried full-time employment, become a partner in a small agency and am now a solo consultant. Through many these experiences, I have faced the traditional entrepreneurial challenges listed above, as well as some others. They include the practical and emotional juggling of being a working mom, having to fight to get paid fair value for my time, and having to continually defend my ‘self-employed’ status to friends and family who think it would be much better/easier if I just got a job.

There are less easy-to-point-out challenges, like dealing with the language of women in business, being subtly dismissed in meetings or being labelled emotional or volatile when I have a strong opinion. I remember clearly the time I had to explain to a CEO that his not hiring a receptionist because she wasn’t ‘hot enough’ had alienated most of his female staff and had them questioning the hiring, firing and promotion strategy of the business as a whole. Mostly he was bemused by the whole thing. That we were upset, that there was a ‘we’ – I think he thought it was just me, and that we were taking such a ‘small thing’ so seriously… It was exhausting.

And these are just my experiences. There are many other issues I haven’t faced. Some of these were raised by Mayema when I asked whether she felt conversations about women in entrepreneurship were always dominated by the topic of mothers and motherhood (this being a bugbear of mine.)

“No,” she said. “There are so many other labels I am managing when I walk into a meeting. I am a young, well-spoken, well-educated, black Xhosa woman. I have a wall of preconceptions to battle. My status as a mother is not something that has ever come up for me.”

Then she clarified: “As a Xhosa woman, I was raised to be a warrior and that is often seen as aggressive so I need to be very aware of how I show up in meetings.”

So this conversation about how and when women leap into entrepreneurship is not a simple, one-size-fits-all discussion. But it is one we need to keep having.

Previously, Mayema introduced the idea of a ‘squad’. A group of women who keep her real and sane. I love this idea. It put into language what I have already experienced — that when I have a team of women who I trust to have my back, and who trust me to have theirs, I achieve more.

And I know that the more networks, support structures and ‘squads’ we have, the better chance each of us will have to leap, successfully, into entrepreneurship.
I walked away from the talk inspired to create an open conversation space that supports women who have taken, or want to take the leap.

The more conversation and support spaces and networks we create, the easier it will be to just do it, and, in Bezuidenhout’s words “bet on ourselves”.

Sarah Rice will be starting a meetup run on principles to talk about issues related to women in entrepreneurship. The first one will be on 4 August at 9:00am at Workshop17 in the café area. You can follow her twitter profile @ricegirl2 for updates.

Feature image: Ignite New Zealand via Flickr.

Sarah Rice


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