How Women Entrepreneurs Can Thrive: Six Key Lessons

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Practices for Female Entrepreneurs to Succeed

By Samantha Walravens

More than ever before in the history of business, women are reaching new milestones worldwide as entrepreneurs.

But all too often, even the most enterprising women still confront challenges in cracking the code for this special club.

Question is, why do some female entrepreneurs succeed while others struggle? And more to the point, what should women who aspire to become entrepreneurs know before venturing toward new frontiers in the global marketplace?

First, let’s touch briefly on the impressive progress already underway among women entrepreneurs. Recent research shows that some 12 million women now own businesses in the U.S., a 114% increase over 20 years ago, and that on average those businesses grow somewhat faster than those owned by men.

More women are studying entrepreneurship, too. Female students at Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, an exclusive education-industry partnership between Lehigh University and the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco, today make up 56.7% of its population, up from 39.6% in 2017.

Next, let’s look quickly at the ongoing difficulties women entrepreneurs face, chiefly the inequities to be addressed and the obstacles overcome. Gender discrimination remains an overriding issue, whether in the form of sexism or unconscious bias. Just look at the yawning pay disparities and persistently poor C-suite and boardroom representation for women. The covid pandemic has hit women working from home, especially those who are mothers–I have four children–harder than men.

Only 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Venture capital dollars invested in recent years in start-up companies led by women have diminished dramatically.

But this post is intended as a how-to rather than a demand for long-overdue policy reforms. So here, based on my experiences as a tech entrepreneur, educator, and journalist, is the advice I give my students at Lehigh University, where I teach “Disruptive Engineers” and “Women in Tech & Innovation” in conjunction with the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center.

  1. Adaptability is key. The path to entrepreneurial success is rarely straightforward. Sometimes you have to zig, but other times you have to zag. Ideally you can manage both.
  2. Ideas are only a starting point. Generating ideas, however brilliantly creative, is a high priority. But what matters even more is how you execute your plan–how you put those ideas into action.
  3. Remember your underlying purpose. Entrepreneurs do more than merely establish businesses. They solve problems, too. If you happen to open a business that solves a problem, you’re truly onto something. And the bigger the problem–and the bigger the potential market for it–the better. 
  4. Define “success” by your own standards. Popular culture promotes the myth that the holy grail of success is amassing great wealth. And hey, money can certainly fit the bill.  But everyone defines success differently. For example, Jessica Davidoff, founder of Admittedly, an online college advisory platform, told me that, to her, success means freedom. “I want to spend every day doing exactly what I want to do with the people I want to do it with,” she said. “I can wake up and love what I do.”
  5. Learn to benefit from your mistakes. Pay special attention to the frequent failures as well as the occasional successes in your study of other entrepreneurs and business leaders. This valuable skill can prevent or at least limit wasting time on similar issues. Indeed, a recent study of the 11 attributes considered most common in an entrepreneurial mindset–and most essential to success–identified “mistakes and failure competence.”
  6. Beware of “impostor syndrome.” No matter how accomplished women leaders may be, many still feel a sense that somehow they’re faking it–that they lack the skills and the smarts to belong. Navigating this pitfall can be tricky. Just ask Amy Weaver, chief financial officer of Salesforce, a software company that last year earned $25 billion in revenues: “I think about impostor syndrome every day,” she admitted to me. “You never get over it entirely, but you have to get comfortable with it.”

I’ve done my utmost to follow these basic principles throughout my own career. And I’ve come to know many other women who have done the same. Now maybe it’s your turn.

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Samantha Walravens, adjunct professor at Lehigh University’s PC Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, is the author of “TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood” and “Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech.”