I met a woman recently who owns a travel company. For years, her business had been plateaued at a respectable, but small size. Then 9/11 took the bottom out of her industry and her largest contracts dried up overnight. At that perilous time, she decided to get a bank loan to expand her business. Four banks declined her, and the fifth one lent her the money but she had to leverage everything she owned. It was the risk of a lifetime, and it worked: Her business grew four-fold when the market rebounded, and she was instantly a market leader.
Her story led me to contemplate the relationship between women entrepreneurs and risk. I’ve had a professional services firm for nine years and have worked with numerous female CEOs. I also volunteer with several organizations that focus on women entrepreneurs. The reason her story struck me was because it was so different from those of the other female entrepreneurs I know–including my own.
A thought-provoking Harvard Business Review article I once read by Anna Fels asked “Do women lack ambition?” It found that women pursue their goals only after they’ve satisfied the needs of their family, including caring for children and elderly parents. It also found that women underestimate their abilities (while their male counterparts overestimate them) and are therefore less likely to pursue lofty career goals.
Here’s what else studies repeatedly show us:
- Only 1.8 percent of women-owned businesses in the U.S. have revenues above $1 million per year, according to the SBA.
- Women lag behind men in their willingness to seek bank financing for their ventures.
- Women are far less likely to receive venture capital. In my own experience, I’ve only seen two women receive it, and one was replaced shortly after the check cleared.
Whether or not you buy any of this–and certainly there are always exceptions–the fact remains that female entrepreneurs are less likely to take the big risks to get the big rewards. And when you consider the reason why most don’t push for growth–the ever-elusive life balance–then we’re really hurting ourselves. Risk and growth are precisely what may give entrepreneurs the lifestyle they seek. See for yourself:
Small businesses are more personally taxing to run than larger ones. Once you’ve decided to hire employees, it’s better to have a full staff so you can focus your time on what you want to do and what you’re best at. I don’t know any CEO who would choose to go back to the days when they had to do everything themselves. Incremental risk equals exponential rewards. All businesses owners deal with risk–it starts the day you sign your first lease and hire your first person. A small amount of leverage on that risk can allow you to make a major impact in your competitive position and revenue, by allowing you to afford a star hire, a product enhancement or a new storefront. A more successful business means more options for the owner.
No one else will give you the job you want. The best thing entrepreneurship gives you is the ability to create your dream job. It doesn’t come overnight. You have to have a plan to get there, and it nearly always requires an infrastructure to support you. That’s why entrepreneurs who survive the first five years tend to keep their businesses. The women I know have ambition for their careers and for life. They often have a hard time seeing the end game and a clear path to get there in the midst of so many other responsibilities. Mentors with lives we want to emulate can be few and far between.
The stories of women who have built successful businesses, taken calculated risks to get there, and not sacrificed a fulfilling life need to be told. They’re out there. When we stop looking at ambition and risk as an enemy of life balance and see it instead as a way to achieve it, then perhaps we’ll be ready to start thinking big.