The Globe and Mail
The Feminine (Entrepreneurial) Mystique
Harvey Schachter - April 25, 2007
The number of businesses started by women keeps surging, with profits for them growing faster than all companies, Margaret Heffernan states. Indeed, in the United States, women's companies are creating jobs at twice the rate of all firms and are now responsible for more payroll than all the Fortune 500 behemoths combined.
Ms. Heffernan, who has been the chief executive officer of five different businesses in the U.S. and Britain, set out to talk to some of these successful female entrepreneurs and, although they were a diverse lot, came away with some important lessons.
The first is what motivates female entrepreneurs: These women "were driven to look for a place where they could prove themselves on their terms. There is some evidence that women are willing to take bigger risks with their careers than men. This is not because they are stupid; it is because they are desperate. So often they can see no other way to find work, and a way of working, that suits them."
The businesses they build, therefore, are different from those that men create, notably for the attention they pay to others and the way they lead by orchestration rather than direction. That made Ms. Heffernan uncomfortable. "When I describe these women as nurturing, it makes me flinch. I did not grow up in an environment in which my female qualities were regarded as anything other than an obstacle in business. I spent a good deal of my career trying to ignore them. So it is a shock to see them as an asset, but it is a very important lesson for the business world as a whole. It is critical for both men and women to appreciate just how relevant, effective, and successful women's ways of working are, so that everyone will gain confidence in us just the way we are," she writes in Women on Top.
She also feels it's important for established, traditional corporations to recognize the achievements of these female entrepreneurs, and understand the talent they are losing. What is it about most corporate cultures that makes them intolerable to precisely the kind of entrepreneurial imagination and drive needed for success? In particular, since these women generally have found a balance between family and work - and have encouraged their staff to do the same - she feels their success should shatter forever the ossified belief that you can't have a family and be fully committed to a professional career.
The hundreds of entrepreneurs she studied include some reasonably well know figures, such as clothing designer Eileen Fisher, Oxygen Media founder Geraldine Laybourne, and Doris Christopher, founder of kitchen utensils seller The Pampered Chef. There are also many unheralded but astonishing success stories, such as Carol Latham, who, newly divorced and broke, built a tech business by hiring her inner-city neighbours, many of whom didn't speak English, and giving them the schooling and training that allowed the business to take off.
The book is built around themes that serve as lessons. It begins with the value of values: Ms. Heffernan found that when a woman talks about her company, she is more likely to talk about its philosophy - about the purpose underlying the business. That draws others to her. But, also, in a business world characterized by chaos and change, values provide continuity.
The cornerstone of their people management is a belief in fairness, the opportunity to achieve, and a sense of community. At a time when some major companies are looking to cut back on benefits, women's businesses have been loath to follow their example. "In fact, you are more likely to be offered a choice of insurers and pension plans if you work for a woman. What this says about the company is that it is serious when it talks about valuing people," Ms. Heffernan says.
Most of the women lead by orchestration, putting people in the right place and intervening only when necessary. Lauri Union, who revived her family's steel manufacturer, Union Corrugating Co., oversees nine plants with the headquarters attached to one of them in North Carolina - but she isn't located at that headquarters or any of the plants, living in Boston. "The fact that I was not there made the management team stronger because they weren't dependent on me. The company's growth was not held back by the limits of what I could do," she says.
That's a provocative notion - not being held back by the leader's limits - and this engaging book is filled with similarly thoughtful fodder for entrepreneurs and managers. Beyond that, of course, it will be inspirational for female entrepreneurs, as they hear the stories of women who have triumphed in business while not changing who they are.