One of my previous bosses once called me a feminist. We were discussing the proverbial glass ceiling and the expectations women place on themselves versus those that are placed on them in the workplace. At the time, I inwardly cringed. I thought “feminist” was a dirty word. I envisioned bra burnings and protests—I’m not keen on either. So, when it came time to write this month’s piece on women in business, I revisited the idea of feminism.
As a business owner, I have become very aware of some of the differences in the way men and women business owners operate. I have often been one of a handful of women at a meeting or networking event and surveyed the room wondering where all the smart, determined, hard working women entrepreneurs were, and if anyone besides me noticed the differences between the genders.
After discussing my thoughts with Edmontonians publisher and accomplished entrepreneur Sharon MacLean, we decided I should host a round table to explore the gender differences when it came to owning businesses, and what effect this recovering economy was having on women entrepreneurs.
Five of us took part in the discussion:
Colleen Madsen, recently sold the Sandler Sales Institute at the end of “one of the worst years ever”. For 13 years, she offered training and strategic direction to sales teams. As we began Colleen shared, “I feel as though it’s halftime in the game and I’m looking forward to figuring out what the second half is going to look like.”
Pauline Perrault is the 29-year-old owner of Jump out of Bed, a business focused on increasing employee engagement through coaching, mentoring and culture consultation with employers. She opened 18 month ago—at the beginning of one of the roughest economic years in a decade. “If Colleen is at halftime then I’m still in the locker room!”
Jessie Radies is the mother of two school-aged children and partners with her husband in the Blue Pear restaurant. As well, she is founder of Original Fare, a non-profit organization that promotes collaboration between local restaurants for marketing campaigns and food distribution networks.
Tracy Scarlett, previously the owner of a construction company and now CEO of Alberta Women Entrepreneurs, a non-profit support organization, agreed to participate—and even provided the venue and coffee. She helped me choose three other owners at various stages of their lives with businesses in various industries at different points in their evolution.
Me: I started a charitable and corporate marketing and event planning business three-and-a-half years ago. ED Marketing & Communications offers charitable organizations committee support services and a grassroots marketing perspective.
All in all, a diverse yet receptive and sharing group of women.
We began the discussion around what had encouraged us to take the leap from being employees to entrepreneurs.
Jessie recalled, “I was 32 when we bought the restaurant. Before, I worked at a large multi-national company [in the fast food industry] for a long time and wasn’t satisfied with what it gave me. Their definition of success was different than how I defined it in my personal life… I had to compromise my standards and make concessions that I knew I wouldn’t have to do if I was the boss. [I] wanted to be true to myself—wanted my HR standards and practices to be in line with my values. Also, [I] now had an opportunity to work with my husband. We were newly married at the time, and [business ownership] offered us the lifestyle we were looking for.”
Pauline, the newest business owner in the group, said “I felt a large disconnect from being an employee in a large organization and what I was doing in my free time as a volunteer. The name ‘Jump out of Bed’ came from the idea about being excited to go to work instead of rolling out, sadly unmotivated. Eventually, a fellow Rotarian and mentor told me, ‘You need to start your own business.’ And I took his advice.”
Colleen echoed some of Pauline’s comments adding, “It seemed as though every five years I had peaked at my job—I no longer felt challenged. There are so many more limitations in large companies and I just got bored. Truly though, I stumbled into owning my own business and, in the beginning, really had no idea what I was getting into.” I could relate.
Jessie elaborated, “[I thought] there’s 300 people ahead of me on the promotion trail in this company and most of them are 10 to15 years older than me, and there is not a hope of me getting to the place I want to be within this corporation.”
Tracy recalled her time consulting start-ups in the bio-technology industry. “I came from a very traditional male environment, science and technology, and I was always the only woman… and I never realized that wasn’t normal. It wasn’t a barrier… I don’t think I experienced any gender issues as a result of that. I worked hard and was good at what I did. What changed for me was that I went back to school to do an MBA because, in that environment, if I wanted to run a company in that industry, I needed an MBA. It was actually that that opened my eyes to ‘hold on here, I could actually go a different direction with this’ and that’s when I started doing consulting work.”
The common theme? We became entrepreneurs not out of a desire to make millions or because we had a product we were dying to bring to market, but rather out of a sense of boredom and frustration with a lack of challenge and a disconnect between the corporate and personal definitions of success.
Of course, it was only a matter of time before gender differences was put forward. Personally, I often see a gender gap between men and women in terms of sales tactics, priorities, planning and financial strategies. But, a gap does not necessarily mean weaknesses on either side.
The mood in that room was far from the “man bashing” one might expect from a table of strong, independent and business-savvy women. On the contrary, we all agreed that all entrepreneurs face the same challenges with a few key distinctions: the language men and women use to express themselves in business circles… and each gender’s definition of success.
Tracy pointed out that “gender was never even on my radar until I took on this job. What changed for me was that I realized that, because I don’t have children, I’ve been living a career path that wasn’t much different than men were living… I didn’t have the same considerations of wanting that family life, so it wasn’t the same… I realized I’m different than most of the women entering into business because [they are] trying to find a way to do what is meaningful and gives them the opportunity to be at the soccer game and volunteer at their kids’ schools… That is causing these women to leave mid career from highly paid positions to start their own businesses.”
Speaking on the definition of success and the differences between how women and men network, Tracy shared “I think that women view their growth differently and I think that’s what doesn’t appeal to them about getting into the old boy’s club… It doesn’t mean that women do not want men in their peer group or mentorship model. What they’re looking for is people with like-minded business practices and a social responsibility model with a connection to community.”
Colleen felt that male entrepreneurs have the same need to contribute and build the community. “Men think the same thoughts [as women], but they express it differently… The language is different—that may be something that limits men. Women are not using effectively the empowerment and unique opportunity they have to ‘be themselves’ and be expressive, sensitive, caring in business.”
I was intrigued by the definition of success around the table: What did these women see as success?
Jessie defined success as “financial measures and goals balanced with freedoms and family and time (that is) equally important. The rest of it becomes a personal challenge game… but you don’t have to compromise for financial growth”
Colleen added “It depends on the stage of life you’re in, too. I was a part of the old school that thought money was most important, [but] there is a difference between success and significance without compromise, and to be able to give back and give to your family. We default to having to balance or having an excuse not to succeed. You can have it all! Women need to be empowered [so] they can merge the two things in life.”
Pauline responded “That is inspiring to hear because I am at the beginning of that walk and trying to strategically plan. I’m asking questions like: What stage do I have to be at in my business career to have kids? What is my five-year plan?”
Colleen admitted that she had her doubts at times… that there were moments of fear and wondering how she could juggle everything.
According to Tracy,. “Having a business plan that reflects the realities of your personal life is an important consideration for any business owner. AWE can help you to identify and implement strategies that will prepare you for this.”
Jessie says that entrepreneurs need to “decide what is important to you. You may have to give up some things. [You] can’t run a business full time and be in aggressive growth mode and be a stay-at-home mom, but you can do a lot and have it all.”
I agree with what Jessie says. I grew up with women shouting the mantra, “You can be and do anything and everything.” Of course, it is empowering and what every child regardless of gender should hear. But I witnessed some intelligent, formidable women who thought they could do it all and be it all at the same time actually burn out. Their children suffered, their marriages suffered and, in the end, their self-esteem was no better. That’s how it looked from my vantage point. Just because one can do anything doesn’t mean one should do everything.
Recently, I received a Facebook message from a retail store owner I very much respect. After giving birth to twins three months ago, she continued to work at her store. With her lease coming up for renewal, she took the opportunity to reflect and has decided that business ownership is not her favourite part of the fashion industry—her clients are. However, not even that realization—for her, for now—could compete with the fact that being a mom is number one. I respect and admire her ability to choose what her focus is, knowing that it doesn’t make her less successful, less valuable or less of a contributor to society.
It takes courage to be honest with yourself… to admit your limitations… to set priorities and to commit to those priorities. Sometimes, stepping back can be as challenging—and satisfying—as forging ahead.
The women around the table that afternoon are committed to fulfillment, personally and professionally. Based on Colleen’s initial analogy, that means no matter where they are at: be it in the locker room, at half time, or momentarily on the sidelines, coaching the next set of players to hit the field. √
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