17 Dec 2001  Research & Ideas

Enterprising Women

While many characteristics that mark a successful entrepreneur are gender blind, being a woman does make a difference, and recognizing and utilizing those differences is an equally important quality to cultivate when building a new venture.

That was the message delivered by a panel of five female business leaders, moderated by HBS professor Myra Hart, at the Harvard Business School Entrepreneurship Conference.

Robin Chase said that being a woman did not hinder her ability to start Zipcar, a service allowing customers to rent cars by the hour. Launched in Boston and Washington, D.C. this year, Zipcar, which uses the Internet to "make access to cars as easy as getting money from an ATM" has approximately 1,500 member-users and expects to open in Manhattan in early 2002.

The network for women isn't as developed yet, but it's growing.
—Ann Bilyew

Although she occasionally sensed some skepticism when potential backers realized she was a woman, Chase didn't let that faze her. "I always made it a point to fall back on skill and hard work. When they realized I knew the business inside and out, it ceased to be an issue."

"My asset was being surrounded by the right people," said Cynthia Fisher (HBS MBA '90). In 1993, using her own capital, Fisher founded ViaCord, a business that allows customers to bank cord blood stem cells for possible future use in the treatment of cancer and autoimmune diseases. Keeping that support team at high levels of efficiency meant making quick, difficult staffing decisions when some of her colleagues weren't able to grow with the company.

"It took a long time to get funding," she continued, recalling that she was eight months pregnant when she made her initial, unsuccessful attempt. Once investors were convinced by the firm's mission and saw that it had been self-sufficient for nearly seven years, Fisher's task became much easier: In three stages, over the course of 2000, she raised venture capital funds of $11 million, $48 million, and $75 million. That same year, she founded ViaCell, a biotech firm that is developing stem cell products to treat cancer, genetic disorders, and immune deficiencies.

Keep business model fluid

"Know your timing," advised Susan Willet Bird, founder and president of Women.future, an organization that uses live and Web-based events to engage business leaders in discussing women's leadership.

"Initially, we thought our market was individuals," she said. Eventually, with the help of business sponsors, they developed a new business model targeted at educational institutions and large corporations.

In one year, Staples Direct.com's President, Jeanne Lewis (HBS MBA '92), took the Internet retailer of office supplies from 25 to 400 employees and $50 million to $500 million in revenues. Being an "intrapreneur" within a larger corporation—with a larger corporation's deep pockets—offered a nice hybrid experience to flex her entrepreneurial muscle with plenty of available resources.

Regarding the strengths and weaknesses of women business leaders, Lewis remarked, "I've worked for terrible female bosses and terrible male bosses. I always used to generalize along gender lines. And I always found an exception."

Venture capitalist Ann Bilyew (HBS MBA '94), a principal at Advent International, noted the acute shortage of VC-funded companies headed by women. "The network for women isn't as developed yet, but it's growing."

If women are still catching up with the old boy network, wondered Myra Hart, what advantage is offered by "emotional intelligence," a quality more often credited to women than men? New Yorker Susan Willet Bird cited Mayor Rudy Giuliani's transformation in the public eye from dictator to benign emperor, a reversal which she attributed in part to his ability to use emotional intelligence and adopt the more "feminine" traits of compassion and empathy required by the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"If you don't have emotional intelligence, your employees will leave you," said Lewis. "If you're stuck on one speed all the time, it's difficult to manage well."

Net-net advantage

The fact of her gender, she continued, has sometimes created low performance expectations in her superiors. "As a result, I can do nothing but delight—it's a net-net advantage," she laughed.

"It was always interesting to have my comments restated in a meeting by a male member of the board," Fisher added.

It's only a matter of time, the panelists agreed, before women will become less of a rarity in the boardroom.

"I think there's been a tipping point for women over the past several years," said Willet Bird. "We're realizing the collective power that comes from involving women in whatever we're doing."

It's not just about winning the battle of the sexes, she added. "There can be so much more richness involved in the decision-making process if women are involved. It's important to continue to be supporters of one another, because the networks that result can be very, very powerful."

Myra Hart is co-head of the Entrepreneurship and Service Management faculty group. She also serves as the faculty director of the Marjorie Alfus/Committee of 200 Case Writing Initiative—a program created in 1998 to increase the availability of quality teaching materials featuring women as key decision makers.