Women Entrepreneurs Usher in the Next Generation

American society throws women entrepreneurs plenty of roadblocks. But at the recent Women, Money, and Power conference, a new generation of businesswomen offered advice and ideas for change. Harvard Business School professor Linda A. Hill led the discussion.
by Martha Lagace

Spontaneous responses can often be quite telling.

As a member of a panel discussion at the Women, Money, and Power conference, entrepreneur Joline Godfrey posed two simple questions to the mostly-female audience. "How many of you had businesses when you were kids?" she queried. A small bunch of hands, perhaps ten, shot up.

Then Godfrey reeled off question two: "How many of you were babysitters when you were kids?" To that, nearly every woman hoisted her hand. Godfrey nodded.

"If you were a babysitter, you had a business," she lectured with a tone of serious fun. "If you were a babysitter, at some point someone would have said to you, 'Aren't you good with kids!' because we equate that, of course, with nurturing. If your brother was out mowing lawns, you can bet no one said, 'Aren't you good with lawns!' They would say, 'Aren't you resourceful. Aren't you entrepreneurial.'

"From the very get-go, we get very different messages about who we are as economic beings," she observed.

Women's economic education, continued Godfrey, a former social worker, "is really one of the most subversive pieces of work I've ever done, as well as the most important."

I spend my life trying to make the next generation a little less neurotic about money.
— Joline Godfrey, Independent Means, Inc.

As the founder and CEO of Independent Means, Inc., a financial education company aimed at kids and parents, Godfrey joined two other successful entrepreneurs discussing women's often uneasy relationship with money and power. Their panel session, titled "Women and Entrepreneurship in Contemporary America," held on October 25 as part of the two-day conference, was moderated by HBS professor Linda A. Hill. The two other panelists were Taran Swan (HBS MBA '91), former executive vice president of Nickelodeon and now on the advisory board of Ascend Venture, and Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. HBS professor Myra M. Hart was a co-organizer of the session. The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study organized and hosted the conference.

All three panelists represented praiseworthy models of entrepreneurs who have intertwined their personal values with business goals, said Hill, who has written HBS cases about both Godfrey and Swan. As individuals and leaders, Hill said, they stand out because they are constantly learning and are transformed by their experiences and interactions. Through their leadership, "they create a context in which other people can be enterprising in their own right," she said. Hill is now writing a book about what she calls different kinds of business leaders. Her goal, she said, is to give people a better sense of the variety out there.

"If you read business books on leadership, you would see only white American men, literally, and probably the same ones over and over again," she added, citing Jack Welch as one ubiquitous example.

Taran Swan, said Hill, is someone who possesses exemplary leadership skills. As a computer science specialist who was drawn to business in part because it allowed her to put her quantitative background to practical use, Swan and her handpicked team paved the way for Nickelodeon channels in Germany and Latin America. Delegating is an art, and one of Swan's secrets is her savvy ability to delegate, according to Hill.

"Taran takes risks and hires extremely talented people whom no one else saw as talented," Hill declared. "She saw what was special about them, brought them into the organization, [and] they were quite special—which was a risk from other people's point of view. But she didn't see it as all that risky because she knew what they were made of." Swan ran the Latin America channel as general manager before moving to Nickelodeon's online division.

One of the skills she still needs to learn, Swan allowed, is that of building professional networks and relationships with mentors. Entrepreneurs, even those carving a path within a large organization as she was, tend to spend so much time fighting for their project to succeed that they rarely have time to come up for air. Yet networks and mentors are essential for long-term success as a businesswoman; they are also unbeatable sources of advice at key moments, according to Swan.

"It's very hard to find mentors," she said. "Everyone says, 'Go get one,' but it's not easy."

Money Smarts

The period in a child's life between the ages of five and eighteen is the "financial apprenticeship" stage of life, said Godfrey, of Independent Means, Inc. Ninety percent of women will need to take care of themselves economically at some point in their lives, and if they miss the financial apprenticeship stage they will spend much of their lives playing "economic catch-up" before they can feel financially independent and secure, she told the audience.

Team sports give girls early training in learning how to lose and learning how to win.
— Donna Lopiano, Women's Sports Foundation

The notion that there needs to be tension between making money and doing good is a false one that boys are not usually burdened with, said Godfrey, using her babysitter example. Even Mother Teresa was a powerhouse fundraiser, a fact not often recognized. "Because she had people to feed, she understood the power of money and how to use it to make social change."

Using Independent Means, teenage girls can attend Camp $tart-Up, for example, where they spend two weeks putting together a business plan. "Graduation" is a presentation of each business plan to a group of potential investors. Another alternative summer camp organized by Independent Means is Noise: The Summer Experience for the Music Entrepreneur. Noise introduces teenagers to the business side of the music industry.

"I spend my life trying to make the next generation a little less neurotic about money," Godfrey said, "so we can begin to get the senators we want, vote in the presidents and politicians we want; so that we can vote with our wallet instead of pleading for change. For me that's going to be the most important work of the next decade."

She already foresees the next generation of female entrepreneurs as completely formidable. "They're hungry. They're fearless. I remember recently being with a group of girls and thinking, 'Oh my God. I've got to cash out really soon because this is my competition.'"

The Playbook For Business

There is a relationship among power, money, and the ability to control one's own environment, agreed Donna Lopiano, of the Women's Sports Foundation. The power of knowledge can give you access to anything, she said, such as an entry-level job or the means for girls to participate in sports. "But to be the boss, to control the decision making, you either have to have money or position," she said. The glass ceiling is real, she added. "Money is what you need to change the world. We get both power and position when we get money. All of us have knowledge."

Much of what women need to know to become successful entrepreneurs and even businesswomen within large organizations can be learned on the playing field, said Lopiano. In her view—and it is part of the mission of her foundation, which was founded in 1974 by tennis star Billie Jean King—every girl should learn team sports. Corporations are modeled "exactly" after sports teams, she said.

"If you don't know how they work, if you don't know that language, you are at a tremendous disadvantage. Team sports also give girls early training in learning how to lose and learning how to win."

Training in sports, especially at an early age, lends an important lesson to businesswomen, she said: the ability to separate your performance from your sense of self-worth. Defeats and mistakes are inevitable in business, and shouldn't be viewed as personal failure.

"A successful entrepreneur is resilient," Lopiano insisted. The definition of resilience, she added, is that when you run into a problem you don't let it get to you. Instead, you take a page from the team playbook.

"You step back, you look, you figure it out, and you go after it again. It's this constant back-and-forth until you are successful."

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.