Women entrepreneurs: Are they different from men?

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

All entrepreneurs face barriers to achievement; in fact, this is probably a major defining characteristic of entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs by their very nature thrive on a challenging, even inhospitable environment. Still the challenges faced by entrepreneurial women are different from those faced by men, and further shape their destinies.

For example, a male entrepreneur often has not only the emotional support of his wife but her unpaid help in the business as well. A female entrepreneur on the other hand, does not have the benefit of her husband’s unpaid help.

Typically, the husband is emotionally supportive, but it is up to the wife to manage her business as well as her child-care and household duties, while he works outside the business. Debbie Fields of “Mrs. Field’s Cookies” fame had such a marriage. Although her husband was remarkably supportive of his wife’s enterprise for many years, he acknowledged that he would withdraw his support if she failed to meet her obligations as a wife and mother.

In spite of this barrier, women entrepreneurs are starting businesses at ever-increasing rates — and are succeeding, too. But they are using unconventional methods of business management.

For example, women entrepreneurs rarely have formal operational policies, formal planning processes, or formal job descriptions. These relaxed standards may be a result of their lack of formal business management education; however, they are not interfering with their success. Women entrepreneurs are obviously making an impact on the American economy.

The relaxed style of management can also be seen in how women entrepreneurs treat their employees, suppliers, and customers. They seem to prefer a more people-oriented style.

According to a 1993 study of entrepreneurial women in Oregon, women entrepreneurs blend their personal and their business identities. They base their management of the business on relationships rather than on the development of business plans. Employees are considered friends. Family and spouse supports are elements without which the woman would not consider an entrepreneurial venture.

Rather than network within the traditional business organizations, entrepreneurial women rely on strong personal relationships with their customers and vendors. These findings led behavioralists to describe the business orientation of entrepreneurial women as a “web of interconnected relationships.” This web philosophy shows up in the problems common to women entrepreneurs, such as how to deal with the differences between themselves and their husbands, and to how to balance home life and work life.

For example, Sarah came up to me after a presentation I had made on entrepreneurial couples, and she complained that her marriage and business had been suffering since her husband, Buck, quit his job and came to work for her. Sarah started her business in her home as a way to supplement the family income. She made gourmet popcorn. As demand for her popcorn increased, she branched out and started selling other gourmet treats (gift baskets of nuts, popcorn, and chocolates, cookie bouquets, and so on).

Soon the business required her efforts full-time. She hired staff and rented a professional kitchen, warehouse, and office space.

Although Sarah did not ask her husband to join her, he quit his job in order to do so. She gladly accepted his offer at first, but all too soon the trouble started. Buck continued to think of Sarah’s business as a part-time endeavor. He worked short hours, leaving most afternoons to go fishing with his friends. In spite of his lack of commitment, he would make major decisions for the business without consulting Sarah.

It was clear that Buck had been unhappy in his career in agricultural sales and saw Sarah’s business as a way out. He wasn’t really committed to the business, although he supported his wife emotionally. Instead, he saw the business as a way to support his own early semi-retirement. When Sarah realized that Buck was not really an entrepreneur, she needed to make a decision about how to take the business back and still save her marriage.

Sarah represents only one style of entrepreneurship for women and only one way that women entrepreneurs are affecting the ones they love. As women gain in confidence, as they encounter career barriers such as the glass ceiling in corporate life, and as their husbands adopt a more egalitarian attitude and approach in marriage, we are seeing more and more women embarking on entrepreneurial careers either as solo entrepreneurs, as dual entrepreneurs, or as copreneurs.

Regardless of entrepreneurial style, these women are reporting that they are highly satisfied with their lives and wouldn’t arrange them any other way. In other words, working from a web of interconnected relationships, entrepreneurial women want personal achievement just as entrepreneurial men do.

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