LAKSHMI BALACHANDRA HAS DEVOTED most of her working life to examining the reasons why women struggle to get their startups off the ground. As an assistant professor in entrepreneurship at Babson College, she’s documented the discrimination women face as they seek venture capital. She coauthored the 2014 Diana Report, a comprehensive analysis of just how little venture funding women had raised over the previous three years. The numbers were grim: Only 183 of the 6,517 companies that received funding in that period — not even 3 percent — had a woman in the CEO role.
But Balachandra knew the challenges probably didn’t end there. This year, she set out to write the next chapter.
“What about the women who have broken through?” she says. “What are they doing? How are they facing this new stage, and are there specific barriers or setbacks or gender-based impediments?”
Balachandra interviewed 30 successful female entrepreneurs whose businesses earned at least $5 million annually (many of them earn far more; the average was $43 million a year). The $5 million mark is seen as a milestone in entrepreneurship circles: It’s well above the national average for small businesses, and shows the business has scale. Plus, it’s proof that these women have cleared some hurdles on their paths to success.
In a series of interviews, she asked the businesswomen about the choices they made as they pursued their paths to growth, and the snags they hit as they got there. The resulting white paper, “Beyond the Bucks: Growth Strategies of Successful Women Entrepreneurs,” was published last month in partnership with Bank of America.
Time and again, the report found the business community often didn’t take the women or their businesses seriously, questioning their leadership abilities regardless of their ambitions. Mothers, for example, are written off because the startup world believes they’re too busy to run their business and simultaneously care for their families. And while young men are often considered business wunderkinds, young women face skepticism about their age.
Raegan Moya-Jones, cofounder and former chief executive of the baby brand Aden + Anais, expresses her frustration in the report. “Given my business was in baby products and I am a mother of four, I felt it gave me credibility, which was a positive, but only within the customer’s eyes,” she told Balachandra. Despite the fact that she had built a company with over $100 million in annual revenue, Moya-Jones continued, “businesspeople didn’t, and still don’t, take me seriously a lot of the time.”
Investors also incorrectly assume women are simply pursuing their business as a hobby or a “side hustle” and believe mothers are “doing this for fun for supplemental income,” Balachandra says. This idea certainly resonates with Stephanie Kaplan Lewis, cofounder and chief executive of Her Campus Media, who spoke with Balachandra for the report. Kaplan Lewis launched the female-oriented media company with her cofounders as Harvard undergrads. They now employ dozens of people in their Fenway offices, and host websites at 400 universities globally, which count more than 30 million visitors monthly.
“Some people saw it as a fun, fluffy pursuit,” she says. “A lot of people looked at what we’re doing and didn’t look at it as a real sustainable business. They might say, ‘Are you guys still working on that blog?’ when it was so much more than a blog we were running. It was this misunderstanding: This is a real business, with a real business model, with employees and different revenue streams.”
Funding challenges for women don’t disappear once their businesses leave the early startup stage. People still question a business’s viability even when it’s earning millions in revenues if it’s being run by a woman, Balachandra found. As a result, many women, including Kaplan Lewis, choose to “bootstrap,” or use personal savings and profits rather than private funding, to better control the fate and future of their businesses. Her company has been profitable every year since the start.
“Many other people might judge your business based on the amount of money you’ve raised, but so many startups have gone on to crash and burn,” Kaplan Lewis says. “We may not have seen as much fast or exponential growth as we could have with a massive funding injection. But we felt really confident we were making the right decisions for the long term. We’ve taken a more conservative path, but we’ve never had to lay anyone off, we’ve never had a down year or missed payroll in 10 years.”
The women Balachandra interviewed routinely expressed the importance of building a “corporate culture where their employees could thrive and feel included as part of a family.” Time and again, the leaders say, investing in human capital has improved the bottom line.
The women in the report have also struggled to find business connections to help expand their reach. In one telling example, one entrepreneur told Balachandra that the men at a CEO networking event called her “Willy” instead of her actual name, Lilly, because a woman had never attended before. Balachandra identifies this problem as “network exclusion” in the report. It’s problematic enough that women don’t have access to the same social circles as men, she says. But sometimes when they are invited into old-boy networks, they aren’t made to feel welcome, so they cluster together with other women — defeating the purpose.
“They’re in the room, but they’re not really included,” she says.
Still, many successful business-owners have found ways to overcome this. Mashell Carissimi, the founder and CEO of JMC Electrical Contractor in Michigan, told Balachandra she took up golfing to maintain relationships with her colleagues, and taught herself not to solely congregate with women at these outings.
“As a businesswoman, you have to push yourself to talk to the men and not just hang out with the other girls,” she says.
Balachandra says it’s easy, in our current business climate, for women to feel as though they’re not getting the same opportunities or attention as their male startup founder counterparts. Big venture rounds often create big headlines, which feed the narrative and buzz about a fledgling business. But she argues that while the path forged by these businesswomen may be the one less taken, it can still lead to success.
Without having to pander to investors, they’re able to lead in a more “structured, disciplined way that is actually building a better business that is more solid for the long term,” she says. “This research highlights just how strong women are as business leaders when it comes to thinking about thoughtful growth and management of your people.”