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The three things I tell women in my social entrepreneurship class

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  • Suzanne Smith
By Suzanne Smith

Founder, Social Impact Architects

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The future of American economic growth is in the hands of women, but much of their entrepreneurial potential remains untapped. This is not just my opinion, it’s backed up by a 2014 Kauffman Foundation study, which found that women-owned businesses account for just 16% of employer firms. I fall into that minority, even though I myself have four entrepreneurial ventures under my belt.

Why is women’s potential not being effectively utilized? One reason that I’ve observed is that women often embody and exhibit behaviors and beliefs that can hurt them in the entrepreneurial arena.

As an adjunct professor of a social entrepreneurship course at the University of North Texas, I see this every semester, including the one that just concluded. My students are usually evenly divided by gender, but young women are more likely to exhibit a few problematic behaviors. By identifying a few of these behaviors below, I hope to help women—and men—increase their potential in an increasingly crowded market.

Don’t let perfection be your enemy 

My male students are twice as likely to share their early-stage “crazy ideas” with the class for discussion, or with me during the break. Female students, on the other hand, often only want to share ideas that seemed “fully baked” and can be more sensitive to negative feedback. We call this phenomenon in entrepreneurship “falling in love with your idea.” When I have asked female students about this trend, many say stay quiet out of fear of failure or rejection.

Sheryl Sandberg and Brene Brown have done a lot to expose women to the perils of perfectionism. In entrepreneurship, it’s vital to remember that nothing is ever perfect. You start with an idea and over time you refine it as the market shifts and customers react to it. If you are paralyzed by trying to be perfect, you may never get started—or even quit before your idea has been refined enough to succeed.

Ask for help

In my classes, female students rarely ask for help: with an idea, with a letter of reference, with a quiz answer. And after they graduate, few stay in touch. Meanwhile, the male students almost instantly add me to their rolodex of go-to supporters. When I have ask female students about this trend, many note they didn’t want to be an “imposition,” worrying that those they asked for help might say no.

Many entrepreneurship experts, including the Kauffman Foundation, discuss the importance of mentors. However, the ability to ask for help is just as important. When you start a business, nothing prepares you for what it takes to make it successful— you need a wide support system of experts, mentors and cheerleaders to help you make it through the many challenges endemic to new busineses. All these relationships start with knowing what you don’t know and being curious and confident enough to start a conversation with someone who can help you.

Learn the ownership vs. employee mentality

One of the most important lessons I teach my students is the difference in mindset between being the owner of a company and working for someone else. The difference between the two largely depends on one’s comfort level with ambiguity. Most of my male students thrive in blank sheet exercises and projects. On the other hand, most of my female students want more structure and instruction—how many words on a slide, how will I get graded. When I asked my female students about this trend, many responded that the more structure they received, the less likely they will be to fail.

Girls and women need to be comfortable with taking risks—and yes, failing—if they want to be successful entrepreneurs.

A study of Harvard MBA students (paywall) showed a similar phenomenon. Women with identical qualifications at the start of the semester felt intimidated in the classroom, falling behind in the important yet subjective class participation metric, ultimately resulting in lower GPAs and earning potential after graduation.

In my years of teaching, I have learned the best way I can help them is by creating an environment where we can openly discuss these challenges and I can show them how different behaviors are beneficial to being an entrepreneur. One successful strategy I use with students is to give them a “free pass” to seek my help.

The Chronicle of Higher Education noted in April that more universities are teaching entrepreneurship. This is important. But we also need to start earlier than college, when young women are formulating their views of themselves and how to achieve them. I am happy to see new entrepreneur summer camps for teenagers, like BizCamps in New York for teens ages 13-18 and the Laguna Beach summer camp for teens. I also appreciate the “just-go-for-it” attitude fostered by the Girl Scouts. We need more efforts like these.

Girls and women need to be comfortable with taking risks—and yes, failing—if they want to be successful entrepreneurs. It is only through this kind of assertiveness that the best new companies are able to succeed, stumble, and then bounce back even stronger.

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