Powering Women Entrepreneurs

By Elana Fine

Last Saturday I moderated a “Powering Women Entrepreneurs” panel at Forte Foundation’s annual MBA Women’s Leadership Conference. Over 450 current women MBA students from top business schools filled the conference hall wearing “Let’s Power Up” t-shirts while taking selfies with cutouts of powerful women leaders such as Smith School alumna Carly Fiorina, Oprah Winfrey, and Sheryl Sandberg.

The panel included three successful women entrepreneurs:

Tiffany Norwood, Serial Entrepreneur, Entrepreneur in Residence, Georgetown University

Arum Kang, Co-Founder and CEO Coffee Meets Bagel

Hillary Lewis, Founder and President, Lumi Organics


L-R: Elana Fine, Tiffany Norwood, Arum Kang, Hillary Lewis

I quickly realized what an opportunity our panel had to inspire such a large crowd of impressive women at such an important inflection point in their careers.  As I told the crowd, my goal was for each of them to consider one entrepreneurial experience during their two years as MBA students.

Hoping to dispel some myths about women and entrepreneurship, I focused the conversation on some perceptions and misconceptions about female entrepreneurs. The panel did not disappoint, highlighting the similarities between most entrepreneurs while underscoring some of the unique talents and priorities of women entrepreneurs. Here are some common perceptions about women entrepreneurs and the data and feedback from the panelists:

Perception #1: Women are motivated by different factors than men when deciding to start a business.

Data from the Kauffman Foundation found that entrepreneurs have common motivations including appeal of startup culture, interest in capitalizing on a business idea, wanting to build wealth and others. The panel confirmed they started their businesses because of all these reasons, but also pointed out that their customers and employees are what keep them motivated. Hillary Lewis emphasized how she is always hustling with payroll in mind. Arum Kang quoted her entrepreneurial parents who had told her that entrepreneurship was her way to leave a personal impact on the world, adding “ the world wouldn’t have that particular product or service without you.”

Perception #2: Women need significant experience before starting a business, leading to lower entrepreneurship rates among women until mid to late careers.

I asked the panel to discuss the skills they have that gave them confidence to start businesses early in their careers. In addition to analytical and technical skills, Tiffany Norwood focused on her ability to take a technology (satellite radio in her case) and tell a broader story. I had never thought of women’s ability to tell a story as a key differentiator, but certainly a competitive advantage in many cases. She attributed her success in fundraising to her ability to put together all the disparate pieces of technology, customer and distribution into a compelling story for investors.

Perception #3: Women lack access to capital.

The Kauffman Foundation found that there was no significant difference in availability of capital as reported by entrepreneurs. In fact, women were less likely than men to discontinue their business due to problems getting financed. The panelists have all funded their businesses through different sources of capital, but agreed that regardless of gender, it is just as hard to get your business funded, so focus on building a great product for what Norwood refers to as her “tribe of believers.”

I felt personally “powered up” by the energy and enthusiasm for our topic by this demographic. Looking back at my own experience in business school, I regret not participating in the entrepreneurship programs at that time. Guess I’m making up for lost time now!

screenshot4Elana Fine is Managing Director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Elana’s primary focus is leading the Dingman Center in support of its mission to build a community that discovers, equips, connects and celebrate entrepreneurs. Key responsibilities include oversight of our student venture incubator, Fearless Founders; Dingman Center Angels investor network, business competitions, and integration with Smith School entrepreneurship curriculum and research activities. Elana also develops and maintains relationships with donors, board members, EIRs, the Smith School community and other campus and regional partners. Elana is also an adjunct faculty member with the Smith School’s Management & Organization department and part of the national teaching team for NSF’s ICorps program. Follow Elana on Twitter @elanafine

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