March is Women’s History Month. It’s the perfect time to reflect on the contributions of all of the working women in our lives.
In my family, I represent the fourth generation of women who have worked outside of home. My maternal great-grandmother worked for the War Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA until her retirement.
My paternal grandmother, Lona Bamber, was a serial entrepreneur despite only having a middle school education. She started working full-time as a teenager, out of necessity, when her mother passed away. She started and ran several family businesses including a furniture store, an antique store, a lunch counter at a gas station, a fur trading business, a telegraph business, and an apple orchard that later became a rum-running business. (When the Depression caused a downturn in sales, they turned the harvests into applejack moonshine. She wasn't proud of this, but I think it’s an example of her resourcefulness).
My great-grandmother’s and grandmother’s hard work, street smarts, charisma, kindness, and business success inspired me, as did my own mother’s career in non-profit work as a writer, editor, and activist.
Today, women own or co-own 45% of all businesses in the United States according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Without a doubt, women-owned businesses help drive our nation’s economic growth.
However, the majority of these businesses are small (solopreneurs, or only one or two other employees) with great potential to grow in revenue and job creation. There’s a significant size disparity between women-owned businesses and their peers. This gap, known as the “missing middle,” means that women-owned businesses, especially those owned by women of color, are less likely to scale. Contributing factors include:
- Market misperceptions
- Access to funding
- Businesses that are not as profitable
- Network exclusion
- Managing expansion while underfunded
- Lack of access to mentors and education on how to scale a business
Just like my grandmother, more women (27%) around the globe started their businesses “out of necessity,” compared to men (21.8%), and there is also a reported increase in women who have side hustles or gigs out of necessity.
The State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express, calls these women “sidepreneurs” and reports they’ve grown at a rate that’s nearly twice as fast as the overall growth in female entrepreneurship: 39% compared to 21%, respectively.
“We should learn from the data to guide the development of an ecosystem that works well for all, informed by social, cultural, political, and economic contexts,” says author and Babson Professor Emeritus Dr. Patricia Greene.
We’ve made a lot of progress since my grandmother’s rum-running days, but the research is clear: women have not yet met their full business potential. We need more diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems addressing the challenges faced by women business owners specifically.
Luckily, there are a few resources already available:
- SCORE has the nation’s largest network of expert business mentors. Mentors volunteer their time to work with prospective or current entrepreneurs, and are placed with their mentees based on location, industry, and experience. SCORE also offers many workshops and classes for entrepreneurs.
- The National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) is a dues-based organization that focuses specifically on women business owners and leaders. Members work with local chapters to discuss issues, network, take courses, and more. Members can also participate in the national events and use NAWBO’s online educational resources.
- SBA’s Ascent has free videos, articles, case studies, and more specifically written for women looking to grow existing businesses.
Take a moment to recognize all of the working women in your lives. I’m grateful for the women who paved the way for me and my colleagues—and I’m hopeful with each subsequent generation that we will close the gaps.