We welcome guest blogger Sara Herald, the Associate Director for Social Entrepreneurship at the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Management and Organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
Entrepreneurship is a hot topic these days, lauded as a key part of our American identity. Educators at all levels are encouraged to incorporate modules on entrepreneurship into their classrooms and train their students to think like the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are lionized in our culture. But when we think of those entrepreneurs, we almost exclusively think of men, often without realizing it. In fact, when you search for images of “famous entrepreneurs”, you see multiple pictures of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates, along with others like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Out of the first 33 images, only 3 are of women.
A Different Way to Increase Diversity
Clearly, the entrepreneurship world has a diversity problem. While women launched 41% of new businesses on average for the last two decades, that number is falling (R. Simon). In 2014, women started less than 37% of the new businesses in the United States. In the tech world, female founders are practically mythical creatures: in Silicon Valley, only 3% of technology companies are started by women (Z. Barry). As educators and leaders, how might we bridge this gender gap in entrepreneurship to make the sector more inclusive?
One answer lies in a growing field called social entrepreneurship. While there are many aspects to the term’s definition, it refers to starting ventures that have both an earned revenue model and a social mission. Social enterprises are businesses, whether for-profit or non-profit, that sell a product or service to achieve their social goals. Many of you are likely familiar with brands like TOMS shoes or Warby Parker glasses - both social enterprises with male founders. Some of you may carry around S’well bottles, chic accessories intended to rid the world of plastic water bottles, 50 billion of which are dumped into US landfills each year. S’well’s founder, Sarah Kauss, started the company as a one-woman business in 2010 and has grown it to a 30+ person operation with $50M in sales in 2015.
Social entrepreneurship is resonating with women. From pioneers like Anita Roddick, founder of the beauty brand The Body Shop, to young women like Eden Full, founder of SunSaluter, who at the age of 19 was awarded the Thiel Fellowship to create a solar panel rotator for the developing world that boosts energy output by 30%. The statistics around entrepreneurship are starting to reflect this: women are 17% more likely than men to start a social venture rather than a purely economic venture (G.Stengel). So one way to address the gender imbalance in the entrepreneurship field is clear: we need to make it easier to start and sustain social enterprises.
Making Business Skills More ‘Societally Meaningful’
At the University of Maryland, where I work, social entrepreneurship is growing in popularity. This past year I had the opportunity to work closely with two seniors, Nadia and Lexi, who turned to social entrepreneurship as a way to take action on an issue they care about: the high mortality rates for African-American women diagnosed with breast cancer. Instead of raising money for breast cancer charities or starting a non-profit of their own, they launched Cocoa Queens Hair Care, a high-quality hair extension brand for African-American women. The packaging is designed to educate their consumers about breast health and prevention tactics in a way that’s thoughtful, relevant, and actionable. Nadia and Lexi had no business experience and never thought the business world would be interesting to them, but the social mission of their company has them diving into supply chain logistics, marketing tactics, and accounting figures. And that’s the key.
When it’s about more than just profits, women sign up. Last year, the New York Times published an article about efforts to enroll more women in engineering programs, another field struggling with gender inequality. The conclusion? “If the content of the work itself is made more societally meaningful, women will enroll in droves”(L. Nilsson).
A Path Forward
So how do we go from dismally low numbers to “droves” in the entrepreneurship world? We tackle both societal and institutional barriers to social entrepreneurship. As educators and leaders, we must tell stories about successful social entrepreneurs, so that when someone says the term “entrepreneur” we are as likely to think of Sarah Kauss and her S’well bottle as Steve Jobs. As is the case in other fields struggling with inequalities, role models matter. It’s very difficult to aspire to be an entrepreneur if young women don’t see anyone in that role with whom they can identify.
We must also vote with our dollars - both as individual consumers and as leaders in our institutions. From staples like clothes, shoes and food to larger purchases like office furniture and catering contracts, there are companies with social missions that aren’t too hard to find. And above all, we need to show girls that business skills are not just for careers in finance or the leadership track at a large corporation. Our young women want to solve societal problems, and business acumen is key to doing so effectively. Let’s identify and cultivate leadership traits in our girls and teach them how business skills can help them make the world better for all of us.
Ladies First, the Dingman Center‘s commitment to increase the number of women involved in entrepreneurship programs, is based on this research. The initiative kicks off with several events and communication pieces from Oct. 24 - Nov 6.
Sara Herald is the Associate Director for Social Entrepreneurship at the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Management and Organization at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Through courses and extracurricular programs, Sara works with students, faculty, and other stakeholders to promote the economic potential and social impact of triple-bottom-line businesses. This month the Dingman Center is launching Ladies First, a commitment to addressing the gender imbalance in entrepreneurship programs at our university. This post is based on her TedXHerndon talk, All the Social Ladies: Bridging the Gender Gap in Entrepreneurship. Sara can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.