How to Succeed in Business (as a Woman)

May 4, 2017 • 5 min read
Sara Finkelstein

Sara Finkelstein

Writer, Editor, Content Creator

The 2016 U.S. presidential election, the 2017 worldwide Women’s March, and the recent resignation of popular journalists because of sexual harassment claims have all cast light on a woman’s place in the workforce.

The data on income inequality reveals that women earn 22.5 percent less than their male counterparts. A 2017 international survey of 5,000 companies, conducted by the tax, auditing, and consulting firm Grant Thornton, showed that women make up only 25 percent of senior executives of those representative organizations. That number hasn’t changed in over 13 years.

Is there any good news about women in the workplace? Actually, yes!

• Start-ups with at least one woman perform 63% better than their all-male counterparts
• Nearly two thirds of women are sole breadwinners or contribute substantially to their household income
• 30 to 40% of small businesses are owned by women
• Between 1997 and 2014, women-owned businesses increased by 1.5 times the national average

How can we account for this increase in women business owners? Experts believe that the roadblocks for women in traditional workplaces are documented enough that women are choosing to step outside of the corporate hierarchy. They are choosing to go at it alone and make their own rules as women business owners.

women business owners

I checked in with a few of my colleagues and friends who are women business owners. I asked them about their experiences and what advice they have for women who are contemplating going out on their own for the first time.

Their guidance fell into two categories: personal advice and professional advice.

Keeping in mind that it’s impossible to fully extricate these two categories, one of the themes that emerged during my interviews was how each of them reconcile these two facets of their identity. As women business owners, they recognize and celebrate the fact that they can be professionals, in addition to people with complete lives, families, obligations, challenges, and success outside of the workplace.

Here is the personal advice they provided about being a woman business owner:

Get out there and network

The importance of meeting people and networking to help grow your business is not gender specific. But culturally, women business owners can sometimes feel less confident about being assertive and introducing themselves to others. “This is especially true with millennials,” notes Danita Delimont, owner of a successful stock photography business. “They have grown up behind computers, so they are more hesitant about meeting people in the real world.” Her advice: “Get out there and talk. Don’t be afraid to extend your hand, introduce yourself and meet people to find out what they are doing.”

Don’t let it get to you


Sometimes when woman business owners show up at meetings, people assume they are administrative assistants, not principals. Don’t waste your energy on feeling resentful. Know that it’s their mistake and move on. “When I was starting out, I had to clarify to people that I was an architect, not an interior designer,” said Barbara Busetti, a partner in the women-owned Seattle architecture firm Allied8. Ten years down the line, she no longer has to correct people. She’s earned a stellar reputation in the industry, and clients seek her out because of her skills and her people-oriented approach to projects. Ryan Davis, co-founder and principal of Smarthouse Creative, a publicity firm for independent films, small businesses, and creative projects, has had similar experiences. She recalls attending meetings with her male business partner where clients looked specifically at her when they mentioned sending calendar invites or taking notes. Normally she would just shake it off, but sometimes she made sure her co-founder sent the invite to confuse people’s assumptions.

Celebrate your difference

“As a woman in a male-dominated field, you have to believe in yourself, regardless of what any one might be thinking,” advises Busetti. Over time, she’s made an active choice to work with people who appreciate her and what she brings to the job. “Invite people to join you who place value in how you are different.” This is also the kind of wisdom that stems from the gift of age, she believes. (She’s only 40-something.) “When you are young, you want to fit in and compete on the same plane as everyone else. But when you’re a little more mature, you realize that your difference is what makes you special and what people remember you for.”

Seek out women mentors


Studies show that women business owners who negotiate are 67 percent more likely than their male counterparts to be perceived as “intimidating,” “too aggressive,” or “bossy.” Davis recommends finding female mentors who advocate for themselves, and feel entitled to negotiate and make decisions. She pointed to recent challenges where she channeled the expertise of her superiors at the women-owned business where she worked before co-founding Smarthouse Creative. “There are successful women role models out there,” she says. “Find them and learn how they handle situations.”

Do what feels right

The old adage “follow your gut,” is true, according to Delimont. Women have a strong sense of intuition and are more often tuned into those subtle gut feelings than men. “Know if you have a personal, emotional response that your gut is telling you something,” she says. Sometimes that means learning to say “no.” “It’s not worth it if you are stressed or can’t sleep,” she says. Busetti agrees: “Be mindful of how you choose to spend your time,” she says. “Do what feels right and build the relationships and go after the projects that align with your values.”

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