Beyond Glass Ceilings: Advice for Female Entrepreneurs
Embrace your uniqueness, develop a standout brand, have a crystal-clear value proposition and reject rejection
Starting your own business is a considerable learning experience and female entrepreneurs must quickly learn what does and doesn't work if they want to grow a company.
"The best advice I was given from another female entrepreneur was to choose a salary to live off of and put everything else back into the business — you have to invest back into your products, marketing and sales pipeline for your company to scale," says Jessica Cooper, founder of Young Eden, a sustainable fashion e-commerce marketplace for children.
Here's more advice from female entrepreneurs breaking glass ceilings:
Pick the Right Business Model
Building a successful business is a pure numbers game — find a viable business model that will generate enough profit margins for growth, plus have the ability to bring in recurring revenue.
"It's an almost universal experience for women entrepreneurs that the most well-meaning of friends and loved ones will offer 'advice' that is tantamount to 'don't do it.' "
"If possible, use a sales-first strategy to sell your product before you invest in creating it," says Cooper. "For example, drop shipping, digital products and print-on-demand models are good case studies to look at for a consumer business, while data companies and freemium models are helpful to consider for a business-to-business model."
Take All Advice with a Grain of Salt
"It's an almost universal experience for women entrepreneurs that the most well-meaning of friends and loved ones will offer 'advice' that is tantamount to 'don't do it,' " says Dawn LaFontaine, founder of Cat in the Box, a certified woman-owned business that designs, manufactures and sells cat condos.
"Chances are you'll hear that it's a bad idea to start a business at this time in your life or in the economy, or you'll hear stories of all the failed businesses their other friends started, or some other words of warning," she says.
The best bet is to consider what's been said but don't let it be the final word. Only you get to decide whether you should start a business.
An essential part of being a business owner or entrepreneur is networking, a skill in which women are often naturally gifted. "My first year in business, I would tend to overbook myself at 'business' events in an attempt to meet people," says Sarah Loy, a career advisor at the Gallacher Cochran Agency representing American National Insurance Company in Las Vegas.
"A lot of these events were at night, so I felt like I was sacrificing time with my family. I also didn't like the 'forced' nature of the events. It left me exhausted and definitely didn't fuel my passion."
Luckily, with some advice from mentors, Loy realized there needn't be a hard line between business and life. "I can create connections with like-minded people and grow a referral-based business any time, any place," she says. "I have found that vulnerability and humanizing my business has led to deeper connections."
Loy concentrates on activities that energize her and focuses on building genuine relationships no matter where she is. "I believe that if you show up authentically, help others and become a trusted resource, then the business will come," she says.
Don't Play Down to the Competition
Laurie Ehrlich, MBA, founder and chief strategist at Elevate Marketing Co., a marketing and business strategy consultancy in Rockville, Maryland, says the best piece of advice she has received — and has since paid forward — is not to play down to the competition. Use competition to your advantage.
"It's about what you are, not what you're not."
"If there's a huge piece of business you can't take on yourself, bring on another subject matter expert as your subcontractor," she says. "Follow your competitors (including email and social media) and make sure that your value proposition is different and crystal clear."
Build and maintain a digital presence so you are top of mind. "It's about what you are, not what you're not or what they are," Ehrlich says.
Don't Give Up
Courtney Smith, an entrepreneur from Maryland, reached the final round of "Shark Tank" in 2012 with BASHelorette, a digital bachelorette party planning site. That idea was not chosen to appear on a broadcast and after a brief period of growth it failed. Smith did not give up on creating companies; she now owns two other businesses.
"Most people give up right before they are about to make their big break."
She says the best advice she ever got was from Dave Meltzer, sports executive, entrepreneur, and investor, whom she met while pitching her startup to raise capital. He said, "Don't give up just because I didn't invest." Meltzer told her to go back to the drawing board, polish her ideas, and focus on her strengths — then he listed them.
"Most people give up right before they are about to make their big break," he told her. "This is crucial because entrepreneurship is a grind. It has ups and downs, and just when we think we have it all figured out, it throws us a curveball," he said.
Embrace Your Uniqueness
Angela Bertola Shaw, founder of The New York Website Designer, says that starting her business journey in the male-dominated tech industry was both challenging and exhilarating.
"Rather than shying away from my feminine insights, I began incorporating them into my designs."
"In a field where women are still underrepresented, I initially felt the pressure to conform to the prevailing norms," she says. "However, a seasoned mentor emphasized that my unique perspective, shaped by my experience as a woman, could set me apart in the crowded tech space."
Instead of trying to fit in, Shaw learned to leverage her distinct voice and creative approach.
"Rather than shying away from my feminine insights, I began incorporating them into my designs," she says. "This not only helped me stand out but also resonated with a broader audience. Clients appreciated the fresh and inclusive perspectives I brought to the table, ultimately contributing to the success of my projects."
Develop a Brand Identity
If we learned anything during COVID, it's that a brand identity is crucial to grow your online presence.
"The single most important ingredient of a great brand is authenticity."
"So, make sure your site is keyword-rich, mobile friendly, loads quickly and produces meaningful content," says Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder, and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a global strategic marketing consulting firm. Those attributes are the price of entry for effective SEO, she says.
If you don't brand yourself online, others will brand you instead, she advises. Your brand helps you stand out from all the competition.
"The single most important ingredient of a great brand is authenticity. It has to be and feel real for it to work. If your brand is not memorable, you do not stand out," says Arnof-Fern.
Eat Rejection for Breakfast
Tenacity and flexibility are the two more essential characteristics of being a founder, and your trajectory directly correlates to the work you put in.
"You start to see rejection as redirection."
"I've been rejected more times than I can count at an initial go around, and while it's never easy to get used to rejection, you learn that it's an acquired taste," says Samantha Flynn, owner of JUNIPR Public Relations, a woman-owned strategic communications firm with offices in Chicago and Philadelphia.
"As you learn this, you start to see rejection as redirection, and you learn that a delay and denial are two different things," she says. Being willing to put yourself out there and accept a rejection sometimes is a key ingredient to your success.