I get this question all the time: Where are all the women entrepreneurs? I guess the people who ask figure that I should know: I’m the co-founder of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and co-founder of the Springboard Venture Forums, and I’ve helped women raise over $5 billion for their businesses.
My response is simple: Statistics show that women in the U.S. start companies at a very brisk pace compared to their male counterparts. The question that remains interesting--and is less-frequently asked--is why are so few women starting big companies? Even women who have started businesses that get outside funding do not tend to end up with businesses as large as those run by men.
After more than 20 years meeting with, advising, and learning from women entrepreneurs, I believe that women either do not like or not feel comfortable spinning a big vision.
An Incremental Business Will Not Change the World
If you are seeking outside funding, you are asking potential investors to put money into your idea above all others. To do that, you need a big vision. Most people are inspired to invest in big ideas that can change the world instead of small, incremental ideas that will likely happen without their help. If you have dollars to put to work, wouldn't you be more excited to be able to say you are funding the next SpaceX or iRobot or Zipcar (the latter two were co-founded by women, incidentally) rather than another small services firm? I would.
But something happens when women put together their investor pitch or think critically about their businesses. They actually want to understand exactly how they are going to get from Point A to Point Z and they want to explain to an investor the steps (B, C, D) they will take and exactly how they will spend the money they raise.
This sounds like a good thing, but it pushes the entrepreneur to think small, and to designate their Point Z as only a few steps into the future and on a path that is clearly visible to all. In most cases, this is neither exciting nor inspiring. It is just an incremental business that will not change the world.
Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar, tells the story of her meeting with the dean of MIT’s Sloan School of Management (of which she is an alumna) to get his input on her business idea. After he saw her pitch, he got very excited, but he immediately pushed her to think much bigger. She recalls sitting down with her co-founder in a coffee shop at the meeting. The two just looked at each other …shocked and a bit scared. Could they do it? Should they do it? After a lot of soul searching, they did, and Zipcar was born.
Work Backwards From the Future
If we’re going to see a change in the number of big businesses founded by women, they will have to get comfortable spinning a much bigger story. They’ll have to ask themselves questions like:
• What if I had 10 times the amount of money I am asking for, what would I do with it?'
• If we could really dream big about changing this industry/niche, what would we do?
• What’s the “What If?” future we’d like to bring about?
Then, work backwards from those possibilities to clarify the broad strokes and milestones that need to be met to get there. It isn't about smoke and mirrors. It is about admitting that you don’t know every step that lies ahead of you, and trusting that you'll figure it out.
Get Help From Those Who Have Come Before You
There is a funny dance in this start-up process that often feels very uncomfortable. We have to push ourselves to think big and then not become so overwhelmed by the big idea that we get stopped in our tracks. It is important to ask for help, to surround yourself with big thinkers and others who are ahead of you on the start-up path, and to constantly test and verify your assumptions. And, as women, don't just talk to other women. Find some men who can serve as advisors, too.
Women are the key drivers of the economy. We should also be the leaders that create the solutions to the world's big problems and lead the companies that bring those solutions to market. If we can conquer this big vision challenge, I believe we are poised to do just that, and to change the world forever.