The organizers of the Circular Summit, a conference for women entrepreneurs held last week in Houston, took an unusual approach to opening the event. Yes, there were inspirational speakers and a you-go-girl introduction. Then there was Dr. Lucy Puryear, medical director of The Women's Place: Center for Reproductive Psychiatry, and Houston philanthropist Maureen Hackett, both addressing women's psychological attitudes toward running their businesses.
Part of what made the session work is that the two appeared to agree on pretty much nothing. But it was clear that the audience appreciated Hackett's no-nonsense approach as well as Puryear's take on the mental highs and lows of being an entrepreneur, which were occasionally at odds with the more familiar business advice.
Puryear began by assuring the audience that they probably didn't have any more mental health issues than anyone else. "It's a struggle for all for us," she said. "I have a lot of the same issues as many of you out there. I've been working on them for a long time."
Puryear said it was important to recognize that women and men have different brains, and that a pathologist looking at a brain could tell right away if it had belonged to a man or a woman. Women have more connections between their right and left brains, Puryear said, which means they're better at multitasking.
She also said that women are in general more empathetic than men, which shouldn't be seen as a weakness. "Women are very interested in relationships, in friendships, and in making sure everyone is happy."
Puryear then asked the women in the audience what situations caused them to fear being labeled in a negative way, and how they compensated to avoid those situations.
The first entrepreneur to speak owns a company that makes mixed martial arts gear and apparel for women. She recounted the ridiculous tasteless jokes she'd endured from potential investors about women and mud wrestling, and wasn't sure how to handle it the next time it inevitably came up. "You have to have a sense of yourself," said Puryear. "The stuff people put on you is about them. Be proud of yourself. Be confident that what you have to offer is valuable." But the applause came at Hackett's suggestion, who said the entrepreneur should take those lousy comments as a sign that she and the potential investor were not, to be polite, a good fit.
Another entrepreneur had co-founded a company with a man who was somewhat older than she was. The two would go into meetings with potential clients and investors, only to find that the woman was basically ignored while all questions and conversations were directed to her business partner. The woman said her business partner was completely supportive of her, and each of them looked at the situation the same way: as sort of a bad joke. But they didn't know what to do about it.
Puryear gave the woman two options. One was to enlist her business partner to steer the conversation toward her. So when he was asked a question, he could say something like, "Actually, my co-founder would have a better answer to that," and she could take it from there.
The other was simply to interrupt, which of course is harder than it sounds. Still, Puryear said, move up to the table, lean forward, wait for someone to take a breath, and go for it.
Another question, predictably, revolved around self-doubt. How, an entrepreneur asked, do you quiet the voices in your head that aren't exactly supportive?
Puryear was about as sympathetic toward those pesky voices as you could expect anyone to be. "I listen to those voices," she says. "They're my voices. They give me an opportunity to find out where my vulnerabilities are."