For an intense period this summer, almost all my reporting for Inc. and Inc.com involved women entrepreneurs and women in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Talking to these amazing women made me realize, among other things, that their strategies for building impressive companies are sometimes quite different than those of their male counterparts. Here's part of what's made them successful, and what has separated them from the guys.
A sense of humor.
OK, this one sounds obvious. Everyone needs a sense of humor, right?
Well, yes. But for women, especially those with big ambitions, it's different. Women get asked questions that men typically don't, and we need a clever way to deflect them without coming off as thin-skinned or mean. The questions are often as insulting as they are well-meaning, which is what makes them so infuriating. I mean, what are you supposed to do when you walk into a pitch meeting only to have the investor say, "So, who's looking after your children while you're here?"
To the person who's asking, this is harmless small talk. They're just warming things up! To the woman on the other end, it implies that she's doing a bad job as a parent if she's out building a company that's going to crush it and employ hundreds of people. You can bet that no father gets asked this, ever. Jessica Herrin, of Stella & Dot, has run into just this situation. I've stolen her perfect response, and now use it shamelessly: "The children? Oh, they're playing in the street with knives."
Even women who are not mothers need to have a stronger sense of humor than their male colleagues. For example: I was watching a panel where the host introduced all the men by ooh-ing and ahh-ing over their credentials, and then introduced the woman by saying she had to overcome "the terrible handicap of having attended Stanford." Ha ha.
I wish this were an isolated incident. It's not. If a moderator is going to take a little jokey dig at someone, trust me, it's going to be the woman. It's not that the moderator is trying to be a jerk. He's just trying to make a joke! Lighten things up! And it's so much safer to target the woman, even if the moderator doesn't consciously think about it that way. After all, she's less likely to retort sharply, because she knows everyone in the audience will think she's a bitch if she does. After all, even women who seem to have the perfect one-liner for everything don't actually have the perfect one-liner for absolutely everything. Again, if you're a woman entrepreneur, you'd better have a sense of humor that just won't quit--especially at those times when really, you shouldn't need one.
Their own standards.
Women entrepreneurs don't just march to their own drummers because it's convenient. They have no choice. They have to march to their own drummers.
If you are going to be a successful entrepreneur as a woman, you absolutely cannot care one whit what your neighbors, colleagues, in-laws, or anyone else thinks of your social life or your parenting abilities. You just can't. To a large extent, society pats men on the back for holding down big jobs, but grimaces at women who do the same, implying that they're lousy parents. This means female entrepreneurs face social pressures that men don't have to deal with.
"The expectation at work has been to live by the standards the men set up," says Adi Tatarko, the co-founder and CEO of Houzz, a design and e-commerce website now valued at more than $1 billion. "At home, the expectations for women were very different. They would get no discount like the men would get." In other words, men weren't supposed to pitch in much at home if they were also working, but even women who worked outside the home full-time were supposed to be as hands-on as full-time, stay-at-home parents.
Now, says Tatarko, this is finally changing at her company as well as at others. "I have my priorities and what I think is very important for my family, as well as for the company," she says. "I am not trying to live by any standards any man sets up."
A support network.
Again, all entrepreneurs need a support network. But it can be harder for women to piece one together. At the same time, women need one more.
There are a few reasons for this: One is that women don't get the same societally-generated applause for their achievements that men do. A recent study showed that women with high "job authority"--such as the ability to hire and fire others--tend to be more depressed than men with similar responsibilities.
Another reason is that there are fewer entrepreneurial role models for women. "There have already been some very successful female entrepreneurs, but their stories aren't as widely known," says Theresia Gouw, co-founder of Aspect Ventures. "That's a key part of what's missing, and it's critically important for entrepreneurs and young people to be able to look up to these people and hear their stories."
That support network might include family members, an unusually perceptive investor, a spouse, or the other CEOs in your co-working space. But there's no doubt as to its importance. Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, a health care company valued at $10 billion, epitomizes as much as anyone the myth of the lone entrepreneur. She hasn't had a vacation in years, she doesn't date, and she works seven days a week. But yes, she has a strong support network: her family; her brother, who works at Theranos; and a former professor of hers, who now works as an adviser to the company.
When Holmes started out a dozen years ago, she says, women in business and entrepreneurship weren't nearly as supportive of each other as they are now. More recently, she says, women have been "coming out of the woodwork" to support her and her company. Even this somewhat informal source of support, she says, has made a big difference: "It's wonderful."