One of the mysteries of entrepreneurship is why there aren’t more women in the ranks of top business owners. According to Babson College, from 2011 to 2013 only 15 percent of venture capital–funded companies had a woman on their executive teams—and not even 3 percent of all companies getting funded had a female CEO. Among this year’s Inc. 5000—which measures success in the real marketplace, rather than in the eyes of venture capitalists—13 percent are run by women. But even that makes no sense when 37 percent of MBA graduates and 36 percent of all business owners are women.
There are plenty of explanations, ranging from blindered male VCs to lack of role models to unconscious prejudices among both men and women. But what struck the team behind this month’s Most Innovative Women package, led by senior editor Danielle Sacks and editor-at-large Kimberly Weisul, wasn’t how entrenched the absence of top female entrepreneurs is. It was how unsustainable it is.
Is lack of capital the problem? That’s easing: Not only are male VCs coming around, but there are now plenty of women-focused investment firms. Is it lack of role models? Turn through the pages of the October issue and you’ll find amazingly inspiring women founders in every field.
In other words, a female Steve Jobs is not just a headline. It’s also an inevitability. I ran this notion past a couple of women entrepreneurs in their 20s—on the premise that their generation will undoubtedly be the one to birth the first female Steve Jobs. They too seemed a bit stunned at how fast things are changing.
Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, both 29, founders of theSkimm, the wildly popular current-events newsletter edited for Millennial women, faced some skepticism when they pitched their idea three years ago. “We got a lot of ‘I don’t understand it, but my wife reads you,’” says Zakin. “One prospective investor asked if we shared a bedroom. We don’t.” Despite all that, most of their early investors were men, but since then the number of female mentors—not to mention female engineers and investors—has mushroomed. “So much has changed in just the past three years,” says Zakin.
Stacey Ferreira, 22, sold her first company two years ago to Reputation.com and is now on her second company, Forrge, a retail job marketplace backed by a Thiel Fellowship. Just seven years younger than Zakin and Weisberg, she says she has never felt that anyone has put gender-related obstacles in her way. “I’m not sure a woman founder 10 years older than I am would be able to say that,” she says, and acknowledges what a blessing that is. Founding a company is hard enough without worrying about a glass ceiling.
Which is as good an intro as any to our profiles of Elizabeth Holmes and the other seven founders we’ve dubbed Inc.’s Most Innovative Women. Do they believe anything is holding them back? Not on your life.