The business world has made some progress in improving women's representation in startups and up the leadership ranks. But the truth remains clear: Only about one in five C-suite leaders is a woman, and only one in 25 is a woman of color, according to a recent report.
That's why the voices of high-achieving minority women founders, in particular, are being heard louder than ever as catalysts paving the way for women entrepreneurs to break the glass ceiling and shatter unconscious bias.
I have spoken to some to glean personal accounts of what it's like to navigate racism, sexism, and male-populated industries. Minna Khounlo-Sithep, co-founder of The Product Boss, also faced the added pressures of growing up as a shy first-generation immigrant in the Midwest.
Khounlo-Sithep's parents and grandparents, Tai Dam refugees who came to America with just the clothes on their backs, taught her resiliency and instilled an incredible work ethic from a young age. Like many first-generation American children, these qualities served her well in her pursuit of the American Dream.
Stay quiet and don't ask questions
Her family also embraced some common attitudes among many immigrant families in the United States: Stay quiet but sharply focused, don't ask any questions, and fall into a well-respected career (i.e., a doctor or lawyer). Khounlo-Sithep realized quick diversity was more about assimilation rather than embracing differences.
She went on to earn her MBA, built two successful businesses from the ground up, got married and is raising two children, and has shattered expectations and glass ceilings all along the way. She has spent the last 15+ years carving out her own version of happiness and success after overcoming the notion that she had to be the exact child her family wanted.
With a "stay in your lane" mentality running deep and the minority marginalization she and countless others face daily, Khounlo-Sithep has learned first-hand what it takes to make it as a minority woman in business -- something her formal education didn't offer.
Overcoming a "don't rock the boat" mindset has been a challenge for Khounlo-Sithep as an Asian American Pacific Islander woman in business, particularly overcoming her introverted tendencies as she laid the groundwork for her own idea of success. "It took me well into my late 20s to make eye contact when talking to a new person," she says.
"And honestly, being locked into a box is the last thing we need. I quickly found that all those open spots in my dream career weren't made for me. We don't have the same built-in access that exists for the majority. It's up to us to change that standard for future generations by creating our own seat at the table, and the reality is, we can't get there if we are playing by the old rules."
3 lessons learned in entrepreneurship
Khounlo-Sithep has achieved great business success helping product-based business owners create their own breakthrough success. Along the way, she learned some key lessons in the real world of business, rather than her MBA, including:
1. Negotiating is a secret skillset
"As women or minorities, we often undervalue ourselves. It wasn't until I became a business owner that I realized, everything is negotiable," says Khounlo-Sithep about costs including contract fees, vendor costs, manufacturing fees, client packages, lease agreements, etc. "Evaluate benefits from both sides and take more time to consider if you need to. I've seen too many take their first option, not realizing their true value, and end up regretting it significantly in the long run."
2. Understanding simple personal finances is key
After growing up in a lower-income family, Khounlo-Sithep learned the hard way that a lack of financial control can be debilitating. "It wasn't until I started a business that I realized how important keeping up with those monthly expenses and payments was to my sanity. So many of the minority and female business owners that I know are just terrified to look at their figures, whether it be personal or professional, and this is a huge mistake. While it might simply be easier to hire an accountant and never think twice about it, you should be intimately involved as well to make truly sound decisions."
3. Ask for help and find support where you can
Khounlo-Sithep shared that typically there's an unfair cultural standard set for women and many minority groups that assigns them to household and child care responsibilities, even if they wish to build a business. "When faced by those pressures," says Khounlo-Sithep, "remember not to buckle. If you can't bring on extra hands at work, hire someone in the household to make it up. Paying for day care a couple of hours a week or having someone tackle the laundry can make a huge difference."
She also went on to credit her business partner, Jacqueline Snyder, as the other half of her success, noting that partnerships can often bring out the best in one another. "Jacqueline has encouraged me for years to live life outside of my comfort zone. Letting in help or opinions from the outside world is something that should absolutely be welcomed."
Final lessons learned
When on your way to the top, it's not wise to stick to the status quo. Becoming one of the country's most sought-after product-based startup experts was not a journey Khounlo-Sithep's family always wanted for her, but it has become something even greater, something she always dreamed of. With the motivation to overcome her culturally engrained introversion, her incredible work ethic, and the resourcefulness learned from her parents and grandparents, the sky is officially the limit for Khounlo-Sithep and others brave enough to step outside that box.
Correction: An earlier version of the article misspelled Minna Khounlo-Sithep's first name.