For most women entrepreneurs, the issue of confidence is something that is rarely confronted, yet it plays a major role in the level of success that is achieved within the first five years of launching a business.
Coined "the confidence gap," this gender-based phenomenon explains why only one in 13 women will become entrepreneurs over the next two years as opposed to one in five men.
I spoke with Sarah Buchanan, founding director of Kula Project--a nonprofit organization that invests in family coffee farms in the developing world--to learn more about how her initial struggles with confidence played a role in developing Kula as a successful organization.
Buchanan shares how she managed to get beyond the feelings of insecurity, particularly when dealing with sexism, and use her awareness of the issue to lead confidently as Kula Project works to build up communities in Rwanda starting with the family farm.
Business As Usual--Even if You're Outnumbered
Buchanan believes it's important to go about business as usual regardless of whether the female to male ratio is 1:1 or 1:5. "I am just as qualified as every other person involved, and I cannot allow myself to feel insecure or out of place simply because I am a woman."
In situations where she knows she may be undervalued or less respected by male colleagues or donors, Buchanan uses a coping strategy that mentally prepares her for any challenges that may arise during a meeting or presentation.
"It may seem silly," she tells me, "but I meditate then I practice my 'power stance' in the mirror." "A good friend taught me the value of adjusting my body language to exert confidence when I am conducting business."
Buchanan confesses that "it [practicing] was painful to do at first," but then she started to see the difference in her confidence level. "When I'm in a meeting, I behave just as confidently as anyone else. If I don't believe there is any difference between me and them, then I won't act like it either."
You Know Your Business Better Than Anyone
When it comes to attracting potential donors, Buchanan believes that knowing the business of her nonprofit is not enough.
"I am an expert in the people I work with," she shares. "We put great emphasis on the professional relationships within our programs and because of that, I've come to know the dreams, fears and goals of the people I am trying to serve. That is what gives me the confidence to speak to donors because I know I'm not speaking for me, I'm speaking for them [beneficiaries]."
Good Leaders Get Emotional
Many women fear that showing emotion will weaken people's perception of them as a leader. Buchanan equates emotion with passion and is proud when she and her colleagues exhibit strong feelings towards the success of the organization's projects.
In her mission to build up communities in the developing world beginning with the family farm, she has faced unimaginable obstacles, yet continued to push forward with passion and enthusiasm for the farmers her organization serves.
"The word passion comes from the Latin passio which means to suffer and endure hardship," she shares. "When you are willing to work through incredibly difficult challenges for something you believe in, you can speak to it like no one else can, and that's what people want to see."
Buchanan believes that in an industry that is inundated with nonprofits, social enterprises and start-ups that are all fighting for funding, everything hinges on how well you can tell your story--"Your story of suffering for something so much greater than yourself, people will be attracted to that."
You are Worthy of the Same Business Opportunities as Men
Buchanan tells me that there were many times during Kula's infancy when she walked away from a conversation thinking: "the only reason he said that to me is because I am a woman." She admits that this began to take a toll on her confidence. "The more I had these conversations, the more I started to let it beat me down."
Buchanan says that she often found herself not pursuing certain opportunities because she believed she would not be taken seriously as a female executive director.
"I had this idea in my head that I would be rejected. I used it as an excuse to not try. But then I realized what you send out, you receive. If you are always thinking about what could be used against you, you will inevitably attract people that think this way as well."
That's when Buchanan realized she needed to surround herself with other strong women who would encourage her during the most frustrating moments. "I have a few [friends] on speed dial; they remind me of who I am, the importance of what I am doing, and most importantly, who is depending on me to get things done."