It doesn't matter what industry you're in, women entrepreneurs still face an uphill battle. They get less of the venture capital pie. They tend to sacrifice their ambition to shoulder more of the family responsibilities at home. 

And then there's the simple fact that there still aren't as many successful, industry-leading women to help up-and-coming entrepreneurs along the way. 

That last point is part of the reason four innovative female entrepreneurs came together on a Ladies Who Launch panel at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business recently with Inc. President and Editor-in-Chief Eric Schurenberg. 

"We should be encouraging women a lot more to say, 'You have a really great idea. You should go after it,'" said Katlin Smith, founder and CEO of the gluten-free baking company Simple Mills. "It was an external force that actually gave me the confidence to move forward versus something that came from inside of me."

The discussion about building confidence and a brand included other alumnae Jennifer Fried, co-founder and CEO of ExplORer Surgical (maker of a hospital workflow tool); Grace Lee, founder and CEO of the beauty brand Nine Naturals; and soon-to-be-alumna Andrea Sreshta, co-founder of the solar-powered lantern company LuminAid.

Despite the fact that the women spoke to a room full of well-educated students, they warned the aspiring entrepreneurs among them that classroom experience doesn't always transfer into the real world. "Literally every single day you're dealing with something so different," Lee said. "The range of possibilities for things that can go wrong is very broad."

Here are three other useful takeaways from the discussion.

You already know gender discrimination is real--but you may not be prepared for what it feels like.

For Smith, the discrimination came in the form of conversational asides that she didn't quite expect. 

"It's much more difficult for women to give direct feedback or even come across as really strong in a conversation," she said. "I've actually had feedback from board members saying, 'You come across like you really want to win this.' I'm like, 'We wouldn't be having this conversation if I was a man.'" Negative perceptions, Smith says, make it harder for women to give direct feedback.

The best leaders know when to modify their approach--not because of gendered stereotypes, but because it's most effective. "I'm a pretty direct person," Smith says. "I need to adjust my style and say, 'If I'm going to deliver feedback to this person, I need to do it in a sensitive manner.' You can't go around expecting your style to work on every single person."

Sometimes gender has nothing to do with it.

Gender discrimination is real--but don't assume it's the only factor at play when you're trying to communicate credibility to investors, partners, and others. Take Jennifer Fried, for example. She had a background in strategy consulting and investing before co-founding Explorer Surgical, a communication management system used in operating rooms. Without actual surgical experience, it was difficult for her to pitch the product to healthcare professionals. 

"There are some cases where I know if I'm with my two surgeons, if I say the exact same thing, it gets nowhere," said Fried, who previously worked for healthcare investors. "I've learned to recognize the situations where I know they're going to be conveying the authority in the scenario."

Hiring is hard.

It's probably the biggest lesson most entrepreneurs have to learn--and re-learn--over time. There's no one formula for finding perfect hires.

"I was told over and over, 'Hire a sales director that has experience, that has the relationships,' Fried said. "I tried that twice. Each time, I was hiring people that had been working at very big companies, and they expected a really big budget. They expected a full team. They weren't the type of people that were willing to roll up your sleeves and actually go out and do it."

Now, Fried is open to a more junior-level hires.

"We have a really bright graduate working for us right now, and she has huge potential," she says. "We give her a lot more rope than she would ever get in the corporate environment."

Published on: Jun 14, 2016