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Engendering Female Entrepreneurs

Women entrepreneurs are emerging as a major force in the U.S. economy. According to Marilyn Kourilsky, a professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and director of the Institute for the Study of Educational Entrepreneurship, 1 out of every 11 women is a business owner. Female-owned businesses account for almost half of all privately held firms, generating $2.3 trillion in annual sales. The number of women who express an interest in becoming entrepreneurs is also rising. Yet they're still regularly deterred from taking that path, says Kourilsky.

In her book The New Female Entrepreneur, co-authored with William Walstad, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln economics professor, Kourilsky examines how a collective of parents, educators, and the media on the whole offer a more male-centric view of entrepreneurship, leaving women unprepared for the challenges and potential rewards of owning their own businesses.

BusinessWeek Online reporter Stacy Perman recently spoke with Kourilsky about barriers female entrepreneurs continue to face and the ways in which they can break through them. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: Your research shows that nearly 6 out of 10 female teenagers and 4 out of 10 female adults would like to start their own small businesses, but these aspirations are routinely discouraged. Why?

A: We're educated to take a job rather than make a job. And this attitude applies to men as well, but the culture often has a differing impact on men and women. It has been going on consistently. It starts in kindergarten. If you go to a career day, you hear about professions but not much about people who initiated their own ventures. It's not just coming from schools, it's coming from families, too. Are you telling your daughter to grow up to be an entrepreneur or a teacher?

Q: If both men and women aren't getting the skills and education in the school system or through families, why are male entrepreneurs at an advantage?

A: I'm not maintaining that men get these skills and women don't. Neither gets them in school, but men find avenues to acquire these skills. Men network. Women aren't networkers. If two men sit at a table, they talk sports preliminarily and then get down to business fast. They develop many loose networks. Women talk about family and relationships, and they don't get down to business fast. They develop tight relationships.

Q: Then where are women getting their entrepreneurial education?

A: They're learning as they go, as we all do, but there aren't as many opportunities to network, which is one of the things that makes you very successful. Women's startup rates are just as high, but until women learn to network and network well, they will not do as well.

Q: Why then, do you find that so many women want to start their own companies?

A: They have a real passion, and they don't want to work for someone else. It's the only way to really make it. Even with all the new successes cropping up the ladder, they still perceive that there's a glass ceiling and that the best way is to start a business of their own.

Q: What are the most significant obstacles women face?

A: The biggest barrier is financial -- it's a little bit easier for men to get equity. Then, there are education barriers. Women aren't exposed to how to start a business. In order to be an entrepreneur, you have to be able to recognize opportunities that others may have overlooked -- and then have the self-esteem, knowledge, and confidence to act when others hesitate. Women have wonderful ideas but no idea how to put them into action.

Q: Yet you report that the number of female entrepreneurs is rising. How do you explain this contradiction?

A: Yes, but the number of failures is also very large. Women's aspirations are also different. Their businesses tend to be home-based and service-oriented. Fewer women are trying technology. This has really affected the type of businesses they go into. Those women that started a high-tech business usually had a history of starting some kind of business.

Q: What are the biggest male misconceptions about female entrepreneurs?

A: They don't think women are in for the long haul, like they are. They're seen as doing something as a hobby rather than something they need to do for their family. There's this whole culture: For instance, if you're in a group and a woman comes up with an idea and then a male rephrases it, it's accepted as his idea. I don't think women support women the way men support men.

The whole attitude toward gender is not changing as fast as it could, but we're still making progress. There was a time when women said they wouldn't go to a woman doctor. Now they make sure they do. I foresee a time when women entrepreneurs say they'd rather deal with a female vendor or entrepreneur.

Q: What are some of the principal differences between men and women at the startup phase?

A: When we asked women whether they wanted to start alone or with someone else, most of them said that they want to start with someone else -- usually a spouse. If you ask a man the same question, they might say they need a partner, but they're not necessarily talking about a spouse.

Q: Can entrepreneurship be taught or is it instinctual?

A: An entrepreneur is not born any more than a leader is. These are acquired skills. People are born with talent. It's like a talented athlete without a coach -- he may never know his potential. He may get no other athletic training except in the school system. Some will survive without coaches, but so many more would be able to play better.

With better training, [aspiring] entrepreneurs could make more of a contribution to the economy, create jobs, and have an income to give back to the system if they were exposed to these concepts.

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