Women Leading the Way in Startups

A report finds women still lag in the number of startups, but these entrepreneurs have important success stories to tell

Cary Marsh sold streaming video in the business-to-business environment in Britain. Then she went on maternity leave, and her career path changed forever. After four months of changing diapers and snuggling with her first son, she got the itch to go back to work. That's when she came up with the idea for Mydeo.com, a service that allows home moviemakers to upload their films to a streaming network. She launched the business in 2004 and had teamed up with Microsoft (MSFT) by August, 2005. Her business, located in Kingston Upon Thames near London, is growing.

Now the proud mother of two sons, ages 3 and 1, Marsh is among a growing number of women entrepreneurs who say they want to control their own destiny and are unafraid of being the boss. "Women are catching up to men across the world," says I. Elaine Allen, professor of Statistics and Entrepreneurship at Babson Collegein Massachusetts, where she worked on the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) 2005 Report on Women and Entrepreneurship that was released on Mar. 7.

Female entrepreneurs say being your own boss enables you to crash through the glass ceiling, maintain job security, and better balance family and work. The GEM report, prepared by scholars at the Center for Women's Leadership, shows that women have lots to celebrate. The study, based on data from more than 107,400 respondents in 35 countries, found that women entrepreneurs feel more optimistic than men even though men are still twice as likely to launch startups in high-income regions like Britain and the U.S.


  The study demonstrated that women across the globe envision a higher growth potential in early-stage and established businesses than men do. Part of the reason women to take risks: They develop strong networks and see other women succeeding (see BW Online, 10/30/05, "What Women MBAs Want: Role Models"). Almost 32% of women in middle-income countries and nearly 31% in high-income countries reported knowing an entrepreneur who started a business in the past two years.

Women are taking the leap into entrepreneurship, especially in countries the GEM study terms middle-income, such as Venezuela and China, because a startup is often a necessity. GEM researchers found that 34.6% of women, compared to 31.4% of men, in middle-income countries started businesses out of necessity. "It's a way to improve their standard of living," says Allen. "If jobs aren't there, you go out and make them. That's what women are doing."

Even though women in high-income countries are more likely than their counterparts in middle-income countries to start a business because of an opportunity, the rate of males entering a new venture for that reason -- as opposed to out of necessity -- is higher than that of women.


  When the economy takes a tumble in middle- or high-income countries, women start looking for ways to make ends meet. When the dot-com bubble burst, Sharon Schanzer found herself without a job -- and with no apparent hope of finding one. So she created employment for herself by launching Red Letter Day, a graphic-design business in San Francisco.

Today, she has two other businesses as well. One is the soon-to-launch Omago.com, which sells magazine subscriptions, and the other is a greeting card company featuring her travel photos. Schanzer says she sees her job today as much more secure than positions in the corporate world, where people often get laid off and are vulnerable to the changing market and uncertain economy.

Necessity isn't always a bad thing, and it takes many forms -- from wanting out of Corporate America to raising a family. Keeping vigil while her mother was in a coma in 1993, Rebecca Schumacher reflected on her life and career. A career that could endure as long as she desired and would allow for rest if and when she needed it was suddenly important, says Schumacher. Starting her own business was the obvious solution. She's now the president and founder of The Schumacher Group, an executive search firm she launched in 1995 in San Francisco, where she employs a team of three women.


  A desire to climb the corporate ladder has also prompted women in high-income countries to take the leap into entrepreneurship. Christine Wellens had worked for high-tech companies for 20 years when she decided to start her own business. "The higher I got in management, the more business life seemed like a private club or clique," she says. "My strength was not schmoozing and politics, and I didn't think I could face another 20 years of that."

Today, she is the president and founder of InterWorking Labs, which creates products to test network protocol implementations for correct operations under adverse conditions.

Even though entrepreneurs tend to put in more hours than others, especially when starting out, they don't usually have to answer to anyone. Marsh, for example, often had her sleeping newborn at the conference table during meetings.

Having the flexibility to create your own schedule, which makes it easier to have a family and a career, also encourages women to become their own bosses. "I refused to outsource the upbringing of children," says Corinne Wayshak, CEO of Groovy Goddess in Sunnyvale, Calif. "I found the entrepreneurial path as a way to be a leader who had the power to engender a more family-oriented environment."


  Wherever they came from and whatever their motivation for starting a business, the women entrepreneurs interviewed for this story had one thing in common: a vision of what they wanted to do with their lives. They see the future as bright, especially since technology -- from the Internet to mobile phones -- is making it easier to set up sophisticated virtual offices at home or wherever your heart desires.

All women need is an idea. Take Catalina Girald, a second-year MBA student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. A former attorney, she's working with a team to develop an online platform that will allow women to find clothes that fit their particular body, personality, and style. Girald says she hopes that, in the future, women entrepreneurs will pursue their dreams without feeling intimidated. It seems that many of them already are.

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