Must Women Entrepreneurs Learn to Bluster?

Your recent article on business-plan contests and women has me pondering the stated "lack of confidence and bluster" in women entrepreneurs. Can you and should you learn the art of "bluster" or is this incongruous with a confident demeanor that favors authenticity and realism? —J.F., Fremont, Calif.

It's a great question. Predictably, opinions are mixed on the answer.

"Leave the bluster to buster," says Phil Borden, a principal at Essergy Consulting in Long Beach, Calif., who has worked with female entrepreneurs for years. While women are underrepresented in business competitions, he points out that they do just fine writing business plans and getting their companies off the ground. "Where it counts in the real world, women's business plans do all right, thank you," he says.

Borden is correct that entrepreneurs who substitute bluster for real data, hard work, and realistic projections come across as arrogant blowhards and phonies. Yet, especially in high-profile competitions or venture capital pitches, entrepreneurs often have to get outsiders excited about new ideas that may at first look implausible or even crazy. In those situations, a little more than quiet confidence might be needed to get the audience to buy in.

Kimberly Porrazzo, president of Churm Media Digital in Newport Beach, Calif., is a finalist in an upcoming $10,000 business competition sponsored by the Irvine Chamber of Commerce. As one of two women in the nine-entrant field, Porrazzo says, she has had to learn the art of bluster. "My coaches have helped me shift my presentation from telling investors about my product to pitching them on why they should invest in me. That takes confidence. That takes bluster. Real or rehearsed, it's a must," she says.

Adopting that bluster often feels alien for many women, who tend to naturally underplay their strengths after having been taught as girls—either by parents or peers—that it is not acceptable to brag about themselves or what they have accomplished.

Confident, Effective Women: Scary?

Societal expectations about women maintaining a modest demeanor may contribute as well. Research cited in an article by Stanford University's Marianne Cooper and another article by Radford University's Hilary Lips show that confidence and effectiveness are often perceived negatively when they appear in women, though these traits are admired in men.

Camille Alcasid, a software engineer who runs Santa Monica, Calif., new media consultancy Westside Websites, says she routinely experiences the double standard. "Men can get away with bluster because it is more accepted or expected in society and in the workforce, while bluster is sometimes confused as noise when not properly executed or received," she says. Working in a male-dominated field, she says, "I've come to learn some of the tricks men do to cover up for what they don't know and how they expose or conceal their flaws and strengths, depending on the situation."

Ingenuity has no gender, says entrepreneurial consultant Frank Stokes, of SPA Consulting in Los Angeles. He's often found that the successful entrepreneurs he works with have grown up in family businesses with entrepreneurial role models. "Some of that confidence and bluster has been cultivated through observation from early childhood. We may be surprised at how much entrepreneurial potential our daughters and sons have if we are careful to encourage them at an early age to dream and unleash their creativity," he says.