This November 18th marks Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, an annual celebration founded by the United Nations. But when you read the words “women’s entrepreneurship,” what do you picture? The CEO of a tech startup, standing in a boardroom in Silicon Valley? A Millennial launching a digital ad agency from the comfort of her living room? How about a woman living in a homeless shelter in New Jersey? Or a woman recently released from jail?
Admit it: these last two women aren’t what you were picturing. That’s because our ideas about women entrepreneurs have been molded by glimmering models of success, from Oprah Winfrey to Sara Blakely, the billionaire founder of Spanx. These savvy businesswomen are no doubt worthy of our time and attention, and have beat tremendous odds to get to where they are today.
But what about examples of women’s entrepreneurship that exist on a smaller scale? As Nobel Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus says: “All human beings are born entrepreneurs. Some get a chance to unleash that capacity. Some never got the chance, never knew that he or she has that capacity.”
Today, 45 million Americans live below the poverty line – a number that disproportionately affects women. Women are 35% more likely to live in poverty than men, and despite having better educational credentials than ever, they remain over-represented in low-wage jobs.
Let me tell you about Katy. Katy isn’t the CEO of a Silicon Valley startup, or the woman launching a digital ad agency. She’s the woman who’s been living in a homeless shelter in New Jersey. Katy desperately needs a job to improve her circumstances, but without regular access to a computer, she has no way to store her resume and cover letters in order to apply for jobs online.
Luckily, a micro-grant gifted by my foundation, the Same Sky Foundation, has given Katy the opportunity to buy a portable USB drive that now allows her to save copies of her resume and cover letters, along with other important documents. Though this one tool hasn’t solved all Katy’s problems, it has offered her a much-needed step forward on her path to employment. And for Katy, employment will be the difference between a bright future and a bleak one.
Then there’s Dominique. Shy and soft-spoken, Dominique doesn’t seem like a person who’d be familiar with a jail cell. But she is. Upon her release from jail, Dominique began to rebuild her life while earning money making jewelry for my company, Same Sky, which offers employment to women in need of second chances. With structure, a stable work environment, and regular income, Dominique started to thrive. She has since been promoted to manager, and has begun taking business courses. Dominique now has dreams of opening her own art gallery, and has already started developing concrete business plans.
To me, Katy and Dominique embody the best qualities of women’s entrepreneurship: a dedication to self-improvement; a sustained desire to succeed; and the hope that one day, with enough hard work, they, too, will beat the odds.
Katy and Dominique also remind me that together, we have the power to expand our understanding of what makes a successful entrepreneur. But it starts with our individual spheres of influence. Here are some actions you can take to help enfranchise women, and support their desire to become entrepreneurs.
- Lend your time or resources to micro-financing institutions like Grameen America, where micro-loans have a direct and measurable impact on women living in poverty.
- Mentor a female coworker, or join a network that will connect you with a woman who could benefit from your mentorship.
- Support women-owned businesses and start-ups. Use your purchasing power to buy products from companies run by women, OR companies that benefit women’s professional development.
- Start an internship program at your company that offers opportunities to women from underprivileged backgrounds.
At the least, I hope that this Women’s Entrepreneurship Day you’ll join me in celebrating the fact that women entrepreneurs come in all shapes, sizes and circumstances. And if you’re a woman who has succeeded in business yourself, I especially hope that you’ll consider taking action to help empower more women like Katy and Dominique.
Image: Same Sky founder Francine LeFrak (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)