On Women Entrepreneurs and Failure

Published in Vitamin W on December 5, 2012, here. 


For many women entrepreneurs today, the most grotesque “F-word” one can conceive of and utter is “failure.” According to top startup investor and advisor Judy Robinett, the most successful entrepreneurial ventures typically fail three times before hitting success, however many women take failure personally and abandon entrepreneurship entirely. While women have made vast progress in traditionally male fields like business and entrepreneurship, there exists an oft-overlooked element of fear of failure. As important as it is to celebrate progress and success, it is equally important to give credence to the many failures that precede success, including the obstacles that women face, what we can learn from failure, and how some organizations are empowering more women to try, fail, and succeed.

Firstly, failure is a very different animal for women than men, particularly when it comes to starting a business. While men typically bounce back in the face of failure, women tend to internalize failure and struggle to recover.

According to Sharon Vosmek, CEO of Astia, a San-Francisco-based nonprofit that helps women entrepreneurs grow their businesses, “Women get our first C, we drop courses, majors, we drop out. Men stay in—in ways that translate to meaningful entrepreneurship. This is about how we self-assess.”

Indeed, in a study on women’s entrepreneurship around the world, Babson College and the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor found that women have lower perceptions than men about their capabilities for starting a business, as they, in general, have a greater fear of failing than men. Donna J. Kelley, a Babson associate professor of entrepreneurship and one of the report’s lead authors believes that women “need to work on their confidence and their perceived abilities”

“If capacities perceptions are not equal to men, then there’s something there that we need to examine further. Is it the confidence level? Is it that they have lots of education but not the business skills? I would suggest it’s more around the need for a practical education that lets women experiment with entrepreneurship and learn to become confident,” said Kelley.

Which is precisely the reason that organizations like Astia are so crucial. In addition to helping women entrepreneurs find funding for their businesses, its work seeks to shift women’s consciousness and confidence. Vosmek said that women learn to treat business like judo, where you fall gracefully, then roll back onto your feet.

And it is after these (sometimes not so) graceful falls that we can earnestly reflect on our mistakes and learn from failure. Brianne Garcia co-founded Parceld, a startup that she shut down after 7 months of “dedicating [her]self body, mind, and spirit.” In the wake of its failure, she reflected on the many lessons she learned, including asking for help and being aggressive.

“All I know is this: hustle never dies, it just changes shape,” Garcia said.

Similarly, Tara Hunt, founder of fashion startup Buyosphere, ultimately decided to take a different job and not dedicate herself entirely to the company. She says the biggest lesson she learned when she had to relinquish control of Buyosphere was one largely missed by the startup community, and that can act as a lesson for anyone interested in launching a startup: “… it DOES take money to build stuff. And time. And those who have a large supply of both have more runway to make several mistakes on the road to über success.”

Hunt reflects, “Most of us don’t have big wads of cash and time to burn, so we have one shot and then we have to figure out how to pay the rent and feed ourselves. And those who achieve success in one shot are just as lucky as they are admirable. And those who don’t believe that are either privileged (have time and money to figure stuff out) or amnesic.”

With the escalating number of startups, failure is becoming less of a pejorative term, and more of a pretense for success. According to Wayan Vota, a technology and information expert who organized the third annual FAILFaire conference, “In Silicon Valley, failure is a rite of passage . . . if you’re not failing, you’re not considered to be innovating enough.” The FAILFaire conference, hosted by the World Bank, highlights and celebrates failure as integral to progress.

“Expect to fail,” said Catherine Berman, senior vice president of Astia. “Expect closed doors and challenges. That is healthy and normal to this journey.”

Of course, expecting to fail and accepting failure is much easier said than done, especially for women working in fields that are predominantly or traditionally male. In order for women to pick themselves up and try again, Kelley believes that entrepreneurship has to “feel accessible to women. There need to be local role models that say to women, I can do this.” We need more women role models in politics and at the upper echelons of corporations, which is why Marissa Mayer’s position at Yahoo, and the record number of women elected to Congress this year are promising; not only do they represent women’s utter success and progress, but they represent an invitation to fall, and fail.


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