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Rebecca Ryan: Lack of women business execs hurts Madison's growth

Published On: Jan 28 2014 02:15:09 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 21 2014 09:49:34 AM CST
Rebecca Ryan

Rebecca Ryan

By Rebecca Ryan

Stephanie's email arrived in my inbox on October 25, the same day Madison Magazine's M List—which highlighted the region’s top fifty-three entrepreneurs and technologists—hit the newsstand. The subject line was "M List" and her message simply said: What a sausage fest.

She was right: Eighty-five percent of the people on the M List were men. It was a sausage fest.

When asked about the gap, editor Brennan Nardi said the criteria inadvertently precluded many women; M Listers had to be CEOs or presidents of their organizations. In Madison, there are terrific women at many of the M List organizations, but they're often riding shotgun or working behind the scenes. It's true nationally, too: Powerful executives like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who's coaching women to Lean In, often play #2 or #3 roles, when in many cases they are as good as if not better than the boys.

So what? Does Madison really need more front-running women entrepreneurs?

Yes, we do. Especially if we want to grow our job base.

Research shows that women have been starting businesses at a higher rate than men for the last twenty years. The Kauffman Foundation, which keeps a steely eye fixed on America’s entrepreneurial scene, estimates that women will create more than half of the new small-business jobs expected by 2018 and calls women "the nation's secret weapon for achieving sustained economic growth."

Madison's no stranger to women entrepreneurs. Epic's Judy Faulkner and American Girl's Pleasant Rowland have created seven-thousand-plus jobs. Finding, funding and supporting the next Judy or Pleasant is increasingly the purview of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. And it's the passion of the upstart Doyenne Group, dedicated to creating communities of women entrepreneurs. There's a lot of work to be done.

For starters, women with great business opportunities have more difficulty raising startup money than men. Tera Johnson, one of our region's entrepreneurial masterminds, faced significant challenges raising capital for Tera’s Whey, a company that sells whey protein that comes from local, ethically treated cows and goats. And she sees other women facing the same odds.

"The entire time I was pitching to investors, only one woman was there to invest on her own behalf, and none of the people who advised potential investors were women," says Johnson. "Does this make a difference? Absolutely. It's hard for a woman to convince a room full of men to join her football team, so to speak. As a result, it often takes women a lot longer to raise money than it does men. Many give up and start smaller businesses that don’t require investor financing. Then later, when they sell their businesses, they don't earn enough return to become investors themselves. It's a vicious circle that we get to break."

Datapoint: In the U.S., ninety-five percent of venture financing goes to men.

Second, women need different kinds of support and skill building than guys. An interesting study with a dull title, "Gender Differences in Patenting in the Academic Life Sciences," tracked the careers of more than four thousand life science research faculty at U.S. universities over a thirty-year period. It found that although the quality of women's research seemed equal to or slightly better than the men's, on average, women faculty patented their research at about forty percent of the rate of men.

Digging a little deeper, the researchers found troubling patterns: Women were less likely to have—or make—the connections that could help them recognize the commercial potential of their research in the first place and then help them to commercialize it effectively.

I see a similar trend in corporate America: Women work their faces off to produce technically excellent work and even become strong managers, but they often forego the mentoring, experiences and networking that will advance them to the top levels. Yes, some women choose not to pursue advanced positions, but many women simply don’t understand how important their lattice of support is.

The good news is these are not structural barriers. Women can develop stronger networks. They can put as much emphasis on their advancement as men do. And all of us—women and men—can encourage the women in our midst who are starting and growing organizations of any size to think bigger.

We need to find the next Rowlands and Faulkners. I’m convinced that they’re here.

And maybe next year, we can rename the power players roundup the W List.

Rebecca Ryan is a Madison-based entrepreneur who, when she's not helping clients figure out the future, is working to make Madison an even better city.

Read more of her columns here.

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