Wisconsin needs more female entrepreneurs

Although women-led startups are growing our...
Wisconsin needs more female entrepreneurs

March is Women’s History Month–a special time to celebrate women’s contributions to the world, recognize their strength and courage in the face of adversity and express admiration and gratitude for the champions of women’s rights and equality. As a feminist (it’s really not a bad word–it simply means someone who believes in gender equality) who is raising a daughter in a complicated world, I’ve come to realize the power of designating a month on
the calendar for universal reflection, education and understanding.

It’s also the perfect time to talk about the need for more female entrepreneurs. But before that, let’s remember some early feminists whose passion and drive helped change the course of history and set in motion greater opportunities for women.

Looking back, I’m guessing it was during this very month that I discovered my first heroine of history, the great American suffragette Susan B. Anthony. My grade-school assignment was to learn about Anthony in the encyclopedia (remember those?) and then draw a picture of her. My proud mom hung it on the fridge, where report cards, post cards, bumper stickers and other cherished family mementos always ended up. I wish I’d kept it, but at least the image is etched in my memory.

If you grow up in Wisconsin, you learn about another important activist, Belle Case La Follette, who fought for and won a woman’s right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Once women secured these and other fundamental civil rights (the right to own property, the right to the money they earn, etc.), they went on to break down other barriers to equality–in education and the military and equal pay for equal work.

While we’re breaking through the glass ceiling in the classroom, there’s still plenty of work to be done to ensure career pathways in science, technology, engineering and math (known as STEM). The military’s repeal of the ban on women in combat is a huge step forward, but discrimination, harassment and worse still plague the institution. The equal pay for equal work disparities–where on average American women make 79 cents for every dollar a man makes–is an economic injustice that, if fixed (all eyes are on a new California law aimed to do so), would lift up not just women and families but whole communities. I talk about this stuff a lot, and sometimes I feel like a broken record, but the numbers don’t lie. So we have to keep working on it.

The topic of women as leaders and innovators is timely and relevant to any conversation about what it takes to foster entrepreneurship. In 2014, I wrote an article called “Just Own It” for Madison Magazine, featuring thirteen women entrepreneurs and exploring all sorts of reasons why more women should launch and grow their own businesses. I hammered home the simple economic argument that given an equal opportunity, women entrepreneurs are as (and often more) successful than their male counterparts. My main conclusion: Equality is the right thing to do; equity is the smart thing to do.

Yet two years later, Wisconsin’s ranking for “economic clout” of women-owned firms is still 46 out of 50 in the country, according to the “State of Women-Owned Businesses Report” published annually by American Express OPEN and Womenable. Clout is defined by the average of rankings of growth in the number, revenues and employment of women-owned firms. The good news is that the 2015 report shows female-led startups are growing across all benchmarks; the bad news is that Wisconsin still lags behind. We’re not going to drop from 46th to 1st overnight. Like I said, we have to keep working on it.

According to everyone I talk to who knows what they’re talking about, we have to keep working on things like culture and climate–one female STEM scholar, one workplace that commits to wage equity and one investment in a great idea at
a time. The experts also say entrepreneurs can’t do it alone. Schools and workplaces can’t do it alone. If history teaches us anything on the subject of equality, it’s that transformational change requires shared vision and collective action. All exciting and worthwhile endeavors do.

“Failure is impossible,” Susan B. Anthony once said about winning the right to vote. Let’s prove her right again.