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Well-Rounded Leadership: The Nature and Nurture of Female Entrepreneurs

Eric F. Frazier
Eric F. Frazier

Empowering women to attain education, to become entrepreneurs, and to start and lead businesses holds enormous untapped potential for growing economies and improving lives.

Women, half the population and 40 percent of the workforce, own or manage about 30 percent of businesses worldwide, reports the International Labor Organization.

Female entrepreneurs have lifted the U.S. ownership figure to 30 percent, according to a study by American Express OPEN.

Increasing 74 percent since 1997 and 21 percent since 2007, women-owned businesses are a pillar of the post-recession recovery.

These 9.4 million enterprises employ 7.9 million people and generate $1.5 trillion in annual revenues.

The Kauffman Foundation, a leading entrepreneurship advocate, sponsored a study that found, “successful men and women entrepreneurs are similar in almost every respect.”

Therefore, parity should be the goal, boosting jobs and economic growth.

Reaching parity requires overcoming biases that have made this “a man’s world.” One stems from a half-truth that entrepreneurs succeed because of inborn traits that cannot be taught.

Exaggerating this component undercuts entrepreneurship education and reinforces perceptions by both genders that men are better entrepreneurs.

Related Article: Top U.S. Cities Where Female Entrepreneurs Are Thriving

Entrepreneurs: Born or Made? 

Whether entrepreneurial behavior is innate or can be taught has long been debated. A 2008 book, “Born, Not Made: The Entrepreneurial Personality,” by James L. Fisher and James V. Koch, combines behavioral genetic research with a survey of 501 CEOs (also Kauffman-funded) to argue that “entrepreneurs are different,” hardwired to be risk takers and change agents.

Short people rarely succeed in the NBA, they write. “It is axiomatic that one can buy education, but one cannot buy genes. Like height, one cannot purchase entrepreneurial genes.”

The analogy is flawed. Shorter athletes choose sports that don’t require extreme height, and entrepreneurs can choose ventures that involve some risk, but not extreme risk.

Willingness to take risks varies and is but one of many entrepreneurial traits, including the vision to spot opportunities, passion, tenacity, confidence and flexibility.

Despite the unequivocal title, the first subhead on page two is “Usually Born, Not Made.” The authors acknowledge the complex interplay of nature and nurture and that heredity tilts the odds, rather than determines outcomes.

Other studies, such as one by The Centre for Entrepreneurs in London, suggest women entrepreneurs enjoy advantages: 

  • Women focus more on sustainable growth.
  • Women pay more attention to mitigating risks.
  • Women are less prone to over-confidence.

Three quarters of entrepreneurs fail, often repeatedly. Traits that drive entrepreneurs to start companies (some dropping out of school to do so) may not suffice to run them.

Founders fired from their own startups include Apple’s Steve Jobs, Twitter’s Noah Glass, Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, and Tesla’s Martin Eberhard.

Executive coach John Delmatoff told BusinessWeek that entrepreneurs fail “because they rely too heavily on their innate skills and not enough on learned skills.”

Response to failure is one of three key differences between male and female entrepreneurs that a Kauffman-funded study identified: 

  • Women lack female mentors. Founders and CEOs have traditionally been men.
  • Women face a funding gap. Four-fifths use personal savings; men access outside funding.
  • Women are more likely to seek external advisers to help them recover from failure.

For these challenges, education beats intuition.

Related Article: No More Playing It Safe: Why Female Entrepreneurs Need to Take More Risks

Learning Entrepreneurship: Higher Ed or Hard Knocks?

Entrepreneurship education and training has proliferated over the past few decades. In 1985, U.S. colleges offered about 250 courses.

By 2008, more than 5,000 courses served 400,000 students, according to a 2013 Kauffman Foundation study. Junior Achievement USA reported in 2015 that 42 states include entrepreneurship in K-12 education.

Teaching the entrepreneurial mindset has migrated to other disciplines, giving rise to social entrepreneurship.

Demand is understandable. A changing economy makes employment less secure. Technology is fueling innovation. Entrepreneurs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg inspire many.

Still, dropouts like Zuckerberg and Jobs perpetuate a myth that entrepreneurs should skip school. Such outliers defy statistics showing that 34 million U.S. college dropouts earn a third less than graduates, are 71 percent likelier to be unemployed, and four times more likely to default on student loans.

In nations with limited educational access, nongovernmental organizations may offer the only entrepreneurship training available.  

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School conducted a series of interviews with women CEOs of nonprofits, a sector where women make up 75 percent of the workforce, but men hold 79 percent of CEO positions.

The interviews appear on the blog for the school’s online MBA degree program.

One question they asked each CEO is: "Do you think entrepreneurship can be taught, or is it an innate skill set?"

Jennifer Windsor, CEO of Women for Women International, which supports social and economic empowerment among marginalized women in war-torn countries, gave the following response, which captures education’s ability to cultivate and augment innate abilities.

“In my work, I see that nearly all women have some entrepreneurial spirit. In the instability of war and its aftermath, women find ways to support their children and families when formal economies have collapsed. I think education plays a transformative role in giving people, especially the women we serve, the confidence to take risks and become entrepreneurs.

“In the communities where we work, entrepreneurship is critical as there are few if any formal jobs available to women. In our classes, women learn numeracy, a vocational skill, and basic business skills such as bookkeeping that give them the tools they need to understand how markets work.

“They take those skills and their newfound confidence and start their own businesses, or come together to form cooperatives or associations. They tell us their daily earnings increase four-fold from the time they start our program to when they graduate. So I believe anyone can make it as an entrepreneur, and that education is critical to helping them succeed.”

Related Article: Ask the Market Experts: Which Female Entrepreneur Inspires You & Why?

These experiences confirm that entrepreneurial traits are more common than some claim. Teaching people how to combine them with learned skills and knowledge is a valid strategy for increasing entrepreneurship and aiding economic development.


Image Credit: Monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images
Eric F. Frazier
Eric F. Frazier Member
Eric F. Frazier is an independent writer, editor, book reviewer and coauthor of GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones.