Culture 15 February 2019
Businesses that neglect their most valuable assets lose competitiveness and long-term profitability. The same is true on a larger scale for national economies. So why do we continue to tolerate the enormous, yet preventable waste of human capital caused by gender inequality? Isn't it time we addressed this question as one of the top international economic priorities?
Only around 50% of women globally are in paid work outside the agricultural sector compared to 77% of men. This gap in employment rates has barely narrowed over the last twenty years. Worse still, the gap widens the higher up the career ladder you go. The number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies has actually fallen by a quarter over the last year to under 5%. A sobering reality indeed.
As I was discussing these issues with NGO and business leaders at the Concordia Summit and the World Economic Forum during the most recent United Nations General Assembly, I was struck by three main challenges.
First, men seem to be doing very little to bridge the gender gap. The advocacy is mostly led by women, as was the case with the suffragette movement at the beginning of the 20th century to give equal rights for women to vote. As long as men do not understand that bridging the gender gap is their responsibility as well, very little progress will be made. It is high time for men to step up and lead together with women to address this issue.
Second, very few business leaders seem to understand that gender inequality is not just a moral and human right issue, it is also a bottom line issue. It constitutes the single biggest distortion in the modern labour market and a major impediment to wealth creation. It prevents talent from rising to its natural level and leads to the systematic misallocation of resources, leaving the global economy worse off in the process.
It has been estimated that closing the gender gap would add $28tn to the value of the global economy – a 26% increase – by 2025. The dividend would be equal to the combined GDPs of the US and China. There is today an extensive body of research showing a strong link between female empowerment and economic development. Put simply, companies and societies are more likely to grow and prosper when women gain greater financial independence as wage earners and property owners.
Forward-thinking companies should be looking for ways to empower women at work, not just as a moral obligation, but also as a sound business strategy. A 2017 report by McKinsey noted that companies with three or more women on their executive committees performed better according to a broad set of organisational criteria, including innovation and quality of leadership. It further concluded that companies with the most women in senior positions achieved returns on equity 47% higher than those with none.
Third, when advancing female economic empowerment, the international community seems to mostly focus on helping women to break the glass ceiling in companies currently dominated by men. While this is important, we are also missing a big piece of the puzzle. I am convinced that the most effective strategy would be to actually increase opportunities for women to create and build companies of their own. Championing women's entrepreneurship will contribute more to a narrowing of the gender gap than promotion within existing businesses.
Sadly, today's entrepreneurs are still twice as likely to be men than women. Female entrepreneurs receive a disproportionately small amount of venture funding, with only 2.2% of the total invested in the US last year going to women-owned start-ups. This is despite the fact that companies founded by women deliver significantly higher returns than the market average, according to surveys. More must be done to provide the investment capital needed to support and accelerate the emerging revolution in female entrepreneurship.
I know from my own experience running one of the leading direct selling networks in Asia, Africa and Middle East that women are equally talented and eager to take control for themselves and become entrepreneurs.
When Nobel Prize Winner Professor Muhammed Yunus created the first ever microcredit bank in Bangladesh more than 30 years ago, he noticed that women were more likely than men to run their business in a professional way and to repay loans. As a result, more than 90% of Grameen bank customers are women.
Gender inequality is not a fatality. But turning this vision into reality will need more than good intentions. It will require transformative change in the way we do business and support entrepreneurs.
In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.
One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.
Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.
When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.
There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.
With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.
Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today
Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.
I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.
Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.
There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.
You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.