No Hero? No Problem. Creating A Generation Of Female Role Models


Do you often feel that there aren’t enough role models to help you see what you can be? If you answered yes to this question, I’m guessing you may be an entrepreneur and most likely a woman in entrepreneurship.

Calling All Role Models

Women consistently state that lack of female role models is a core barrier for deciding to launch or grow a business. According to the Kauffman Foundation, it is one of the top reasons holding women back. This makes perfect sense, since the number of women with high-growth businesses is still small. It is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. If you have no one to look up to, how can you learn to lead?

Not only do we need more role models, but we need them to maximize their value by sharing experiences fully, not just the shiny successes. Successes are realized from the good, the bad, and sometimes the ugly.

I wish I could say that I had a mentor with talents like Oprah Winfrey, and that without this role model I never would have built a successful company. But I can’t, because that didn’t happen. The reality is that I never found the needle in the haystack. To this day I do not have a female role model who has been instrumental in showing me the way.

Choosing Entrepreneurship Means Riding Into The Wild West

We are early in the evolution of women in entrepreneurship. We have reached parity in college education and hold over 40% of management positions in the U.S. However, women comprise only 27% of MBA students, and although women now own 35% of U.S. businesses, most have revenue of less than $50,000 and do not have employees. We are early in the evolution of business ownership for women, and progress will be aided by women like me who raise their voice and help others see what they can be. Progress will also be impacted by your ability to embrace that you are as talented as the next entrepreneur and that there is power in being your own hero.

When I co-founded a company in the mid 1990s, there was a swell of women entering entrepreneurship. By 1997, 44% of new entrepreneurs were women, compared to the 36% today. I had a lot of female camaraderie. However, these were my cohorts and not my mentors. As the business scaled past the $1M mark, to $5M, and then $10M, not only was I lacking role models, I began to have fewer cohorts as well. It was truly the Wild West.

I was fine with the loneliness, because years earlier I decided I didn’t have to be in a position of weakness without a role model. If I could recognize and embrace the confidence and wisdom that are derived from being your own hero, I could fill the gap and emerge stronger.

This is not about ego or feeling superior. It is about recognizing that you most likely will achieve progress a little more slowly at times without a role model to show you the way, and that you may have to work harder than the next male to achieve the same progress. But when you have this recognition and dig in to do the extra work, your confidence, skills and depth of experience often surpass those who did not have to emerge from a deficit. It isn’t always easy, but success is absolutely a byproduct of being your own hero, and that is immensely empowering.

Choose To See The Role Models You Do Have

We all have role models who have helped craft our skills and talents. They may not look like you and may not have traveled the same path, but their impact should be used to their fullest. My dad left corporate America after a 15-year career to purchase a small business and then to grow a startup. He was very traditional and did not encourage his daughters into business ownership. Nonetheless, I am the child of a small-business owner, and I take advantage of the memories, conversations and culture that were a part of my daily life. I had a female teacher in high school who treated each student equally, which was not common in the early 1980s. I was under her influence for only a year, but I draw from the liberating feelings of that experience even to this day. My husband and business partner, Bill, are my most valuable role models. Yes, he is male, but his vision and encouragement are gender-neutral. You have role models in your past and present, who provide what you need. Recognize this and utilize it to your advantage.

Be Your Own Hero

Being a woman in entrepreneurship means being your own hero, and starting and growing a business to maximize your success. Silence your inner critic by focusing on the rockstar skills you possess that got you to where you are today, and which will take you where you want to go. Realize you are not alone. We are all figuring it out as we go. Embrace the power of being your own hero for building businesses of growth and scale, and participate in the efforts to make it easier for heroes to be found.

3 Min Read

Five Essential Lessons to Keep in Mind When You're Starting Your Own Business

"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.

Find A Need And Fill It

I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.

I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.

Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.

Have Working Capital And Credit

There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.

I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.

Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.

My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.

Know Your Product Thoroughly

I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?

My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.

My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.

Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!

More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.

Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth

I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.

I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.

Delegate From The Bottom Up

I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.

In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.