Women entrepreneurs: Here’s practical, sage advice from 5 wildly successful female founders


March 13, 2021

Without a question, female entrepreneurs are playing an increasingly vital role in the growth of the U.S. economy. Women are majority owners of nearly 10 million businesses, generating $1.4 trillion in sales.

As promising as these stats may be, there’s room for substantial growth. Women lag behind men in business ownership. And they’re less likely than men to take the leap into entrepreneurship; one study suggests it’s due to a lack of “overconfidence.”

The reasons for these challenges are plentiful and nuanced. But women who’ve discovered incredible success as founders share a similar message: Despite the odds, you can do it, too. Here’s some real-life, practical advice from five female entrepreneurs who’ve hit it big in retail, tech and other industries. While these women have reached colossal success, their advice works at any stage, from starting a business to expansion.

Adjust your mindset

Lori Greiner has no problem going toe-to-toe with men like Mark Cuban and Kevin O’Leary for the best deals on ABC’s Shark Tank, where she’s one of two female “sharks.”

Greiner, a company founder and serial inventor, invested in contestant Scrub Daddy three years ago. Today, it’s considered the most successful product in the show’s history, generating more than $100 million in sales.

What’s Greiner’s advice for women in business?

You are absolutely equal to anybody and everybody else out there, female or male,” Greiner told Forbes. “I never set out thinking I’m any different than anybody in the room and I think that’s very important. If in your mind you say, ‘I’m a woman, how are they going to react to me?’, you’re already making yourself nervous and inferior, so don’t.You’re on a level playing field and you’re just as good as them.”

Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer

While it may seem like Jessica Alba’s Honest Company was an overnight success, she actually endured some difficult rejections before hitting her stride as an entrepreneur.

Alba started the brand after using a detergent on her baby’s clothes that caused Alba to break out in hives. Her logic: If the chemicals in the cleaner are hurting my skin, how will it affect my baby’s? That’s how Honest Company, which focuses on natural and hypoallergenic baby products, was born.

“You are absolutely equal to anybody and everybody else out there, female or male. I never set out thinking I’m any different than anybody in the room and I think that’s very important.” — Lori Greiner, Shark Tank star and serial entrepreneur

The company now boasts a $1.7 billion valuation. But Alba didn’t get to this point without a few hurdles, according to Vanity Fair. Brian Lee, who co-founded LegalZoom, and two other investors passed on her idea.

“The resistance that anybody has whether you’re a man or a woman to your idea should do nothing but drive you forward and and force you to really hone in on your idea and give you energy,” said Jessica Alba in this YouTube interview.

“If it actually holds you back and makes you second-guess yourself then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it,” Alba added. “Creating a business is impossible at times. It feels impossible and so you really have to be ‘I’m just so passionate about it,’ and you know really don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Dispel the myth of doing it all

As a working mother, especially one that runs a company, there will be scheduling conflicts between your work and personal life.

Adi Tatarko, founder of popular home-design website Houzz, shared how she deals with these types of situations with the Huffington Post:

A big event of one of our investors fell on my son’s birthday. I sent an email saying, “I’m truly, truly sorry, but it’s my son’s birthday.” You have to choose. It’s important to keep an open conversation with the kids, so they know we’re truly trying to be there for all their great moments.

And you know what? It’s OK to tell investors and partners and people you work with that this is why you’re not going to be there. I think that people are sometimes trying to hide or make excuses. I would feel bad doing that. I am who I am. I’m a mom. The kids are the most important people on earth for me. I’m proud of that. The fact that I’m a mom makes me better for these investors and partners and other people I work with.

Have the plan but don’t forget the dream

Hayley Barna co-founded Birchbox, a subscription-box service that mails customers the latest and greatest cosmetic products.

Two years ago, Barna left the company to become the first general partner of First Round Capital, an early-stage venture firm. A coach to fellow female founders, she often finds that many are “frankly too practical” when it comes to pitching their ideas, said Barna at Fortune magazine forum.

While it’s great to focus on the hard stats and projections, it’s also important to “sell the dream,” she added. “Start with how the world is going to be different five years from now because your business exists and then back it up with the really detailed awesome plans with what you’re doing to do in the next 12 months.”

Focus on the close, no matter how unlikely the sale

It’s hard to imagine a world where Spanx isn’t a household name. Women worldwide deem the figure-slimming product a miracle garment.

But there was a time when founder Sara Blakely struggled to persuade major retailers to carry her innovative product. That is, until she got a break with a Neiman Marcus buyer at the company’s headquarters in Dallas.

Here’s how Blakely tells the story to NPR’s How I Built This podcast:

“In the middle of my meeting with her, I could tell I was losing her. And I just knew it was my one shot. So I said, you know what, Diane? Will you come with me to the bathroom? And she just paused. She goes, excuse me? I go, I know, I know, it’s little weird. Will you just please come with me to the bathroom?

“I want to show you my own product before and after. And she – she said OK, and she walked down the hall with me. And I went in the stall, and I had on my cream pants – that were the reason I invented this – without Spanx on.

And then I went in the stall and put Spanx on underneath and came out. And she looked at me, and she goes, wow, I get it. It’s brilliant. And she said, I’m going to place an order, and I’m going to put it in seven stores and see how it goes. And I couldn’t believe it. I got in the car, and I was shaking.

The lesson here? Even when hope seems lost, don’t lose sight of the end goal. In this case, Blakely acknowledged she was losing her audience, then nimbly re-focused her sell — and nailed it. To date, she’s the youngest woman in American history to become a self-made billionaire.

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