The Melting Middle: Unleashing the full potential of high impact entrepreneurs

melting middle

The Melting Middle

In the US, 30% of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are owned by women while in Canada, only 16% of SMEs are owned by women. Yet in countries such as Ghana, Thailand and Uganda there are more female startups than male startups. A headcount of startups or women-owned SMEs, however, does not provide the full story.  All female entrepreneurs are important but they are not the same.

The ‘Melting Middle’ approach was developed in order to identify the differences that exist between distinct types of women entrepreneurs. This novel approach highlights the fact that though women entrepreneurs operate in all countries under all economic conditions, the types of female entrepreneurs that emerge are affected by a combination of personal characteristics and specific gendered conditions. For example, If gender impediments are great, women who are promising and potential entrepreneurs will choose to either not start or not scale their businesses. This is unfortunate, since this group of skilled and educated women are also the most receptive to policy initiatives that address the reduction or elimination of gendered barriers. Some countries are already tapping into these high impact female entrepreneurs, but more needs to be done to unleash their full impact.

Imagine an ice cream cone. Now imagine taking the ice cream cone into a sauna. Within minutes, there is little resemblance of any ice cream left.  Similarly, potential and promising entrepreneurs who are the most sensitive to gendered impediments can literally severely limit or cease to engage in entrepreneurship under harsh conditions. The waffle cone however, remains unaffected by the heat of the sauna. The cone exemplifies the three other types of women entrepreneurs (privileged, die hard and reluctant) who engage in entrepreneurial pursuits regardless of prevailing conditions.

Privileged entrepreneurs experience less gendered impediments due to their unique status (elite or celebrity). An example of an elite entrepreneur is Isabel de Santos, a successful businesswoman and Africa’s richest women who is also daughter of Angola’s president.  Jessica Alba, a popular and wealthy US actress, is an example of a celebrity entrepreneur. Recently she used her stardom to launch her business Honest Company. Die hard entrepreneurs are also less affected by gendered conditions and tend to be women who start businesses no matter what. Hassina Syed is an example of a die hard entrepreneur. Against the odds, including threats by warlords, government officials and rival male interests, Hassina ranks as one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Afghanistan.

Reluctant female entrepreneurs are women who start businesses due to lack of other viable economic opportunities to make an income. These women also tend to be less affected by policy initiatives. Often micro entrepreneurs, most are not interested in growing their businesses and if given the opportunity for a steady income from employment, the vast majority would cease their business operations. Only a small minority are ever able to scale their businesses.

In contrast, promising and potential female entrepreneurs are the two types of entrepreneurs most affected by policy.  The limited pool of potential and promising female entrepreneurs has significant economic consequences as measured by the Gendered Business Growth Gap.  If women started growth oriented businesses at the same rate as men, there would be 15 million more jobs created in the US, 5.8 million more jobs created in Brazil and 74.4 million more jobs created in China in the next two years. New diagnostic tools exist to assist countries unleash the ‘melting middle’. In 2015, the Global Women Entrepreneur Leaders Scorecard, sponsored by Dell Inc was created to identify the key impediments and provides actionable steps for expanding the pool of high impact female entrepreneurs.

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Three reasons this summer looks good for women growing businesses

watering lightbulbThe 2015 Global Women Entrepreneur Leaders Scorecard was launched as part of Dell’s Women Entrepreneur’s Network event in Berlin. The 31 country data driven study sponsored by Dell Inc and produced by ACG Inc identifies and benchmarks the gendered conditions that impede women from starting and growing their businesses. In addition, it provides actionable steps on how countries can improve the conditions for high impact women entrepreneurs starting tomorrow. No silver bullet exists since no single action, program or policy will level the playing field for women and a multifaceted approach is necessary including actions at the government, corporate, entrepreneur and individual levels. The Scorecard’s executive summary highlights several examples of entrepreneur leaders i.e. successful female business owners who leverage their talents, resources and networks to help other women entrepreneurs and actively contribute to creating a level playing field.  Vicki Saunders, serial entrepreneur and founder of SheEO, is one of the trailblazers named among other well known female entrepreneur leaders such as Sarah Blakely, Tory Burch and others.

A few weeks later, Vicki Saunders launched a new initiative, Radical Generosity, which is one-part business competition and one-part unique funding model to make it easier for women-led businesses to get the financial support and advice they need. To create a fund for women entrepreneurs, Vicki is inviting professional women to donate $1,000 with the goal of 1,000 women contributing to a $1 million fund. Already 200 women have contributed. Next year, Vicki plans to expand this initiative internationally at the city level and includes Mumbai as one of the target cities.

During his recent trip to Kenya, President Barack Obama took the opportunity to highlight the importance of women as entrepreneurs in Africa. He announced a $500 million investment in creating three women entrepreneurship centers in the African countries of Kenya, Zambia, and Mali. He also identified women as powerhouse entrepreneurs and that when women entrepreneurs succeed, they drive economic growth and invest back into their families and communities. President Obama also stressed the need to address gendered attitudes that impede women from reaching their fullest potential and challenged traditions that discriminate against women saying: ‘Just because something is part of your past does not make it right’.

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Catching the Pitch

hand holding money2

Bethany Frankel was convinced of the opportunity:

I want this, and I know other women will want this, so I’m going to make it

But when she pitched her Skinnygirl margarita cocktail to an all male VC team, they didn’t get it. Even her ‘star power’ as a reality TV personality wasn’t enough to persuade the VC team of her idea’s potential success. In fact the male dominated liquor industry didn’t understand it either. However, Bethany  … persevered … and eventually  secured funding. The rest is history… skinny cocktails enjoyed phenomenal success. It was so successful in fact that they struggled with supplying the insatiable demand.

18 months after launch Skinnygirl cocktails  sold to Beam Global in 2010 for an estimated $120 million

More recently,  in 2011, Tracy Sun, co-founder of Poshmark encountered similar barriers when pitching to potential investors. Tracy’s take on this:

I happen to be in a world that’s run by men, and yet Poshmark is all about women.

Eventually Tracy was able to secure 15 million VC funding.

But its not just catering to the female market, it’s also a different take on the market, a different perspective that unfortunately is not getting funded.

Data has been notoriously missing as to the percentages of women that actually are able to obtain VC funding.

Thankfully based on new data collected by  Pitchbook,  Professor Candida Brush and her team at Babson college produced  a new study on venture capital funding for women that provides some answers.

The picture is bleak:

  • Though VC funding for companies with a woman on the executive team has increased 85% of all venture capital funded businesses in the US have no women on the executive team;
  • And only 2.7 % of VC funded companies have a female CEO.

This in spite of evidence that shows

  • That VC funded businesses with women entrepreneurs perform as well or even better than those led by men.

The study explored why certain VC firms funded firms with women in the executive team vs. those that didn’t and found that

  • VC firms with women partners are more than twice as likely to invest in companies with a woman in the executive team and more than three times as likely to invest in companies with women CEOs.

The Babson study findings provide further evidence that the male dominated VC industry tends to be less receptive to funding women.  Though the study was US focused, there is ample evidence that a similar situation is occurring across the globe.

Pioneering research by Gaule & Piacentini (2012) presented in the OECD’s report: Closing the Gender Gap- Act Now compared the composition of VC senior management in seven countries worldwide. Though these countries vary in terms of a number of issues including level of economic development, it is striking that there is little variation in term of the male dominated nature of the VC firms.

Access to VC funding is a worldwide issue. As the Babson study suggests, it is critical to increase the number of female VC partners to address the current funding gaps. It is equally important to hire male VC partners who cultivate ‘acquired diversity’ who can understand and evaluate the lucrative opportunities when pitched by women.

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Fostering growth oriented female entrepreneurship development in East Asia

asian-bizwoman2Can the conditions be improved to allow for more high potential female entrepreneurs in East Asia? Overwhelmingly the answer is yes! According to the 2014 Gender-Global Entrepreneurship and Development (GEDI) Index East Asian countries are concentrated in the ‘moderate ranking’ group: Out of the 30 countries included in the index, South Korea and China are tied in 11th place, Japan is in 14th place, Malaysia is in 21st place and Thailand is in 17th place. Below four areas where impediments exist are discussed:  (1) Startup activity and education; (2) Female leadership; (3) Legal rights; and,  (4) Access to capital.

(1) College education is important for growth oriented female entrepreneurs. In terms of startup activity and college educated female business owners, some country clusters emerged: China and Malaysia are both characterized by moderate female startup activity rates and low percentages of college educated female business owners. Japan and South Korea are both characterized by low female startup rates but higher percentages of college educated female business owners. Thailand high female startup rate (about 11.5 female startups for every 10 male startups according to data from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor) and moderate levels of college educated female business owners are unique. All five countries would benefit by developing strategies to attract more  college educated women to start businesses.

(2) Access to leadership is another area which needs improvement. Even though South Korea elected its first female president, Park Geun-Hye in 2013, she is the exception rather than the rule for women’s access to decision-making positions in most of East Asia. Low numbers of female managers further indicate that large portions of working women are not only not gaining management experience but also more limited access to networks and knowledge useful for business startups. According to the Global Gender Gap Index, the percentages of female managers ranged from 28% in Thailand to only 9% in Japan.

(3) According to the World Bank’s Women Business and the Law database,  all five countries exhibited some legal restrictions for women in terms of access to property for married women (Thailand and Malaysia) or restricted access to employment (China Japan, South Korea and Malaysia). In addition, according to OECD’s GID database, in Malaysia discriminatory practices limit women’s access to public spaces. When legal rights are restricted, it can limit female business startups and business growth.

(4) Access to Capital for female entrepreneurs is critical.  According to the World Bank’s Findex Database, the majority of women in the East Asia sample have access to bank accounts.  But what about Venture Capital financing?  Though specific data for VC funding are lacking, available data[1] show that top managers of VC Investment firms are overwhelmingly male in China  (86.8%) and Japan (97.9%) as in other developed and developing countries. Increasing evidence indicates that the lack of female VCs is one of the reasons that female entrepreneurs receive less VC funding. Crowdfunding is a potential alternative funding source for female startups and growing firms. Forty-seven percent of all successful campaigns on Indiegogo, one of the main crowdfunding platforms in the United States, are run by women (Macleod 2014).  In our East Asia sample, crowdfunding platforms are still in their early stages and so they still do not provide a viable alternative at this stage for female entrepreneurs.

For additional information and additional country results see the 2014 Gender-GEDI Executive Report.

[1] Gaule, P. and M. Piacentini (2012), Gender, Social Networks and Access to Venture Capital, unpublished manuscript in OECD (2012) Closing the Gender Gap: Act Now,

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Can a Man be President?

motorcade1In 2000, Tarja Halonen became the first female president of Finland and was reelected 3 times serving a total of 12 years. She was very popular and enjoyed high approval ratings. At the end of her term, some Finnish schoolchildren were given a list of potential presidential candidates and asked who they think would win.

In response to hearing male candidates on the list some children actually asked – Can a man be President?

Yet in most countries today, we question:  Can a woman be President? Can a woman be a successful leader or entrepreneur?

Attitudes towards women in executive positions can have a strong effect on women choosing to take on these higher roles and responsibilities. Successful high potential female entrepreneurs are similar to female executives in terms of their visible leadership roles in the private sector.

 Social norms and expectations impact female leaders and entrepreneurs in two critical ways: First, they impact the general societal support for women as leaders and entrepreneurs, which can affect an individual woman’s decision to take the risk to become a leader or an entrepreneur. Second, social norms also impact the access women have to experiences as decision-makers and leaders as well as to the range of occupations women have – all of which may act to either impede or encourage the development of  high growth female entrepreneurs.

Data collected by the World Values Survey provide some interesting insights to this issue. Female responses to the question whether male business executives are better than female business executives vary considerably between countries. The results shown in the figure below are given in terms of the percentage of women that do not think there is a difference. Sweden has the highest percentage (94%) which indicates that the majority of women do not feel there is any difference between male and female business executives. However, in eight countries, 60% or less female respondents believed there was no difference: South Korea (60%), Russia (59%), Thailand (59%), Malaysia (57%), Turkey (52%), India (45%) and Ghana (42%). In Egypt only 18% of the female respondents felt that there was no difference.

When such a strong opinion is expressed in a hypothetical case (where the actual capabilities of the male and female executive are unknown), it is reasonable to expect that attitudes towards women in other positions demanding decision-making and leadership capabilities such as high growth female entrepreneurs, CEOs, Presidents or Prime Ministers would encounter a similar bias.

Yet in the new globally competitive landscape, countries need to consolidate their talent pool regardless of gender in all areas of the economy  in order to thrive.

Favorable Perceptions of Female Executive Status

female exec status- gender-gedi 2014

Key: Countries highlighted in green are the highest ranking countries, countries highlighted in blue are moderate to low ranking countries; countries highlighted in red are the lowest ranking countries.

Source: Gender-GEDI 2014; original data from World Values Survey (various years).


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The power to dream, start and scale!

2014 Gender-GEDI Results

Over 100 highly successful female entrepreneurs from around the world converged in Austin Texas this past week for Dell’s DWEN event– a special opportunity for high powered female entrepreneurs to network, share experiences and do business with one another.  This year Brene Brown brought her magic during a closed doors workshop. She challenged the participants to consider:

If you are not living your dreams, you are living your fears

In other words, if you are held back by fears of failure or ‘not being good enough’ than you will never realize your full potential.  But for many female entrepreneurs around the world, additional barriers exist that hold them back. The 2014 Gender-Global Entrepreneurship Development Index (GEDI) sponsored by Dell and launched during DWEN addresses this question from a slightly different angle:

Are the conditions in 30 countries favorable for women who dream of starting and scaling their businesses?

According to the 2014 Gender-GEDI results the answer is not yet.

73% of the countries lack fundamental conditions for high potential female entrepreneurship development.

Though sobering, this also indicates that there are tremendous opportunities for improvement.

Interestingly, the Index shows that top-performing countries are not necessarily the ones with the highest GDP levels; rather they are those who have committed to improving the conditions for female entrepreneurship on several fronts simultaneously, and even those with the highest scores still have room for improvement. While these countries tend to have good business-enabling environments overall, they could benefit from supporting programs designed to activated and accelerate the growth of high-potential female entrepreneurs.

To provide tangible examples on how women entrepreneurs can overcome challenges and maximize the opportunities flagged in the Gender-GEDI results, Geri Stengel wrote the engaging e-book, Forget the Glass Ceiling: Build Your Business Without One featuring case studies of 10 women entrepreneurs.

Stay tuned! I will be revealing further highlights and insights from the 2014 Gender-GEDI Index in upcoming posts!

Both the 2014 Gender-GEDI Report and the case study ebook are free and downloadable

Ruta Aidis, PhD is VP of Research and Gender-GEDI Project Director at the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute.

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Intentions + Accountability: The winning formula for unleashing economic growth

apple2Let’s say, you were hungry
And then you suddenly realized, right next to you, was a bag of apples….
You would eat the apples right?

So what if you are a world economy hungry for economic growth and you noticed a vastly underutilized resource, would you actively engage it to boost your economy?

Unfortunately in this case, the answer is not a unanimous Yes!!
But a conditional ‘it depends’ ….
As dictated by prevailing social norms

Christine Legarde, Director of the IMF highlights the advantages of the ‘yes’ approach. In a recent White House panel, Lagarde stressed that by simply integrating the 50% of women worldwide who are currently not working in the formal sector, a country could increase its GDP by 7% – 27%.

Of course an important component of economic growth for innovative economies includes fostering high potential female entrepreneurship development.

In Japan, the estimated increase to GDP by increasing female labor force participation is 9%. Japan is ready for change. After enduring a painful economic downturn, the Japanese government has embraced Abenomics– policies which include reviving the Japanese economy by removing gendered barriers in the labor force and making employment a more viable option for women.

However, we have all heard promises like this before, very good intentions that are later abandoned when they prove more difficult to implement then originally planned…

Afterwards, I spoke to Lagarde about the situation in Japan, and she remarked:

I am going to hold the Japanese accountable

The key difference this time around? Promises have been made to the Director of arguably the most influential international financial institutional in the world.

Once Japan sets the example, other countries will find it easier to follow.

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