Every October, Women’s Small Business Month celebrates women entrepreneurs around the country. And while women-owned businesses have made tremendous gains — for the past several years, half of the country’s new businesses were created by women — many entrepreneurs say their path hasn’t been easy.
Societal pressures and expectations shape how others see them. These external forces may even shape how they see themselves.
Robyn Koenig, a certified professional coach and small business consultant, said some women in business are held back by what she calls “limiting beliefs.”
“It’s the idea that we can only have certain things, and we have to choose what is most important,” she said. “We’re potentially juggling things like having a family, having a career, or pursuing a hobby.”
These limiting beliefs — whether they come from how we were raised or what we’ve seen in society — may hold women back from starting a business or seeking out leadership opportunities, Koenig said, because they believe they can’t do it all.
Honoring women’s contributions to the business world
In 1972, there were roughly 400,000 women-owned businesses in the United States, according to the Small Business Administration. Today, there are more than 13 million.
According to the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, these businesses employ almost 10 million people and generate close to $1.8 trillion in revenue.
Women-owned businesses, in particular, have helped the country rebound from the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Women of color, specifically, have had what the Committee calls a “tremendous impact on the post-pandemic economy.” The number of Black women-owned businesses increased by 18% between 2017 and 2020.
When you consider what many of these women — and their mothers and grandmothers — have had to overcome on their path to success, these achievements are even more remarkable.
A long road to entrepreneurship equality
For decades, women, especially those from minority communities, have had to fight for their success. Some even took their fight to the courts, resulting in legislation that paved the way for other women entrepreneurs.
- Employers were allowed to discriminate based on a worker’s sex, race, color, religion, or national origin until Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
- Private employers could refuse to hire women with young children until 1971.
- Thirty-five years ago, women needed a male relative to co-sign on their business loan applications.
While there have been improvements in how women are treated in the workplace, the fight for entrepreneurship equality is still ongoing.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship says some of the biggest challenges modern women entrepreneurs face include:
- Access to capital, particularly venture capital
- Access to affordable childcare (as well as the expectation that women should be the ones responsible for providing or finding childcare)
- A gap in mentoring opportunities
Empowering women to become successful entrepreneurs isn’t just a gender equality issue.
If women were able and encouraged to participate in the labor market at the same levels as women in other developed economies, the economy could grow by as much as $1 trillion over the next decade, according to the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.
Charging a new path forward
To help create this more profitable and equitable future, many private businesses and organizations are stepping up, offering grants and programs aimed at helping women succeed in business.
Since 1998, The Amber Grant has awarded up to $25,000 to businesses that are at least half women-owned.
The Fearless Fund supports Black women-owned businesses. In 2023, they launched the Fearless Strivers Grant Contest, which awards small businesses up to $20,000 in grants.
The Cartier Women’s Initiative offers an entrepreneurship program that includes one-on-one coaching, workshops, and media coverage to women-owned or women-run businesses with a strong social or environmental impact.
IFundWomen helps women-owned businesses gain access to small business grants.
At the federal level, the Small Business Association also has multiple resources for women entrepreneurs.
Women leaders who want to start or grow their businesses can receive free or low-cost training at one of the SBA’s Women’s Business Centers. Click here to find one near you.
Women entrepreneurs can also take advantage of the SBA’s Ascent, a free online learning platform designed in part by experts in women’s entrepreneurship.
Other SBA resources include unique funding opportunities and access to federal contracts. Click here to learn more about these programs.
As helpful as these initiatives are, many women entrepreneurs say they’re not enough. According to Goldman Sachs, 99% of women-owned small businesses say the federal government could do more to support them.
- In the same survey, 89% of women said the playing field for female-owned businesses is not level compared to male-owned businesses.
- 72% of respondents gave the government a “C” or below grade for its ability to meet the needs of women entrepreneurs.
To fill that gap, many women entrepreneurs are turning to each other, forming groups with and seeking mentorship from others who have been in their shoes.
Supporting and lifting each other
Janice Jokkel, founder and owner of The Biz Hive, which helps business owners and busy professionals with support services and workspaces, said her experience in male-dominated Corporate America was “the hardest journey of my life.”
“I was looked at differently,” she said. “I was compensated differently.”
Today, her advice for other women who want to succeed as entrepreneurs or in their organizations is to “collaborate instead of compete.”
“We need to start learning how to lift each other up and support each other,” she said. “Because we’re the only ones that have each other’s backs.”
Kaprice Gunn, a real estate team owner, co-owner and master coach at Workman Success Systems, agrees that there’s strength in numbers. She recommends finding a mentor, participating in retreats, or even forming your own support group of like-minded women to talk about business and life.
“I just think there’s a really cool energy that happens when women who want to see other women rise get together,” she said.
Building the blueprint for a successful business
In addition to finding support, everyone we interviewed recommended women entrepreneurs get their ducks in a row before starting or growing their businesses.
“If someone’s looking to start a business, I think having a strong business plan and understanding the path to profitability is important,” said Gunn.
Jokkel recommends building a strong team that can help you bring your vision to the market and serve customers.
“I tell people all the time that you can have the most amazing product and you can spend twenty-five hundred dollars to five thousand dollars a month in marketing. But if you don’t have the right person answering the phone, your business will never thrive,” she said.
She’s a big fan of Wizehire’s platform, which helps growing businesses find strong talent and streamline their recruiting process.
To further strengthen your business skills, Koenig recommends reading books like Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear and Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. She also enjoyed Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It by Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator.
She said she relies on his tips almost every day.
“I use them with my kids. I use them with my husband. I use them in my business,” she said.
Among the women we talked to in honor of Women’s Small Business Month, the biggest piece of advice was to believe in yourself and go for it.
“The world needs more women leaders,” said Gunn. “There’s a unique energy that women can bring to leadership.”
“This generation needs it. The next generation needs it. And my generation needs it,” she said. “I’d love to continue to encourage women to step up and lead.”