In Our Wildest Dreams, entrepreneur and champion of women entrepreneurs Joline Godfrey tells us that there are as many women-owned businesses in the United States as there are people in Norway. It’s one of those statistically meaningless compansons that nonetheless startles. Or at least it startled me.
The facts: There are between 4.1 and 5.4 million women-owned businesses in the United States, depending on how you do your counting (the higher figure is the most plausible). They employ as many people as the entire Fortune 500 and ring up half a trillion dollars in annual revenue. Women’s businesses surged from 5 percent of all businesses in the United States in 1972 to 30 percent by 1987. Women-owned businesses are as statistically prevalent in construction and agribusiness as men-owned enterprises.
The statistics are important, but Godfrey’s treatise is anything but a dry recitation of economic facts. On the contrary, half the book is devoted to case studies of women entrepreneurs-owners of trucking, marketing, construction, and computer companies and even one “upscale, fresh-flower mail order business.”
Godfrey, a 10-year veteran of Polaroid before starting her own firm in 1986 (at one point she thought she could make a difference in a big corporation; “I was an idiot,” she now claims), offers Wildest Dreams as an unabashed celebration of women entrepreneurs. “Women owners are still invisible,” she writes; and with this book she makes them visible. Godfrey tells us that she intended to write a “gender-neutral” book but couldn’t. She lost her voice, she says, and decided to write for women, though she contends (and I agree) that the book is also a useful primer for men.
In the preface, Smith and Hawken founder and author Paul Hawken flatly declares that “women’s businesses are pivotal to meaningful change” in a corporate America that he sees as gone awry. Godfrey agrees. “Like water on a rock,” she says, “womenowned businesses are eroding timehardened beliefs about the way business is and must be done.”
In the opening chapter, titled, “The (New) Right Stuff,” Godfrey begins:
I am not six feet tall. I don’t wear Brooks Brothers suits. I don’t own an HP calculator (although my business partner does). I cry. I laugh, a lot. I touch people. I talk about how I feel. I remember birthdays (most of the time). I take time off (at least a week or two a season; I get some of my best ideas while outside the workspace). I start work early–sometimes. Sometimes, I start late. I don’t look like I have “the fight stuff,” but I do. And so do my counterparts –women who rounded and run their own companies.
She goes on to enumerate some of the ways that women’s businesses are different from men’s (though she acknowledges many differences among women’s businesses). Women, for example, are generally less concerned with control and put more effort into relationship development –a virtue for any manager in an emerging business environment where hierarchies are being flattened and business is being done through temporary networks rather than the old vertically integrated monster monoliths. Women have a greater “sense of artistry, imagination, and playfulness,” Godfrey adds; and they are more thoughtful about integrating their entrepreneurial visions with business ethics.
None of this, she makes clear, means these business owners are patsies. Most see a clear bottom-line payoff from attending to such issues. Patsies? The way women owners must scramble for money to even start a business calls for the most extraordinary effort and ingenuity. Godfrey cites one entrepreneur who “used 15 credit cards, each with a limit of $5,000, to raise $75,000 in startup capital. Odd how banks are willing to give women credit cards but still find it a leap to give them a business loan.”
Despite the last comment (and there are a few such jabs peppered throughout the book), Godfrey never becomes cynical–except when it comes to the Fortune 500. She is an unabashed champion of the entrepreneur, a female George Gilder who can’t understand why women–or men– would waste their time with lumbering, stumbling giant corporations. While I think she overstates it, I’d be among the first to acknowledge that it’s a question well worth asking.
Both Godfrey and Hawken believe that women’s approaches to leading and managing are harbingers of successful business practice in the years ahead. This was also journalist Sally Helgesen’s point in her 1990 The Female Advantage: Women ’s Ways of Leadership, a meticulously reported book about life on the job for four female leaders, including Girl Scout chief Frances Hesselbein.
“What business needs now,” Helgesen claims at one point, “is exactly what women are able to provide.” That “what” is a virtual carbon copy of Godfrey’s analysis: more attention to business ethics, new emphasis on relationship development, and a sense of caring and artistry. While the Godfrey-Helgesen view can be overdone, it has merit and is worth exploring. After all, my 1987 book was called Thriving on Chaos, and as Godfrey, Helgesen, and others point out, women more than men are masters of that–their lives, at home and at work, are invariably jugglers’ lives.
Washington Monthly, Nov, 1992 by Tom Peters