Three essential strategies for women entrepreneurs now

The hyper-accomplished delegates of the 2017 Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network conference share their best advice

Icon Group co-founder Cathie Reid

Entrepreneur Cathie Reid, co-founder and current digital advisor of Icon Group, an Australian cancer-care company, talks to delegates at the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network conference in San Francisco in July 2017. (Dell)

Sadaffe Abid’s mission to advance the cause of women entrepreneurs. It’s not an uncommon pursuit in 2017; encouraging more women to go into business for themselves is a cause celebre for everyone from business magnates like Arlene Dickinson to U.S. President Donald Trump to many worthy organizations dedicated to the task. (And that’s putting aside the fact that women-run businesses tend to deliver better financial returns and create more jobs than male-run enterprises.)

Abid lives in Karachi, Pakistan, where she runs Circle Women, a social enterprise she founded to equip Pakistani women with the skills to build and lead successful ventures. Before launching Circle in 2013, she was—among other things—the CEO and COO of the Kashf Foundation, where she expanded a small micro-lending pilot program into an entity that provided more than 300,000 women with loans (“98% of which were repaid in full,” she says with a proud smile). When women run successful businesses, Abid explains, they inspire other women to do the same. And they create badly needed jobs, which, in her view, is an essential solution to the “problems” that drive many young Pakistani men towards extremism.

Abid has passion and drive which would be uncommon in most contexts, but which exemplified the delegate base of more than 100 female entrepreneurs that converged in mid-July at the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) conference in San Francisco.

While the three-day event featured plenty of networking and inspiration (including a Girls Track, in which a cohort of bright teenagers developed and pitched business ideas), the focus was, overwhelmingly, on peer learning—on helping one another clear the obstacles that often prevent women from building successful businesses. Here are three of the best strategies that emerged.

1. Lean in to your purpose

The concept of “purpose”—that is, the high-level mandate guiding entrepreneurs and their ventures—is often maligned or misunderstood. Yet several DWEN speakers provided compelling evidence that, when done right, embracing purpose can be a key business differentiator. And that’s good news for female entrepreneurs, according to Elizabeth Gore, a former UN Foundation executive and United States Peace Corps volunteer who now serves as Dell’s entrepreneur-in-residence. “Women innately run purpose-driven businesses, because it’s what we do,” she said. “We are used to being strong for our communities, for our families, for our parents.”

A panel of three entrepreneurs discussed the relationship between purpose and profitability in greater depth: Pocket Sun, who, as founding partner of female-focused VC firm SoGal Ventures, has a purpose of “building an empire for millennial women to invest in startups”; Eileen Gittins, a serial entrepreneur who founded book self-publishing firm Blurb and now runs Bossygrl, a mobile app meant to introduce Gen Z girls to entrepreneurship by helping them launch micro-businesses; and Cathie Reid, co-founder and current digital advisor to Icon Group, an Australian cancer-care company with annual revenue of more than $1.5 billion. Each has built successful ventures premised on a clear mandate to improve the world, and each had clear advice on what works, and what doesn’t, when it comes to building a purpose-based endeavour that is a business—not a charity.

Specificity helps, according to Reid. In the earlier days of Icon Group, the company had a broad mandate to treat cancer care. As it grew, and as new opportunities arose, that became “too broad” of a purpose, so she and her team decide to refine it: the company now exists to provide technology that helps keep people home while giving them cancer care.  Refining the goal proved extremely helpful in focusing the company’s attention on what it really does best. “It’s very easy to get distracted by shiny objects,” Reid said. “We had to realize what was actually helping us deliver on our goal.”

Gittins agreed. “Be really, really clear about who your core customer is, and what they need,” she said. “It makes it much easier to make decisions. If what you’re thinking of doing doesn’t support them, it goes in the ‘no’ column.” She went on to caution delegates not to simply pick a purpose just because it’s something they care deeply about: “Passion is good, but it’s not enough. You can be very passionate about something, but not deeply connected with what you can do about it. You need that fit.”

For Sun—who evaluates businesses by whether they fit SoGal’s mandates of, among others, changing the perception of women in media and revolutionizing women’s sexual wellness—a business’s purpose is only as successful as its practical execution. “It really is about doing business with integrity,” she said. “Sometimes that’s behind the scenes. But if you hire diverse people, treat them fairly and use the best materials, that all plays in.”

Of course, it’s easier to embrace purpose when the business trades in products or services that enact social good. But even women whose businesses aren’t explicitly focused on altruistic goals can profit from embracing a purpose, according to Trisa Thompson, Dell’s chief responsibility officer, who led the development of, and oversees the progress of, the corporation’s 22 core social responsibility goals. “The philanthropic or world-changing work you do has to tie to your product or service,” she explained in an interview. Dell employees don’t go out and, for instance, build houses as part of the company’s charitable mandate, she says, “because that’s not what our technology does.” Instead, the company donates its technology and expertise to such pursuits as children’s education advancements and pediatric cancer treatment. “Those are things we’re really good at,” she says. “Any company can do that. When you think of how you can tie what you’re really good at doing to doing some good in your community, it usually becomes really obvious.” This results in philanthropic initiatives that enhance a company’s brand in an authentic way while providing actual benefit to recipients—not just photo ops.

2. Go where the money is

When it comes to financing business growth, the stats are grim: “Women raise 50% less capital than men do,” explained Geri Stengel, president and founder of digital media and market-research agency Ventureneer and a Forbes columnist whose writing focuses on successful female entrepreneurs, during a breakout session, “And, often, capital means success.” Venture capital firms, in particular, have long been overwhelmingly averse to funding female-run enterprises, “and I don’t see a trend line for any significant change,” added Trish Costello, CEO and founder of Portfolia, a platform designed to help women invest in entrepreneurial enterprises.

There are ways to increase the likelihood of success when approaching VCs. Panelist Kerrie MacPherson, a New York-based partner at Ernst & Young who helps oversee the firm’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women accelerator program, recommended mastering what she called “the language in which investors will expect you to speak,” which means both knowing numbers cold and employing the niche lingo used in the realm. To do that, fellow panelist Edith Yeung, a partner at Mountain View, Calif.-based early-stage venture fund and seed accelerator 500 Startups, advised venture-seekers to attend so-called “demo days” to watch fellow entrepreneurs pitch, because “it’s a good way to get a sense of the language.” And if you don’t have a lengthy track record of success with other ventures—a common problem women run into when pursuing VC—Yeung suggests weaving in personal achievements. “If you’ve had a launch, talk about some numbers,” she said. “If you have nothing, talk about you.”

The panelists admitted that even under the best circumstances, VC remains very difficult for women to secure, which is why several recommended pursuing alternative funding streams: angel investments, factoring and—specifically—crowdfunding. “The research shows that reward-based crowdfunding, such as campaigns run on Indiegogo or Kickstarter, are the one financing option in which women are outperforming men,” Stengel said. Why? Women, she said, are great marketers, and tend to be better able to engage potential backers with a powerful story—something that really resonates on crowdfunding platforms.

Stengel went on to tell the story of a woman she’d recently met who came to her after completing a very successful crowdfunding campaign for her business. The entrepreneur felt compelled to pursue different avenues for the next round. “She told me ‘I don’t want to go back again to the same people to raise crowdfunding money,’” Stengel reported. “I told her ‘Actually, you should.’” Crowdfunding did not require the entrepreneur to sacrifice any equity or pay any interest, and she’d already proven her ability to use it successfully. “The more you do it,” Stengel said, “the more successful you’ll be.”

Whatever approach you choose, the panelists agreed that you should probably be thinking bigger—as in, asking for more. “Women tend to ask for about half as much as they need,” explained Stengel, to which MacPherson elaborated: “Raising money is gut-wrenching and exhausting. Getting just enough to get your business through the next 12 to 24 months probably isn’t a good strategy.” Having to consistently re-approach backers for more is far more detrimental to an enterprise than simply requesting more at the outset, she said: “It’s death by 1,000 cuts.”

3. Don’t do it alone

The launch of Alice, a new AI-powered “virtual advisor” for female entrepreneurs, generated considerable buzz at DWEN. Created by women-focused business accelerator Circular Boards and incubated at Dell subsidiary Pivotal, Alice gives users customized information about events, content, mentors and tools that can assist with whichever entrepreneurial challenge they happen to be facing. (Ask Alice to help you with, say, developing an advisory board, and it’ll provide, among other things, links to articles on the subject and contacts with others who have done so.) Circular Boards founder Carolyn Rodz—a serial entrepreneur who, after starting her first company at 25, saw “the same stumbling blocks over and over again”—says the goal is to get four million women using the platform to “solve the big problems in the world.”

Early uptake suggests Alice is fulfilling a real need (on Twitter, entrepreneurs in attendance dubbed it “All kinds of awesome” and an “Amazing new resource”).  That’s perhaps because, as several delegates shared, female entrepreneurs are really good at helping one another, but they’re not always great at seeking out help for themselves.   

That’s a lesson even keynote speaker Nely Galán—whose wrote a book called Self Madehas come to appreciate. The daughter of Cuban immigrants whose relentless career trajectory has included, among other things, running the network Telemundo, building her own television empire and appearing as a contender on The Celebrity Apprentice, she is a devout advocate for women taking control of their own destinies (“I built my career on being loud and brave,” she said). But that doesn’t mean doing things in isolation.

The smartest entrepreneurs, Galán said, are not only open to the support and input of others—they seek it out. And women, especially women in positions of power, too often neglect their own professional development. “Mentors need mentors,” she said, pointing to a giant photo of NBA star Kobe Bryant. “Kobe has 10 coaches. You’re all superstar entrepreneurs. You’re telling me you don’t deserve a coach?”

Galán then delivered a mantra that could serve as a mantra for the entire conference: “To grow your business,” she said, “You need to grow first.”