How women entrepreneurs improve their game 2014

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How Women Entrepreneurs Improve Their Game

Success Triggers for Women Entrepreneurs

July 2014

Cover Photograph


After years of training to become a professional ballet dancer, artist Kylli Sparre realized it wasn’t the path for her and instead channeled passion for dance into photography and image manipulation. We are indebted to Kylli for giving us permission to use this image as the cover of the white paper. This image is aptly called ‘when impossible ends’. Please visit and support the incredible Kylli on

“ What I like about this publication is that it practically inspires business women to reach greater heights. Women are powerful, creative and independent innovating agents of the enterprise but this is not always seen, understood or believed - There is no doubt that women deserve more opportunities and support than they are getting”. Prof Dianne Bevelander Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. Dianne is the Associate Dean, MBA Programs at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM).

Endorsements "This whitepaper on Entrepreneurial Women contains a lot of accessible data on the challenges of female entrepreneurs. The paper itself is a good start to tackle one of these major challenges and that is the lack of knowledge." Prof. Fons Trompenaars, THT Consulting – Selected as one of the 50 Most Influential Management Gurus by Thinkers50

UnitedSucces is delighted with the contribution WeSoar makes to Women Entrepreneurs. The research has demonstrated that businesswomen often know more than they believe they do and are persistent and resilient. WeSoar provides hands-on pointers for female entrepreneurs to grow further. Corinne Heijn, Founder and President UnitedSucces

Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

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FOREWORD I am writing this white paper to encourage and salute all women entrepreneurs across the globe (including myself). Regardless of your motive for starting your business initiative, the fact is that it took courage. Perhaps it seems enough to settle for the success and accomplishments you have achieved or those within reach. I’d like to ask you to stretch much further. The chances are that you can grow bigger, work smarter and make more impact than you currently are. Not at the expense of you, any one or any thing you hold dear. If you are like me, the biggest barrier you have had to overcome to get this far has been yourself. The amount of personal energy wasted by self-doubt, lack of direction, financial fears, lack of confidence or knowledge, playing it safe, retreating due to failures, etc. is only redeemed to the extent that we learn from our setbacks and then act. Moreover, learning from our shared experiences is a powerful antidote to negativity and slow growth. When a fellow or accomplished entrepreneur says “yeah me too..” it normalises our woes or failures and provides the perfect context in which to be more objective, ‘lean in’, and do things better.

In fact, ‘failure’ is your most underrated and yet your best opportunity to succeed. Failed partnerships, talent jumping ship or aborted attempts to globalise your product are learning opportunities – not opportunities to retreat. We created this research project not to gather data but to provide a shared learning experience in which we discover together how other successful women entrepreneurs across the globe have succeeded (and failed) along the way. We were not looking for the idealised sugarcoated candy version, but the real stories. When we relate to and recognise ourselves in other stories, it triggers hope, revives energy and strokes our endurance. We also learn how to run better and smarter businesses and get there quicker. This study does not end here. It is the beginning of a learning platform that provides a series of online publications, newsletters, webinars, workshops and forums, which will empower women to take their businesses to the next level. We hope it compels you to reach more of your potential to grow a business that yields higher returns on a more sustainable basis. I would especially like to thank UnitedSucces, THT Consulting, The WeSoar Board of Advisers and my project team for supporting or co-creating this ongoing project. It has been a wonderful jouney and we look forward to the next phase! Madeleine van der Steege Originator of WeSoar and owner of Synquity

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INTRODUCTION Many factors contribute to the ability of women entrepreneurs (WE) to achieve success. Personal factors as well as contextual factors in the entreprenurial environment influence success. Think of your business as being part of an ecosystem. The interdependence in an ecosystem sustains all life. A healthy entrerprenurial ecosystem is present when the environment actively supports your business and vice versa. An environment brimming with enabling people, networks, opportunities, clear policies and laws will activate and enable WE. Furthermore, you are your most important resource. Ongoing self development and increased business competence expands your potential to reach and maintain success. Through this publication we hope to encourage more WE to start-up and to encourage existing and established WE to develop further, generate higher returns and ensure long-term sustainability! Women all over the world are increasingly becoming more responsible for their own personal, family, business and regional economic sustainability. This in itself is empowering and exciting. Along with the increasing number of WE, there is a great need to increase our personal and financial confidence. The success of WE is obviously inhibited where attitudes toward women, discrimination, stereotypes and prejudice to WE exists. Some countries explicitly differentiate between women and men in terms of property rights and legal capacity and, therefore, limit WE from achieving their full potential.

If entrepreneurs don’t keep up, transform and innovate, some businesses will become obsolete

However, a businesses is run with a certain future orientation being implicit – that is the desire and intention to exist in the future despite the constraints. Can you keep up with market changes, globalization, digitization, environmental sustainability, genetics, nano technology, online education, large scale changes in world economies, mobile technology, disruptive technologies like cloud, big data and emerging technologies like 3D printing? It is challenging. However, if entrepreneurs don’t stay ahead, or at worse, remain up to date and transform, some businesses will become obsolete. Life long learning and knowledge sharing amongst entrepreneurs is paramount. This report presents the results of WeSoar – a global reseach pilot study, which includes interviews with 30 successful WE across 11 countries. We asked them, despite the challenges they faced, what triggered success? Who was critical to their success and who gave them a leg up? How did the environment trigger or enable their success? How do they view they future and what challenges lie ahead?

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To share the outcomes of WeSoar research on the personal enablers of successful women entrepreneurs (WE) Personal enablers of success for WE in this study included a consideration of ‘how WE defined success’, as well as the critical behaviours, habits, characteristics and values they thought had enabled them to generate their success.

To share the environmental enablers of successful WE Environmental enablers were viewed as anyone or anything in the ecosystem that WE thought had played a critical role in enabling their success.

 To share the future perspective of successful WE Future orientation for the purposes of this report included WE awareness of future trends that could impact on their businesses, challenges that might threaten the future of their businesses, what they need to scale up the businesess, as well as readiness for the future.

Who Participated? WE in this study are generally highly educated and in control of significant assets. 46% have a turnover exceeding $ 1 million, 27% exceed $ 5 million and 10 % have more than $ 20 million turnover per annum. WE from Brazil, Canada, China, Greece, Japan, Kenya, South Africa, Switzerland, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States participated. A total of 30 women entrepreneurs (4 of whom are intrapreneurs i.e., driving new initiatives for existing corporates) participated.

Personal and Environmental Success Trigger of Women Entrepreneurs

Personal Enablers

Environmental Enablers

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Future Orientation

Before you read what our respondents say – take some time to think and write down: What is your definition of success?

Hello! What Is ‘Success’? Your definition of ‘success’ has probably not ever been said out loud. In fact, for most of us, our belief of ‘what success is’ may be unconscious. Yet this belief shapes, drives and influences the impact that we make (or don’t!). In the interviews, we discover how successful WE view success and how this relates to what they believed triggered their success.

social factors in this case, simply featured more often. For example, more WE listed meaningfulness, empowering others, developing potential and helping to create a better world (46%) rather than economic factors such as scaling up the business and making a profit (17%). This finding backs up previous research, which found that WE tend to focus on personal fulfilment, meaningfulness, professional growth, challenges and want to create a safe future. These motivations also define their entrepreneurial priorities.

The author, Marianne Williamson, writes ‘we become successful when we decide to become successful.’ Along the way we have the power to generate success as well as to fear success. Williamson quotes George Elliot who said, ‘It is never too late to become who we might have been’ and she adds ‘It is never too late to become who we fully are.’

The realisation of how you view ‘success’, provides you with the opportunity to be honest with yourself, and to check whether you might be ‘playing it safe’ due to a lack of: inner resources, support or development or the culture around you. Or does your view of success reflect your courage and best version of yourself? Check your reality and use it as an opportunity to realign your actions and decisions with your truly strategic, desired end goals.

It is clear from this study that, although WE defined success both in terms of social and economic factors,


Women Entrepreneurs View of Success Its More than Just the Money It is Empowering Others to Succeed It is Using my Potential / Actualizing Contributing to a Better World Gaining Pleasure from Work A Sense of Personal… Achieving My Life Purpose Helping to Shift the Gender Bias Perseverance and Tenacity Making a Profit Scaling Up the Business Achieve Purpose of Business

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46% 29% 25% 21% 17% 17% 17% 17% 17% 17% 17% 17%

Personal Enabler: How Women Entrepreneurs Created Succes Once your business is running, what are you are doing that actually makes your business succeed? Look beyond the barriers and rather concentrate on success factors and enablers. One factor might be that WE integrate a unique mix of personal, family and business aspirations that symbolise the realities of our feminized life course. Most of the WE we interviewed started their businesses while they were in a ‘full-nest’ family life cycle. To succeed they have to deal with the tensions that occur between family, employees, clients, shareholders and society. In this section we share the actions, behaviour, characteristics or habits that 30 successful WE thought were critical to success.


Behaviours, Actions, Habits Or Characteristics That Triggered Success Personal Sense of 'Agency'


Courage to Risk Stepping into the Unknown


Perseverance and Tenacity


Goal Focussed


Customer Care Orientation


Discipline and Work Hard


Align and Include Others


Ongoing Learning and Development


Flexibility and Openmindedness




Develop People and Team




Driven By Significance and Meanigfulness


Get Support or Help




The courage to step into the ‘unknown’ and having a ‘sense of agency’ (i.e. the belief that your actions will create an impact or the desired outcome) was one of the top factors reported as being critical to success. This mindset is build on having failed and bounced back. To be successful you need to take risks. You need to fail. You need to bounce back stronger. These women do not see themselves as passive observers, but as active participants who are responsible for bringing about structural changes in their environments through active participation and using their unique women’s intuition. Furthermore, having a goal orientated approach centered on ‘what customers want and need’ requires hard work, long hours and discipline. What stood out in this study is the inherently collaborative manner in which these women build up their companies by, for example, asking for help and involving and investing in others to achieve an even better end result. 7 | WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS: Success Triggers, Dilemmas And ‘Readiness For The Future’

Personal Enabler: Which Core Values are Critical to Success? When we honor that which we hold dear, we are expressing core values. When these core values are just as important to our employees, customers and stakeholders, they become powerful, critical triggers for sustainable success. What generic values did WE in this study uphold regardless of the country or industry they operated in?


Values that trigger success Authenticity






Customer Orientation/First




Make the World Better


Respect People








Develop Others


From this study, the core values that are critical to success also represent a long term view for business. For WE in this study, business was not about making a ‘quick buck’ and sacrificing repeat business, but about establishing long term relationships and a trusted reputation with all stakeholders in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. This helped to weather the inevitable storms and ride the peaks of business. “I like doing things fairly. You should compete fairly as well. I believe that in the mentoring of others, particularly in South Africa, you have to help people, be aware of the need to foster people and you have to deal honestly. This is a great problem, because people do not all deal honestly. You have to tell people exactly what is happening” Margrit Wolf, South Africa. “Core values? I have always been myself. I never lie. I am not “a political guy”. Perhaps this is one my ‘failures’? My values mean that everyone knows that what I say is what I stand for – that is integrity. I have always worked with key customers and they really want to work with me. If I am there, they know I can help them solve their problems. Although my current business is totally different, the same values are coming back and I am able to translate customers’ needs” Franciose de Groeijen, Netherlands.

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People Enablers: Support Systems that Played a Critical Role In this study we were interested in who or what played an important role that enabled WE to achieve success. Getting support, encouragement, advice and having role models from whom to learn can be empowering – but who was really critical? Is there someone without whom success would not have been possible? Malcom Gladwell cautions: “Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung...We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play—and by “we” I mean society—in determining who makes it and who doesn’t.” Malcom Gladwell, The Outliers.


Who or what ‘gave you a leg up’? Husband / Life Partners


Family of Origin (grew up with)




Previous / Current Boss


Women's Network


Other Business Partner of Associate

21% 10%

Husbands or life partners get the top spot! Followed by family of origin. Support, encouragement and role models from the people who are the closest are very important enablers. It follows that if we have this kind of support, it is wise to nurture it and show our appreciation. Mentors, women’s networks, previous employers or bosses were important catalysts for the women in the study. The onus on us is is to ‘pay it forward’ i.e., to act as a catalyst for other WE. “I have a wonderful, wonderful husband, and he supports me. That’s wonderful because you’re not always the best of company when things aren’t going right but you get the unconditional support at home. What also has kept me motivated is the fact that I meet so many great women” – Carien van der Laan, NL. I learnt incredible lessons from how my husband managed his partners. I could not have brought this experience through any MBA. Leslie Meingast, Canada. 9 | WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS: Success Triggers, Dilemmas And ‘Readiness For The Future’

“I come from a family of entrepreneurs and it was in our upbringing. It is also a personality thing - when you are young and think in terms of ‘risk and return’. We were always taught to think for ourselves. We were also taught, “don’t be afraid of what others think of you”. We were all curious. And work ethic is one of the things you have to have to become successful in any business or corporate life”. – Eva Hukshorn NL.

Environmental Enablers of Success Your environment or entreprenurial ecosystem can either hinder or foster your success. Partners, family, friends, colleagues, the business community, culture, country, policies and market trends, to name a few, can all help trigger or inhibit business success. Some of these factors are beyond your control (e.g laws), but entrepreneurs benefit their cause through proactive and creative relationships and collaboration within the entrepreneurial ecosystem that they are part of.


Environmental and institutional factors that triggered success for WE Culture in community / region /… Gender equality

My environment worked against… Funding and grants Policies / laws

11% 18% 18% 21% 25%

My location Market Trend / Business Model

46% 61%

The results of this study remind us that, in order to be successful, firstly, you need a good idea – a plan that the market is receptive to. Furthermore, your virtual or physical location is an important strategic benefit that needs to work to your advantage in running a sustainable business. Moreover, funding and beneficial policies are important opportunities or barriers for WE. Although some businesses are booming, there are a number of women who are part of a disempowering or dysfunctional ecosystem or environment that inhibits women from achieving full potential and greater business success. The resilience and ongoing personal effort to mitigate this requires a lot of energy. “Being a woman in Brazil, working in business that require complex negotiations in a men's arena, is a big challenge to me. Not from my perspective but it is clear that men want to liaise with men.” – Tania Magalnic, Brazil “The whole field of bio-technology is booming. There is money in that area and there are many opportunities.” - Jacqueline Vet, NL “In Canadian Environmental law, environmentally things were becoming much more regulated and more attractive as a field. I was in the right place at the right time, but also the changes in the law provided me with new opportunities.” - Michelle Pokey, Canada “The problem is people are very risk averse and business somehow still sees it as a risk to have ‘only women’. It kills me. I think the real risk is having the same sort of guys in high positions. I have seen top of business take huge risks, mergers, and acquisitions. Capital gets destroyed every time you do an acquisition. Very little of perceived added value of buying companies is realized, but they still keep doing it. There is usually a brief moment of euphoria but then reality sets in- by then the top guy is gone. Women in top positions are seen as risks though. Who’s kidding who?” - Carien van der Laan, NL

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A View of the Future Your connection to the future is created by the desires and aspirations you have for yourself and your business. The impact you can make in the future is also fuelled by staying in touch with global events, trends and continuous innovation and building your capacity. Ongoing personal development and enhancing business knowledge and skills (reading, attending courses, webinars or conferences and collaborating with others) contribute to sustainable business success. In this study we encountered a positive group of women, who have achieved remarkable results and share the challenges they need to manage.


Repetitive themes that emerged in participants’ view of the future I am optimistic, committed and excited


I see myself actualising / developing further


I expect company expansion


I will be active in making the world better


I am going to need a new business model


I will achieve my business goals


I am going to need to manage myself better


I expect financial growth


I need to be more strategic in the future


I have big personal challenges ahead


“I love the future, because there are always new challenges. The world is evolving and you have to evolve with the world. With my business I always have to be on top of what is new: be informed and understand the business. You do it for the clients.” Elisabeth Werter, Greece. “I have been the eternal optimist. I am excited about the future, because I have a level of clarity now that I haven’t had in a while. Some of the hiccups along the way existed because of the lack of the clarity” Nkhensani Nkhosi, South Africa. “Environmental sustainability! A few years ago Al Gore’s movie woke up people. Now there is a new movie about plastic oceans coming. We throw a lot of plastic away; it ends up in the ocean and in our food chain. I would like to see consumers turn away and ask for alternatives.” LIzette Smook, Hong Kong.

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Face the future and manage your risks. Risk management safeguards your business. Through the identification, assessment, prioritization and mitigation of risks you can counteract them.

Challenges and Threats to Future Well Being

Keeping an eye on the future whilst managing present dilemmas is a key enabler in entrepreneurship. To what extent do you have your head down, only focussing on the present or short-term future of your business? What price are you paying? The growth of your business could be inhibited by the lack of future orientation. Dare to dream and dream big. Start-ups run the risk of either living day to day, trying to survive or having their head in the clouds, pinning all hope on that passionate idea whilst losing track of the harsh reality. Mature businesses may have more resources and financial stability or prosperity to take the time to look ahead. However, smaller businesses must realize that markets shift and therefore should attempt to embrace the future by strategic planning.

Figure 7:

What Do You Need To Do In Order To Scale Up And Grow In The Future Financial Skills


Defining business goals


Managing and leading people


Marketing Skills


Succession planning


Multi-cultural skills


Managing growth


Work / personal life integration




Negotiation skills


Exchange rate


“The biggest change will be the resource pool; there is a huge need in our industry for an incredible amount of knowledge vested in one person. Large teams of diversified knowledge are no longer saleable. These people are quite scarce and the pipeline for this kind of person is not great” Michelle Booysen, South Africa. “New technologies are coming up. The technology we use could end. We are also developing new technology ourselves. You cannot predict what will happen. It is scary, because it could have a negative influence. If we put enough energy into our own technology that could help”. CJ. Scartlet, USA “Social media is a huge tool, but we have to learn – teaching people how to use and control it. We need to train people for the future. It has massive potential if people know how to use it” Renee Veldman –Tentori, Netherlands.

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From this study it is clear that women regard their gaps in financial skills as a top threat to future sustainability of the business. Women need more knowledge and skills regarding the financial solutions that can help them grow. Another factor that emerged was the importance of defining core business goals clearly (not only up-front, but also along the lifecycle of the business) to drive strategic growth. Furthermore, you usually need to bring other people on board as a consequence of growing. Scaling up a business involves managing and leading people to achieve the goals and objectives of the business in an aligned and engaged manner. Entrepreneurs are inventors and most of us benefit enormously by developing further leadership and management skills as the company grows. Scaling up for the women in this study also required ‘marketing skills’. Some women identified succession planning as a critical issue to resolve in order to achieve sustainable future growth. Most of these women function in the global economy. Multi-cultural skills are seen as critical in order to scale up. This is particularly relevant because a high percentage of women in this study trade across borders and cultures. Scaling up meant further international expansion. In this study it was clear that a high turnover related to international trade and vice versa.

CONCLUSION Multiple personal and environmental factors need to gravitate together to help create your success. These factors include personal traits, histories, values, skills, education, knowledge, efforts, supportive networks, positive organisational cultures, economic and financial factors, market factors, policies and cultural aspects. Furthermore, once you attain 'success', you will face ongoing dilemmas requiring resolution and ongoing development to remain successful. However, the benefits are worth it. The aim of this pilot study is to create a more holistic understanding of the collective triggers for the success of WE including personal and environmental enablers and their future orientation. Valuable insights have been gained for the next exciting phase of this global study.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS A hearty thank you to the women entepreneurs who participated in the WeSoar Research and, despite their full schedules, made time available for interviews. We would also like to express our sincere thanks and appreciation to the people and institutions who made the pilot stage of the WeSoar project possible. WeSoar project team : Madeleine van der Steege, Annemieke Lof, Riana van den Bergh, Hannah Spaeth, Ruth Dixon, Tina Thomson, Yvonne Finch, Corinne Heijn of UnitedSucces, Prof Fons Trompenaars.WeSoar Board of Advisors : Dr Bettina von Stamm (UK), Dr Karen Ortlepp(SA), Grant Ashfield (SA)and Dr Julie Weeks (USA).

This research study was presented as an academic paper authored by Madeleine van der Steege and Dr Bettina von Stamm at The XXV ISPIM Conference – Innovation for Sustainable Economy & Society, Dublin, Ireland on 8-11 June 2014. The full publication is available at

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