What it takes to become a "femmepreneur" – By Magda Farhat
The modern workplace would not be the same without Coco Chanel, Elizabeth Arden, Mary Kay and many other powerful women who were not scared to defy the odds. They had to face discrimination, unfairness and stigmatisation to build their atemporel businesses as we know them today.
During World War II, women had to fill in gaps in the workforce after their husbands and sons went to serve in military. There were no boundaries to the types of jobs they could accomplish. This period saw a rise of female entrepreneurs and was a stepping stone towards women’s liberation and female empowerment.
Today, women continue to face gender-based challenges in nearly every industry, including entrepreneurship. This statement is particularly true in the Middle East, where women still need their husband’s approval to launch their own businesses in certain countries and where we still find men who refuse to deal and transact with women.
I was having dinner once with a woman who started her own advertising agency in Egypt in the late 90s. Of course, her first years in business were not a piece of cake. She had to play all the roles from secretary to director since it wasn't easy for her to find employees who would feel comfortable working with a woman. One day, her office phone rang. She answered pretending she was the secretary. It was a business man who started to hear about her company and the successful deals she was closing, He wanted to discuss some business and so she gave him an appointment. The man showed up to her office that day and started discussing with her about life and generalities, thinking she was the secretary. He suddenly asked to meet with the boss to discuss some business. When she replied that she was the boss, his face expressions changed and he refused to deal with a “boss-woman”. My friend never got this deal because she was a woman.
As a woman entrepreneur setting up my own law firm in Lebanon 15 years later, I had to face similar discriminations. Many times, I had to be in meetings where men clients refused to do eye contact with me addressing my male partner, specially when it comes to the financial and business aspects of their ventures. These events intrigued me particularly, and I must admit, offended me and kept me wondering why in the 21st century, women had to still face similar kinds of discrimination in business. Then I realized that I was asking myself the wrong question. Sexism is still there and perhaps will last for a while. The question is what can a woman do about it.
If we were to analyze entrepreneurship, the prime entrepreneurial skills include (1) confidence, (2) leadership (3) creative thinking in problem solving and (4) pragmatism.
Studies showed that women at work lack the self-confidence of their male peers and this hurts their chances at success. In The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman write, “Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in. Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. And the confidence gap is an additional lens through which to consider why it is women don’t lean in.” This is due first of all to education. Women are raised to think that if they work hard and do well in school, they’ll be rewarded. The truth is the more confident you are, no matter what your competences are, the more you’ll attract success. The second problem is what I would call the “women’s collective unconscious”. For a long time, women were treated as inferior to men which developed an “imposter” syndrome in them. It is only when a woman realizes her own worth that she is able to liberate herself from these inner thighs and to speak up. It is true that over time, a woman gains in experience and her confidence increases as a consequence but this costs her wasted and lost opportunities along the way. This is why we need to switch our mindsets and focus on our strengths. Whenever you feel a weakness, just dismiss it and throw yourself to the opportunity. Be confident that you will achieve it and you will see how doors will open to you.
Most of the times, women accomplish the hidden and silent tasks. They worry about organizational and administrative tasks for example: whether documents are properly filed, emails answered after thorough thinking, etc. While men want to be in the forefront and are not afraid of taking leadership positions. That is why business is often seen as a male-dominated environment. The “small” (not small at all) and time-consuming tasks that women focus on make them lose focus of their main target. During the first year of launching my business, I started my days with an agenda full of “unproductive” tasks such as filling in governmental forms or applications, following up with suppliers to print business cards, and organizing invoices and files. My day would end without me feeling that I had accomplished anything meaningful. While these same tasks could be completed by a secretary, I could focus on goal-oriented matters such as business development, initiating contact with a potential client or having a lunch meeting with a useful contact. These actions would put me in a leadership position within my own practice. I would be more fulfilled and satisfied. To be a true entrepreneur you need to take the lead and close deals. In a nutshell, you need to be an achiever.
Creative thinking in problem solving:
Creative thinking is a method for approaching a problem or a challenge in an imaginative and innovative way. It is a process that helps you redefine the problems and opportunities you face, come up with new, innovative responses and solutions, and then take action. One of the major obstacles to creative thinking that could prevent improvement in business is fear and worry. In fact, worrying blocks the creative process and can be an obstacle to innovation. Considering that women are more emotional than men, they tend to worry more and therefore to be scared of being wrong, of making mistakes, of criticism, or of failure. Instead of focusing on the negative feelings and thoughts, use your emotions to find solutions, inspire others and drive change within your organisation.
Pragmatism is important because it offers a way of overcoming a dilemma. Guilt, pressure and perfectionism are all creators of dilemmas and are more commonly found in women. For example, you can feel guilt for not being at home with your family while you have a deadline to meet at work. Should you go home anyway or continue working to meet your deadline? You can also feel pressured to join your friends for drinks while you know you need to stay overnight to prepare a pitch for a client. You can spend hours perfecting a document and refusing to send it to a client because you think it is not good enough. Pragmatism will almost always give you the right answer in such situations and solve them for you. Focus on the result. Pragmatic people never lose time wondering and pondering over ideas. They are goal-oriented and just know what to do in a specific situation.
It is true that today, discrimination is still there. Unleashing the “femmepreneur” within ourselves is not easy: it is a double fight against society and more importantly, against ourselves. However, if women in the 18th and 19th centuries could face the harsh society of their times and succeeded in implementing their names throughout history, it is not because they were bemoaning their fate, but because they released the strength within them and understood earlier that they had to take the leads of their own reins. They didn’t wait for society to be fixed, they didn’t act, talk or walk like men either; they just fixed themselves, switched their mindsets, focused on their goals and understood what it takes to become a “femmepreneur”, no matter what the circumstances are.