Rethinking How Women Build Businesses

Printed in BusinessWeek
by Stacy Perman

The partners who built the Ladies Who launch networking group explain how they support female entrepreneurship and connect like-minded women
Victoria Colligan, a former corporate lawyer and one-time executive at high-end wedding gown designer Amsale, and Beth Schoenfeldt, the founder of Learning Solutions Company, a specialized solutions firm for companies, had long recognized that females approached business differently from their male counterparts. And they knew that women were increasingly making up the ranks of entrepreneurs across the country (see, 3/15/07, “She Did It Her Way”). So four years ago the pair used their experience and connections to establish Ladies Who Launch, a national for-profit networking group for women entrepreneurs.

Today, the business is a combination of an online social networking group and an offline support system of local incubators connecting budding and established entrepreneurs, as well as a mix of writers, artists, freelancers, and others across multiple industries. With 40,000 online members, 45 incubators across the country, and an additional five set to launch by the end of 2007, business is booming.

Recently, staff writer Stacy Perman spoke with Colligan and Schoenfeldt, who recently published Ladies Who Launch: Embracing Entrepreneurship & Creativity as a Lifestyle (St. Martin’s, May, 2007) about their unique approach to entrepreneurship and connecting like-minded businesswomen. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

What is the purpose of Ladies Who Launch?

Colligan: Our entire mission has been to give women better P.R., marketing, exposure, and distribution for their products and services. If you join our online program you can post in our classified lists, sell in our eBay (EBAY) store, connect to other women for referrals, and find a lawyer or even an acupuncturist. Oftentimes women find business partners through Ladies Who Launch and new clients and customers. The women connect locally through the incubators and worldwide to other incubator members.

You talk about the “feminine approach” to launching a business. What is it?

Schoenfeldt: Women launch their businesses in different ways and for different reasons than men. [We’ve] found that the No. 1 reason women launch a business is for lifestyle, meaning they want more freedom, flexibility, and control. That has implications in how they grow their business.

For example, they manage growth so that they have more freedom, work three to four days a week, or choose not to have employees added to their responsibility of having a family at home. Or they might not borrow a large amount of money and instead grow their business slowly and organically—in many cases, on purpose.

What are some of the things women who join Ladies Who Launch incubators are hoping to gain?

Schoenfeldt: These are women at any level of business, from those owning multimillion-dollar companies to those with just a seed of an idea. We mix them all together. The goal for all of them is to move something forward.

What makes us different is that we create an environment where we mix these women together. We think that’s where creativity comes from. If you are in an industry and only hang around people in that industry, it can limit your creativity.

You write that Ladies Who Launch is about breaking free of the traditional model of entrepreneurship and business—how so?

We both have our MBAs, and when you talk about entrepreneurship there is [usually] one way to start a business: Start with a business plan and raise money. It’s a very structured approach. We talk about just starting and proving the concept first.

Women often start their businesses without a plan. Women are good at bootstrapping and figuring it out as they go along. Maybe two years after they launch they might do a plan when they want to raise money and grow.

Colligan: We talk about taking small manageable steps. We had one [incubator member] who wanted to start an upscale Hispanic network, and she was working on a business plan for years trying to get this done in a huge way. Her incubator told her to plan a party or event to get women together that was manageable and didn’t require huge capital. The event sold out, and led to something else and now she has an amazing organization. Had she tried to figure the entire thing out from the beginning, she never would have started.

What would you say are the essential things to know when starting your own venture?

Schoenfeldt: Start something you love doing. Being an entrepreneur is hard and starting a business is hard work—we don’t try to sugarcoat that—so if you love it you are more likely to be a success.

Also, surround yourself with people who are launching a business. This allows you to be more successful. And the third thing is to just start doing something and move in a direction. Don’t feel that you have to give it all up and leave your job. With technology today, you can get started with very little capital investment and try it out before you jump all the way in.

Is this philosophy solely for women, or can men benefit from following the Ladies Who Launch process?

Schoenfeldt: I think men can benefit. We call it the feminine approach but we feel many men do follow this nontraditional approach. Our book is about living your dream and focusing on that—and a lot of men do—who wouldn’t want that?

Colligan: We are also redefining success. We see this as living the lifestyle you want to live. We ask women to consider what their dream day looks like. Are you integrating your lifestyle elements into your life along with your business?

Do you see inherent differences between female and male entrepreneurs?

Colligan: We surveyed over 1,000 women compared with men launching businesses and we found by and large women who launch consider themselves more deeply fulfilled by their own business than women in corporations and men launching their own businesses. So for women, it is important to feel passion. [We also found] 77% of the women would trade 10% or more of their income to have more freedom and flexibility in their lives.

What is the hardest thing to do when starting your own business?

Schoenfeldt: Overcoming the initial fear. Again, this goes back to just starting, but starting in a manageable way, taking even one or two steps forward to start to build confidence.

You don’t seem to side with conventional wisdom regarding glass ceilings and the mommy track, why?

Schoenfeldt: In our survey we ask women: Do you want to do what it takes to get to the top, and only 5% said yes. If women don’t want to do what it takes to get to the top, then there is not a glass ceiling. There are enough examples of those women at the top. If you want to work hard enough and sacrifice and give up with no guarantee, that is not all that attractive to women, or men for that matter.

You seem to make the connection between creativity and business and self-esteem and happiness—explain.

Schoenfeldt: We clearly found that women who are launching businesses feel better about themselves, are more fulfilled, listen to their intuition, and feel unstoppable when they want something. We don’t feel that you have to have these qualities before starting. But by taking steps forward, you will develop them.