We Gotta Get Some New (Unbiased) Words to Describe Entrepreneurs

20 Days of Ideas — Day 9

“What traits do you think you need to be a successful entrepreneur?”

I was asked this question in an interview by a university student for a class project. I’m sure she expected me to give the standard litany —uncompromising vision, tenacity, strong (perhaps even aggressive) leadership skills, fearlessness, competitive, risk-loving and grit.

But I reject that list. There’s no research behind it. This is actually a male-biased stereotype that’s being used for pattern recognition by investors when they evaluate founders and CEOs.

And this is a key reason why women get less than 3 percent of the venture capital.

Is this the list that you think of? If so, ask yourself…..

Where did this list come from?

The News Media. TechCrunch quoted a VC a few years back that he thought founders should be so fearless as to be willing to run across the freeway blindfolded. (In my mind, that’s not a quality of a successful founder, that’s a quality of the winner of the Darwin awards but I digress.) These types of characterizations are rampant in news articles because the sources and writers are predominately men. I couldn’t find a breakdown of male vs. female business journalists, but a 2013 report shows women make up only about a third of the entire journalism industry (supervisors, copy/layout editors/online producers, reporters/writers, photographers/artists/videographers). I’m going to guess if we tease out the women business journalist numbers, that percentage would drop even lower.

Entertainment. I often open up workshops with the question, “Name some successful entrepreneurs.” Even when the audience is 50 percent women, the answers I get are almost always 100 percent male. We’ve bestowed celebrity status on certain entrepreneurs. Steve Jobs. Mark Zuckerberg. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos. Through movies and books, a picture emerges of arrogance, unprofessional behavior, an unwillingness to compromise and not really caring about anything or anyone except the enterprise.

Where did this list not come from?

Actual research. There are a number of reasons we don’t have rigorous research to back up these meta-entrepreneur characteristics. First, entrepreneurship has only recently (like in the last 10 years) been deemed an area of acceptable academic research.

Second, the research that does exist rarely reflects on gender or even reports gender difference. According to data from a 2015–2016 survey, women only make up 20 percent of business school tenured faculty in the U.S. Not that one necessarily follows the other, but it’s a pretty reasonable assumption that much of the research we do have is based primarily on the study and responses of male founders and entrepreneurial leaders.

Where does that leave us?

I’m asking business journalists to cultivate women founders as sources. I’m asking the academic community to take on research in this area that takes gender into account.

And I’m calling for a whole new list. One where women can recognize themselves. I’ve spent large parts of the last six years mentoring women entrepreneurs and more recently formally interviewing them. Here are the traits I’ve seen consistently in successful women founders/entrepreneurs:

  • self-awareness
  • self-confidence (but without bravado)
  • curiosity and willingness to learn
  • ability to collaborate
  • willingness to listen
  • willingness to seek help when necessary
  • intellect
  • achievement oriented
  • able to make decisions but willing to change those decisions given new information

Female founders — I want to hear from you. What else belongs on the list?