Apr 042011

By Sara Herald, MBA Class of 2011

Although rates of entrepreneurship among women in the United States have been growing steadily, 60% of new businesses are still founded by men[i].  However, if Natalia Oberti Noguera, Julie Lenzer Kirk, and Amy Millman have their way, that percentage will decrease significantly in the coming years.  These three women, all entrepreneurs themselves, have made careers of helping other women start and grow businesses.

Oberti Noguera founded the Pipeline Fund, “a social venture fund that invests in women-led for-profit social ventures and trains women to become angel investors.”  She wants all aspiring female entrepreneurs to know that “it’s okay to fail, because each failure is just a step closer to success” and is passionate about gender equality in the business world.  Lenzer Kirk is a founder and CEO of Path Forward Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, an organization that works to create “businesses that grow beyond the founder to create jobs, increase opportunities, improve communities, and change the world.”  Lenzer Kirk started her own technology company in 1995 and after running the business for 10 years decided that her true interests lay in helping other women start businesses.  Amy Millman, a former lobbyist, is now the president of Springboard Enterprises, a company that “educates, sources, coaches, showcases and supports high growth [women-led] companies seeking equity capital for expansion”.  Having co-founded the organization in 2000, Millman has helped female entrepreneurs raise over $5 billion to fund future growth.

Here at the Smith school, these three women were speaking to an audience of undergraduates, graduate students and members of the local community at the Social Enterprise Symposium on a panel titled The X Factor: Women in Business.  While they are quite accomplished and know a lot about the details of starting and growing a business, they unfortunately refrained from sharing specific lessons learned and took on the role of cheerleaders.  Rather than focusing on particular skills that women can leverage in the business world or talking about how women should navigate a male-dominated venture capital environment, the panelists resorted to hackneyed phrases like the “importance of the female perspective” in business and how women should just “follow their passions” to start their own companies.  Furthermore, while the audience was predominantly female, there were a few men present, and the panelists regrettably attempted to use them as representatives of the male sex as a whole and put them on the spot to answer for their gender.

One of the Smith school’s tenets is entrepreneurship, and the admissions office puts considerable effort into recruiting qualified female students as both undergraduates and MBAs, but panels like this one do not really spark the creation of women-led businesses by the students present.  Encouragement and success stories give hope, but if women are to succeed in a cut-throat start up environment and credibly compete with their male peers, they need to find out which skills to cultivate and what resources to seek out.

[i] http://www.drjeffcornwall.com/2011/02/how-female-entrepreneurs-defin.html

Sara Herald is a second-year MBA student at the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business.  She is the Vice President of Social Impact for the student government association and serves on the board of the Net Impact chapter.  Sara graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University with a B.A. in Spanish and English.

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