Photo credit: Duke Photography

Women have a tough time becoming entrepreneurs. Not many people I know would be willing to argue against this statement. Whether it be familial responsibilities, lack of confidence, stereotypes, or discrimination, there are many forces pushing against us when it comes to starting a business. 

Since a young age, I’ve dreamed of starting a company. I began an ice cream shop out of my home in elementary school, ran a summer dance camp in 7th and 8th grade, and established a non-profit organization as a high school sophomore. The idea of creating something that is an extension of yourself and your passions has always excited me. But recently, I’ve been coming across unsettling market truths, like the fact that only 5% of investment funding is given to female startup leaders. In a world like this, I start to question just how difficult will a career in entrepreneurship be? Is it possible? How do I, and other women, navigate prejudice? 

To answer some of these questions, Duke invited a panel of successful women leaders to share their experiences and give advice during the university’s Entrepreneurship Week. Panelists included Kimberly Jenkins, Duke in Silicon Valley program director; Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of Melissa and Doug LLC and the Melissa and Doug Entrepreneurs Program at Duke; Tatiana Birgisson, CEO of Mati Energy; Kathie Amato, senior strategist for Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative; Christy Shaffer, former president of Inspire Pharmaceuticals; and Rachel Braun Scherl, co-founder of SPARK Solutions for Growth. The women shared inspirational stories of success, defeat, strength and weakness. Here are the top five things all women aspiring to become leaders can learn from them: 
  1. Listen. Observation is not only the start of an idea, but it’s what keeps a business going. Humility and the constant seeking of answers from the world around you are qualities that lend themselves to innovative entrepreneurs. Listening also comes in handy in building a thriving company culture, too. If you are able to understand the needs and desires of your employees, you can motivate them to work better. Listening and being empathetic comes naturally to many women, giving them an advantage in the entrepreneurial space.
  2. Stand tall. No matter how cliche it sounds, believing in yourself is the most important Shaffer shared a story of walking into an investment meeting where the man looked at her and said, “we don’t do that.” What he had meant was that he was not used to dealing with female CEOs, nor did he have confidence in her abilities. “I’m only 5’1”…on a good day,” Shaffer joked. Despite the investor’s doubts, Shaffer gave her pitch with full confidence and secured the deal. “People can smell uncertainty and fear,” Braun Scherl remarked. Show enthusiasm, assert yourself, and people will start looking past the stereotypes. 
  3. Have an authentic idea. This doesn’t just mean that your idea should be unique, it means that your idea should be a true representation of your interests and passions. Bernstein recounted her times at Duke when she was studying Public Policy. “I felt like I was doing it to please other people; I wanted to become a lawyer because it would make my father proud.” When Bernstein decided to take the leap and start a toy company with her then boyfriend, Doug, however, she felt more fulfilled, and more authentic to her introspective and quirky personality. “Once you’ve found your passion, figure out a way to do it every moment of every day,” she advised. The foundations for a successful company are rooted in deep passion, so make sure your idea is something you genuinely care about. 
  4. Seek support. When Amato began her publishing company, she faced several disappointments. What stopped her from giving up, though, was the encouragement of supporters who believed in her vision. Having cheerleaders boosts your confidence and motivates you to keep going. Braun Scherl further recommends that women entrepreneurs have women supporters, as well. Creating a network of women entrepreneurs strengthens each member through shared experience and empathy. 
  5. Just start. All entrepreneurs begin with doubt. Getting past those insecurities is essential for anyone wishing to go down an entrepreneurial path. Birgisson commented that as a young woman with minority background, she could have come up with a lot of excuses for herself. “Stop looking for reasons why you shouldn’t pursue your idea and start looking for reasons why you should,” she said. Instead of being intimidated by the lack of women in entrepreneurship, take it as all the more incentive to pursue it. Your role models don’t have to look like you—as long as you have the drive, you can make it. 

Hearing the panelists made me realize that there is, indeed, something wrong with being a woman and dreaming of a career in entrepreneurship. The problem is, simply, that she is only dreaming.