As director of outreach programming for the Center for Entrepreneurship at Wichita State University, Veatch is in daily contact with business owners in search of resources, from startups to established firms. Her job is to connect entrepreneurs throughout Kansas with training, tools, and upgrades. The center, established in 1977, was one of the first academic programs in the United States focused specifically on entrepreneurship. Writer Erin O’Donnell spoke with Veatch about how entrepreneurship has gone a long way in shattering the glass ceiling for women in business.
What is the number one reason women go into business for themselves? How often is it because of "glass ceiling" experiences in other workplaces?
I think when women are going out and starting their own businesses, the glass ceiling has little to do with it. Women in particular usually have a passion. They have an idea. And they’re seeking to make a difference with it. Maybe they have worked in a business for 10 or 15 years, and a client says to them, ‘Your company really isn’t serving my needs, but you serve my needs.’ They find that they have a skill set that’s valuable, and they realize that it’s a business. Or they might be saying, ‘I want a more flexible schedule for my family. I could consult three days a week on my own schedule.’ Then word of mouth gets around, and the next thing they know, they have three clients and they need to hire someone. The economy has also spurred a lot of entrepreneurial activity. Women who have been laid off are saying, ‘I’m going to take that risk now.’
Are women more likely today to take risks as entrepreneurs, compared to 20 years ago?
I think inherently there has to be more risk-taking. What if you’re just getting out of college and you’re trained and you have a good degree, but there are no jobs? You make your own opportunities. I firmly believe in that. What do you have to lose? It’s not about risk; it’s about survival. They’re thinking, ‘How am I going to pay my student loans? What skills do I have? How do I make sure I don’t have to live with Mom and Dad? Maybe I should start my own business.’
What is empowering for women specifically about entrepreneurship?
It depends on your personality: are you a leader or a follower? Are you looking for job security? You can get that corporate job and build security with the long-term goal of eventually opening your own firm. But if you’re in a firm that’s successful and moving forward, they’re going to do whatever they can to retain you. It depends on your level of satisfaction and what experiences you’ve been exposed to, I think. Are you a person who absolutely wants autonomy and control over your work? Or do you want to be part of a larger organization? Did you take an entrepreneurship course in college, or a product development course?
The benefit, the beauty, the allure of having your own business is that at the end of the day, whether it works or it doesn’t work, it’s yours, and nobody can ever take that away. It becomes very personal. You really are committed to it. That’s what ends up driving it. You’ve never given up on that idea. What’s empowering is knowing ‘I can do that.’
There are so many women out there who are role models. Look at Marissa Mayer at Google, and now Yahoo! [where she is president and CEO]. She’s on a mission. She worked her way up in a male-dominated industry. Other women are looking at her too, saying, ‘That could be me.’ I know of women in their 50s who want to start a business they can hand down to their grandchildren. Who is better to model after than another successful female doing the exact thing you want to do someday?
Are there particular industries where women have made gains as entrepreneurs vs. as employees?
I'm thinking of traditionally male-dominated fields, where women have sidestepped that ‘boys' network’ by launching their own ventures. In construction, there have been significant inroads. It’s not as locked down as it used to be. Women and minority contractors get opportunities to bid on those contracts. Equal Employment Opportunity laws make an allotment for woman-owned businesses to bid on all kinds of government contracts. As a female, you have lots of power as far as negotiating contracts.
I also think a lot of women still don’t know about resources that are available, like organizations that give startup loans and microloans, such as the Small Business Administration or regional economic development corporations. They’re not being exposed to them.
Do women still face discrimination as entrepreneurs?
Women business owners have the freedom to choose their clients. If someone doesn’t want to do business with a woman just because she’s female, an entrepreneur can say, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t be doing business with you.’ You can pick those relationships.
What can women business owners gain from networking with each other?
Informal networking and word of mouth are some of the most powerful things for women. Groups that are formed specifically for networking aren’t incredibly effective. Everyone there is selling. I’m part of an email listserv for women in Rotary Club, and I get more from that simple listserv of everybody sharing information with me: who’s in a new position, where someone is going, who needs an executive assistant—we’re sharing all of that. You don’t have to agree or disagree, but it’s great to hear about lessons learned and what worked.