It’s been a promising year for women in America. Female flag officers are now at the helm of two U.S. service academies, Facebook doyenne Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In has inspired many to change their approach to work, and the number of moms who are their family’s breadwinner hit a record high.
Yet there’s much work to be done when it comes to entrepreneurship. Each month, men are still twice as likely to open a business than women, according to Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity data. A recent Dow Jones VentureSource report says just 1.3 percent of privately held companies had a female founder in the 15 years ending in 2012.
So, thinking of that last number, just who makes up that 1.3 percent? How are they succeeding? Here, we talk with a few women who’ve made that leap, striking out on their own to take that entrepreneurial journey and their advice to women who are considering or have already started down their own business paths.
“We are all stronger than we think we are.”
Cristina DeVito, CEO of Mudderella
What is it about sloshing through waist-deep mud, then a chest-high icy bath known as Winter’s Eve, just after slogging through 7 miles of obstacles that’s somehow empowering? “It’s more of a competition against yourself,” says Cristina DeVito, who left the traditional confines of Harvard Business School and Bain & Co. to plunge into the world of extreme fitness challenges. “You have to understand what success means to you. Set a goal and go for it.”
She’s leading this upstart, which puts on women-only meetups that are chock full of grueling and dirty physical challenges. (Think of the hard-core Tough Mudder—where DeVito once did a stint—for those lacking the Y chromosome.) At these events, kicking off across the U.S. and Canada and scheduled to expand to Australia and U.K. next year, DeVito says there are many parallels to the business world. One common theme: People want to rise to the challenge. “Out there, this inspires others to do things they didn’t think they could do. It’s not just the team you go out there with, and your support network, it’s the team you create on the course, too—even if it means overcoming any obstacle with strangers.”
“The pressure you put on yourself is far greater than any real pressure.”
Meg Gill, owner & president of Golden Road Brewery
As a teen athlete and Yale captain, Meg Gill poured herself into swimming, broke pool records, and even set her sights on the Olympic trials. But a car accident in 2009—from a case of vertigo after swimming a relay across Lake Tahoe—put her in a personal and career dry dock for months, and got her to thinking about her other passion: beer. By 2011, the 26-year-old Gill and a partner launched Golden Road Brewery, a Los Angeles craft-beer operation, which gave her claim to another title: the youngest brewery owner in America.
Now with 100 employees, Gill says her life is more business-focused. Still, after a recent swim at UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center, she takes comfort, in a quote on the wall from legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” As she reflects on her past week, “I know, looking at that [quote], that I did everything I could to be the best I could be and it’s not about measurements of money, or what other people say or think,” Gill says. “It’s about knowing internally that dedication, drive, and passion are taking you to your potential.”
“Give 110 percent of yourself to your career before you have kids, then keep your options open.”
Cindy Slansky, founder of GreenPaxx
Where do people like Cindy Slansky get the energy? A Queens, New York-raised child of Italian immigrants, she rose early in sales at the Limited Co. before leaving to pursue something she felt would be more fulfilling: a job as a nurse practitioner. Then came a family, which at one point involved four children under the age of 5, training for a marathon, and a step into entrepreneurship inspired by keeping
her family healthy. Her inventions: a nontoxic adjustable silicone cover to fit nearly any cup, a reusable straw to match, and a line of other products that are friendly to kids and the environment. Within a year of the launch from her Long Island, New York, home, GreenPaxx Cool Cups were on shelves at Bed Bath & Beyond.
In February, Slansky landed in front of ABC’s Shark Tank panel on The View. But when decision time came from the entrepreneurial kingmakers, the frequently volatile Mark Cuban erupted on the topic of women “having it all,” as the way to delivering his “no” to funding her venture. (You can watch the exchange here.) “It was a hard thing for me to hear,” Slansky says. “I don’t think it was malicious, and he’s someone I admire. But really, it is difficult mentally to put your mind in two different places at the same time. If you have deadlines at work, your kids don’t get that.” Her time-machine message to her earlier self: Invest in business while you’re younger. Her impulse to start her own business came through her children, but getting it off the ground came slowly, in unpredictable moments Slansky had to take advantage of. “I would literally get up to check on the baby in the middle of the night,” she recalls “and I’d be on the phone to China.”
“Your gut instinct can be much more valuable to you than an MBA.”
Sara Sutton Fell, CEO & owner of FlexJobs.com
When Sara Sutton Fell set out on her first startup in the Internet’s mid-’90s heyday, she and her co-founder were both in their early twenties and sought out advice from established businesspeople. “We had no business experience really—we were in it for the passion of the idea,” she says. While much of the feedback was worthwhile, they got some pretty firm opinions from generally older men in traditional fields, who had set, structured beliefs about how things worked. “I think we were so active in soliciting information that we undervalued our own instincts,” Sutton Fell says. It was something that undermined their confidence as they went on, as what their gut told them conflicted with traditional approaches. “It was a hard lesson learned,” she says. (Who came out on top? Their pioneering job-search service sold in the mid-eight figures.)
Sutton Fell has moved on to her second successful company now, which leads the market for telecommuting- and flexible-job searches—and is based out of her Boulder, Colo., home. And this time around, she says she’s stayed much more true to what her instincts are telling her. “You’ll always have people—often more ‘educated,’ more ‘experienced,’ and in my case, often men—telling you how to do things, what the better way is, how it’s usually done,” she says. “But if you see a different way, trust that. Research it, look at it critically, but give it real value in your discussions and strategy choices.”
“Find the courage to confront fear that first time, or first few times. It changes everything.”
Jacqueline Corbelli, founder and CEO of BrightLine
Jacquie Corbelli got her steely resolve by helping major corporations implement big changes through their organizations. “I learned quickly, sometimes the hard way, the value of clarity of vision, structure, discipline, focus, and riding out periods of uncertainty and risk,” the New Yorker says. All of those elements were crucial when she went out on her own in 2003 to launch BrightLine iTV, an interactive-television marketing and advertising firm. (Ever had a “Get This Recipe” button pop up on your screen while you’re watching a show? It’s likely from her shop’s technology.) It wasn’t ever easy, particularly in a male-dominated field, where Corbelli says the tendency of many women is to defer to men, sometimes even if those guys are wrong.
And that’s where fortitude comes into play. “Finding that initial courage doesn’t go away if you don’t let it, it breeds more courage,” she says. “And pretty soon you don't feel like you’re walking on a ledge anymore, you’re testing the bounds of your intuitive and intellectual ability to create and continually enhance value.” Her advice to those cutting their own path: “Make the merits of your effort, the results you produce, impossible to ignore. It’s the most straightforward way to ensure you don’t give less than you’ve got, and you don't ever simply defer—regardless of gender.”