Teresa Nelson PhD, is Elizabeth J. McCandless Professor Chair in Entrepreneurship at Simmons College in Boston, and a Member of the Scientific Committee of Women Equity for Growth. In an interview with Yann Le Gales of the Figaro, she elaborates on women entrepreneurs in large international companies over the last century, and on how and why their roles have been evolving.
The following is an extract of the interview.
YLG: Why have women never built large world companies (Apple, Google, Auchan, L’Oreal, etc)?
TN: There are three replies – the first documents that leading women entrepreneurs have built large world companies. The second reply discusses why many of these women are not in as much focus as leading men entrepreneurs. The third discusses why we do not find as many women as men when we consider leading entrepreneurs 1900-2000.
Many women have built large world companies – we can look historically and currently. In the last century, women such as Mary Kay Ash (cosmetics), Anita Roddick (Body Shop, cosmetics), Doris Fisher (The Gap, apparel), Oprah Winfrey (Harpo, media), J.K. Rowling (media), Rosalia Mera (Zara, fashion) Coco Chanel (fashion), Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot (champagne), Myung-Hee Lee (retail, South Korea) and Estee Lauder (cosmetics) were responsible for developing outstanding global companies that exist today as industry leaders.
YLG: Why are many of these women not in as much focus as leading men entrepreneurs?
TN: One reason is that different business industries tend to be covered differently by the media, and business industries are also gendered. By this I mean, there is more media and attention on certain industries, though they are not necessarily the dominant businesses along all performance measures. For example, certainly in the last 30 years we have seen extraordinary coverage for high technology industries (for many good reasons as well as faddish ones), though other industries, less provocative and reader friendly, such as consumer goods manufacturing and health care services, also contribute substantially to global GDP, but receive much less press. [...]
In addition, certain industries are gendered, by which I mean they are considered “female or feminine” or “male or masculine”. Fashion, retail and cosmetics are examples of the former and construction and computer software are the latter.
While women have excelled in all industries, they have tended to be found in service businesses and in particular service industries – namely consumer goods and retail. Using economic language, I would term this vertical industry segregation. The reasons for this are many and include the relatively lesser availability and early training of girls in science and mathematics which has historically revealed itself in long term career aspiration and actualization paths for women in science, technology and engineering; as well as the availability of role models and mentors for girls and women in fields with low percentages of successful women. These are subtle but powerful forces.
In terms of the gendered nature of industries, fashion is a good example. We can find many leading businesswomen who tend to be discussed as fashion icons rather than as saavy business players. These women are discounted as successful entrepreneurs, though for example, in France, fashion and textiles place France in a top position globally. [...]
YLG: Why are there not as many women as men noted as leading global entrepreneurs?
TN: There are many reasons why we see fewer leading women entrepreneurs than men entrepreneurs historically. From my point of view, most revolve around conventional social ideas about the roles of men and women in society. These roles define responsibilities around how men and women spend their lives. Women historically have been responsible for the home, children and elders. Men historically have been responsible for paid work. This division of labor is unraveling in some parts of the world for reasons including changes in social mores, the impact of higher education levels for women and girls, recent broader education and training in math and science for girls, and legislative and now culturally embedded ideas of equal opportunity on the basis of sex in education and careers. Discrimination still exists on the basis of sex, but its practice is less prevalent, in some cases having been reduced and in others cases having been suppressed from expression by law and convention. This is due to the values and ideas and behavior of men and women – some of the greatest advocates of women’s advancement in the workplace are now men.
Another primary reason why we do not see as many noted women entrepreneurs today as men entrepreneurs is that entrepreneurship is often a family undertaking and the man is most commonly seen in front [...]
YLG: Is it going to change?
TN: Yes, in fact, it is already changing, and has been since the 1970s. These are my reasons to believe:
1. This is the time of the woman entrepreneur. Women want it, cultures want it, governments want it. There are leading NGOs and private-public partnerships in place celebrating women entrepreneurs and their actual and potential contribution to economies worldwide. Others are actively working to develop the infrastructures to identify, support and fund women entrepreneurs including Women Equity for Growth and a partner global organization, the We Own It Summit.
2. The global recession has put entrepreneurship and innovation in the spotlight. Decision makers increasingly realize that putting 50% of the talent on the sidelines doesn’t make economic sense. As economic development plans include entrepreneurs, they are highlighting the potential of women entrepreneurs.
3. Developing nations see it differently. Different cultures with different traditions are playing a larger and larger role in the world economy. Math and science training for girls and women India is de rigueur. It’s no surprise our first outstanding biotechnology engineer entrepreneur, billionaire Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, has built her business, Biocon, from India. China’s legacy of communist thinking and one-child policy provide a select but numerically large group of women with education and family capital that is unparalleled. These two countries are expected to constitute half of the world’s population by 2050, so in fact, change is inevitable.
4. The western women’s movement of the 1970s has had an impact. The millenial generation, those born in the west after 1980, approach the world differently – they are tech saavy and relationship oriented. They’ve had the benefits of sex based anti-discrimination laws and their fathers and mothers, now at the pinnacles of their careers, are their strongest advocates. In my own research, more than half of college aged women today expressed an interest in launching a business someday.
YLG: Examples of the builders of tomorrow’s giants?
TN: One focus of my research work is what I call the “Global 500 of tomorrow”. From a U.S. perspective, I use the data of the Women’s President’s Organization to examine the industry patterns and engagement of women entrepreneurs. This profile is definitely different than the companies where we see women excelling at the ages of 50-65 today. We see much more tech, more health care – still a majority in services. This shows us that the economic profile of women entrepreneurs is changing.
I think to a large extent, this research has not yet been done in Europe – digging down to the next generation and examining “the stars”. I believe extensions and partnerships of Women Equity for Growth can accomplish this in the next decade for France providing Europe with models of excellence of value that will benefit women entrepreneurs (actual and aspirational), business organizations, and government.
YLG: Women are heading large companies in Europe and the USA. Is it easier to progress in large groups than to become an industry captain? If so why? Is it harder to convince markets, or is it the financial milieu?
TN: I have two answers to this – the first is that the question itself must be challenged as one representing a past or passing time in employment relations. For women in college today in many parts of the world, it will not be a question of choosing whether to be an employee of a large company or an entrepreneur for a lifetime. Given the turbulence in the economic environment and changes in the basic relationship of employee/employer since the 1980s, it has become/is increasingly becoming (depending on your geography) a matter of managing your career over time in a variety of venues. This means in practice, 20-30 year olds today will be joining a company, then leaving to work with a start-up, then launching their own venture, then returning to head a unit or existing company, then redefining their career at 55-60 years to satisfy their personal and professional goals. I work with these kinds of “career entrepreneurs” every day now.
In this way, being an entrepreneur is about gaining and training a skill set for life – to understand risk and opportunity, to be able to sell an idea and gain partners. These skills are relevant in any kind of business of the future.
My second answer is more pragmatic. When we look at the statistics – women have made real gains in employment status in the last 40 years [...]
I believe we need to think of entrepreneurship less as an individual task and more as a team sport. Couples and families should be considered as core entrepreneurial network, and a range of partners should be engaged to get the business off the ground. If we can do this, and integrate family and personal life in the mix, entrepreneurship provides a way of life that is much more amenable to a satisfied life. I believe more Millenial and Gen Y women and men will see this as they move into their 30s and 40s.
Dr. Teresa Nelson holds the Elizabeth J. McCandless Professor of Entrepreneurship Chair at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. She is also the Director of the School of Management's Entrepreneurship Program. Her teaching, research, and consulting focus on issues of entrepreneurship and global business, most particularly around start-up and growth company governance and top management team dynamics. She has been engaged for more than a decade with global business issues, especially in China and the European Union. She is a member of the Scientific Committee of Women Equity for Growth.
This list collectively represents 300 business founder owners from 50 companies representing collectively $ 300B in sales and 50 countries.
Self made billionaires on this list include: Oprah Winfrey, Cher Wang, J.K. Rowling, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, Rosalie Mera.