6 things I’ve learned from a decade working with female entrepreneurs

Women entrepreneurs are no longer “hidden figures.” They are more visible and successful than ever. Yet it’s still true that few women founders achieve levels of business success typical of some of their male counterparts.

Many continue to face the same challenges in scaling their companies that a decade ago inspired EY to launch Entrepreneurial Winning Women, a global program that helps women entrepreneurs accelerate the growth of their businesses.

Through our experience with these founders, we’ve identified six steps the most successful women entrepreneurs undertake to break through to scale. Every growth-minded entrepreneur can benefit from heeding this advice.

1. Think bigger and bolder — and act on it

Reaching scale starts with a “think big and be bold” mindset and the courage to pursue ambitious ideas.

EY Winning Woman Elisabete Miranda, founder of CQ fluency, a Hackensack, New Jersey-based translation services company, integrated this “think big and be bold” attitude into every aspect of her business, particularly in terms of asking for what she needs. “I truly embraced the concept of ‘being bold’ and have transformed the way I think, act and lead,” she says. “One of my favorite sayings now is, ‘You don’t get what you don’t ask for.’ ”

2. Surround yourself with like-minded peers

Other entrepreneurs may understand best what it takes to grow a company from the ground up. That’s why it’s valuable to join a community of peers who can offer advice based on their own experiences.

Peer networks can also be useful sources of business-building ideas and opportunities. Another entrepreneur may see synergies between your company and theirs, or be able to connect you with key contacts. Even if your network doesn’t introduce you to your next big customer, peers can reinforce your ambition, celebrate the milestone moments and offer support when things don’t break your way.

Kathy Cheng, president and founder of Redwood Classics Apparel, a Toronto-based apparel manufacturer, found that being part of our global community of women entrepreneurs validated her efforts and motivated her to expand her company beyond what she thought was possible. “The support, life lessons and professional guidance have given me a fresh perspective while reaffirming my confidence and inspiring me to take many leaps of faith. I’m no longer apologetic about wanting to grow my business,” she says.

3. Consider outside funding

Historically, women have lacked access to outside cash to fuel their companies’ growth. This is one reason they are more likely than men to bootstrap. In fact, according to the 2017 Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO) Business Outlook Survey, 68% of female CEOs and owners of multimillion-dollar companies used their personal savings to launch their businesses.

But your own cash can only take you so far. If you plan to scale you will likely reach strategic inflection points that require significant capital infusions. In fact, looking to the next generation, women entrepreneurs ranked access to capital as the most important factor in helping women founders grow their companies, according to the WPO survey.

The right outside funding can provide a growing business with far more than money. Seasoned investors can offer valuable business experience and operational acumen to the companies in which they invest. Katie Warner Johnson, founder and CEO of Carbon38, an LA-based online luxury activewear retailer, recognized this truth. She recently secured a strategic investment from Foot Locker, enabling her to take advantage of important synergies and expand the company’s omnichannel strategy, both in the US and abroad.

4. Use advisors to get smarter

Successful entrepreneurs know what they don’t know, what their business needs and how to secure advice from other seasoned executives. You don’t need a network of 1,000, or even 100. You just need access to a handful of advisors who know what you don’t and are willing to share their expertise episodically or regularly, depending upon your needs.

Think about where you are taking your company and what strategic input will be essential in that effort. To boost your pool of potential advisors, ask your entrepreneur peers for referrals. Tap into local and national entrepreneur networks. Prepare a question every time you attend an event. One small piece of advice or one introduction can accelerate the path to growth or keep you out of trouble you didn’t see coming.

Lili Hall, president and CEO of Minneapolis-based KNOCK inc., a full-experience creative agency, formalized this support through an advisory board. She gathered business leaders she respected, with complementary experience that was different from her own. Lili says her board has been tremendously helpful in filling the gaps in her own leadership expertise, enabling the company to strengthen and grow in new ways.

5. Learn to work on the business and not just in it

Some entrepreneurs hang on to operations for too long, instead of replacing themselves with able managers who can run the company while the founder focuses on more strategic areas and growth prospects.

With this in mind, one area to focus on is building a public profile in the media and within the broader business community. Making time for speaking, writing and/or developing a social media presence may seem extraneous for a busy entrepreneur, but these investments can reap big rewards by reinforcing your brand and promoting your company to influencers who can impact its growth.

Lisa Hufford, founder and CEO of Simplicity Consulting, a Kirkland, Washington-based enterprise marketing services consultancy, authored a book about shifting trends in the talent market. The book burnished her credentials, led to media interest and helped raise her profile with existing and prospective clients.

 6. Pay it forward and become a great place to work

You can pay it forward even if you haven’t yet “made it big.” The women entrepreneurs we know express a “bring others along” ethos. In fact, 90% of Entrepreneurial Winning Women mentor women outside their own organizations, according to our recent EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women Global Impact Study.

Paving a path for others doesn’t have to require a lot of money or time. Start by sharing what you know. Speak at peer networks, offer your advice during events or volunteer to counsel students. Lili Hall wanted to help young women network. So she created a program that gives Minneapolis college women regular opportunities to mingle with members of the business community.

As you achieve greater levels of success you can also consider realizing greater impact. Sherry Deutschmann, founder of Nashville, Tennessee-based LetterLogic, a printing services company she sold last year, has parlayed her own success into creating opportunities for future generations of women entrepreneurs. As CEO of Sunset Ventures, she now invests in women-owned companies that, like LetterLogic, have an employee-first culture.

In the early years of building your company, you may be tempted to keep your head down, working exclusively in the business. But you’ll miss opportunities to take your company further, faster. Instead, keep these steps in mind as you grow your company. Start with the courage to think big and be bold. And never underestimate what you can accomplish.

Lisa Schiffman, Global Leader and Founder, EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women™