For Jean Brittingham, founder of social venture SmartGirls Way, the road to a better future and thriving economy is paved with connections. In particular, connections that help women entrepreneurs bring their innovative ideas to life and start and scale successful businesses. Having founded several start-ups, worked in government, academia, and business, and spent 17 years in sustainable business, Jean is a passionate believer in the idea that women have unique strengths that position them for success in creating a thriving economy. “I work with women entrepreneurs because that’s the way to change the economy. We need to leverage the strong skills and mechanisms women have,” Jean explains.
As part of their research on women entrepreneurs, Jean and SmartGirls book co-author Tracey Ann Collins conducted more than 200 interviews. Through their research, they identified six key feminine attributes that women rely on for success: integrity, intuition, creativity, passion (the rocket fuel for any entrepreneurial venture), curiosity (which helps women navigate the unknown), and weaving. Weaving, the most feminine of the six attributes, is a combination of networking, connecting, and juggling multiple ideas at once.
For women entrepreneurs, integrity is especially prominent. “This is a deep trend. Women care deeply about changing things,” Jean says. In order for women to have greater impact on the economy, change is needed. The following statistics show that in the United States, although women are primary purchasers and women-owned businesses are growing faster than the national average, women-owned businesses are generating far less revenue relative to businesses owned by men, and there are far fewer women CEOs. As Jean puts it, “We have buying power like crazy but no economic clout.”
- 74.9% of women in the United States identified themselves as the primary shoppers for their households, according to the Survey of the American Consumer (2011), published by GFK Mediamark Research & Intelligence.
- Women currently hold only 4.0 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 4.1 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions, according to a Catalyst Report published in July 2012.
- Women owned-businesses in the United States are growing at a rate exceeding the national average (they account for 29% of all enterprises). However, women-owned firms employ only 6% of the national workforce and contribute just under 4% of business revenue, according to the American Express OPEN State of Women-Owned Businesses Report published in 2011.
Women’s Economic Empowerment, an issues paper published in April 2011 by the DAC Network on Gender Equality, indicates that similar trends are occurring on a global basis.
What are the barriers to success for women entrepreneurs? Jean says that although women are good at building relationships, asking their networks for help does not come as naturally for women. “Culturally we’re programmed to nurture, and nurturing doesn’t have ‘ask’ built into it,” she says.
SmartGirls Way: An Innovative Approach to Empowering Women Entrepreneurs
Jean founded SmartGirls way to address these and other potential barriers to success for women entrepreneurs. Launched in August 2010, SmartGirls Way is dedicated to empowering women entrepreneurs to create significant economic breakthroughs for themselves, their communities, and the next economy. By helping women to leverage their unique strengths and access critical knowledge, networks, people, and capital they need, SmartGirls Way helps women build successful businesses. To do so, SmartGirls Way provides has developed the following resources:
- The SmartGirls Way: Strengths, Success, and Significance—A Path for Women Entrepreneurs: Published in December 2011, this book provides a road map for overcoming obstacles and scaling a business, with stories and lessons learned from successful entrepreneurs. The book also provides free access to the SmartGirls Way Mirror, an online diagnostic tool that focuses on the six feminine attributes that Jean and Tracey identified during their research (integrity, intuition, creativity, passion, curiosity, and weaving). The tool helps identify how these attributes align against an entrepreneur’s vision, start-up, or business, and how an entrepreneur can most effectively leverage the attributes.
- 100×100: Featuring 5-minute videos and written biographies of 100 women entrepreneurs from more than 40 industries, 100×100 provides inspiring and accessible examples of how women entrepreneurs are changing the economy, one business at a time. Entrepreneurs describe how they built their businesses, offer advice to other women entrepreneurs, and describe which of the six feminine attributes they use to achieve success in their businesses.
- Focus on Solutions Series (FOSS): As a series of roundtables taking place in Philadelphia, Stanford, and Seattle, FOSS discussions delve into key aspects of the entrepreneurial ecosystem to determine how well it is working, particularly for women entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurial ecosystem includes access to finance, mentors, talent, markets, and support services. Roundtables gather women entrepreneurs and other key players in a featured area of the ecosystem to discuss best practices based on real-world experience. The goal of the series is to create a blueprint for entrepreneurial ecosystems that will increase the success of women-led startups and young companies.
- Constellation: Currently in the planning stages, Constellation ™ is an innovative platform that will connect women to the entrepreneurial ecosystem–business leaders, resources, and talent, and support–to help them grow their businesses. Designed as a combination of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, Constellation will guide women through a 10-to 15-week process featuring just-in-time learning and rich networking resources. These resources will help support aspiring women entrepreneurs from ideation, startup, to scale-up, and then provide them with an ongoing network.
Constellation: Helping Women Entrepreneurs Leverage Existing and Potential Business Connections
Of all the SmartGirls Way projects, Jean is most excited by Constellation. Constellation uses existing social network APIs to leverage entrepreneurs’ existing (and potential) connections. This enables Constellation to make intelligent recommendations for business contacts that will enable participants to build networks that are relevant to their businesses. Because Constellation is driven by a content management system (CMS), the platform will also support curated, community-driven content and enable participants to retrieve just-in-time learning resources. For example, if a participant has a specific challenge, she could type the challenge and Constellation would respond by serving up a relevant video to address the challenge. Constellation will also encourage accountability by providing week-to-week tasks for entrepreneurs to complete to help move them from ideation to scale-up and ongoing success.
Jean’s Advice to Aspiring Entrepreneurs: Find Your True North
What advice does Jean offer to aspiring entrepreneurs? “Find your own true north and then be prepared to pivot.” She adds that sometimes it may be appropriate to give up a business if it doesn’t scale, but even then, it is important to never forget your true north.
What is Jean’s true north? That question is perhaps best answered in the following excerpt from the Robert Frost poem, Two Tramps in Mud Time, which she read aloud during our interview and finds deeply inspiring:
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.
With SmartGirls way, Jean combines her avocation and vocation and makes it her life’s work to change the economy to one that can work for all humankind and the planet. One woman at a time.
SmartGirls Way founder Jean Brittingham is a featured speaker at the Women in Innovation Summit (WINS) 2012 on September 22, 2012, at the Intiman Theater in Seattle. To learn more about SmartGirls Way, visit http://www.smartgirlsway.com/.
Connie Rock is a writer, photographer, and inveterate traveler who has been to more than 30 countries. She holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University, and will begin studies this fall in the Master of Communication in Digital Media program at the University of Washington.