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Growing Girl Entrepreneurs
Posted on June 20, 2012 by Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie

Young entrepreneurs don’t just happen. They are inspired by those around them. But sometimes, it takes a little push or a shot of confidence, especially for girls. Ballooning Nest Eggs contributor, Natalie Gingerich Mackenzie explains how to pass on the wealth.

I was watching TV the other night when a Best Buy commercial caught my attention. One after another, inventors and entrepreneurs hold up a device or mobile technology for our cell phones: tiny cameras, Siri, Scrabble games, and even text messaging. Ten different inventors, all 10 men. What’s up with that?

 

Apparently, the Best Buy commercial isn’t so different from the male-dominated world of digital entrepreneurs. When Ballooning Nest Eggs’own (female) CEO and founder, Amy Moses, presents her investor pitch to venture capital firms or attends investor-focused start-up events, she finds the same.

 

“I’m typically the only female founder there and presenting entirely to men,” she says of her experiences.  She was the only female founder out of 14 at the 2012 InnoTribe Startup Challenge where Ballooning Nest Eggs was a semi-finalist and presented to a room full of all men at a recent  New York Angels screening committee gathering.

 

Female-owned businesses are certainly growing. The number jumped by 44% from 1997 to 2007, doubling the pace of male-owned firms in that same period, according to a 2010 government report: Women-Owned Businesses in the 21st Century. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Sure, plenty of women are launching small businesses or going to work for themselves, but fewer are taking the big risks to start what industry insiders refer to as “scalable ventures.” That means products or businesses that might take considerably more risk (including cash investment) to launch, but that have the potential to grow exponentially larger than the original entrepreneur–the difference between becoming a self-employed photographer versus inventing Instagram.

 

At the Y-Combinator (YC) a prestigious start-up “incubator” for digital entrepreneurs, just about 4% of those accepted are women each year, says Jessica Livingston, a YC partner.

 

At YC, Livingston attributes the gender gap largely to the applicant pool rather than discrimination alone. While there aren’t stats to turn to (there’s no question about gender on the application) her perception from seeing names on the applications suggests are simply fewer women putting their hats in the ring.

 

Where girls are concerned, it’s more important to inspire them to launch their small business than to worry about scaling it up. That discussion can come later. If there are fewer women in the pools, it’s clear we need to start by instilling confidence in our girls so they may be willing to become young entrepreneurs in the first place, something Girl Scouts and Girls Inc. seek to do.

 

However, there is no place better than starting the process at home.

 

When Chris Denham began her insurance software company, Infinity Systems Consulting, in 1989, she put her own money on the line—money she’d saved over the first decade of her career in the insurance industry. “It was a huge career risk,” she says. “I was an assistant comptroller with job offers to be a CFO, and instead I decided to go to business school.”

 

While Denham sold the company and retired five years ago, she has planted the entrepreneurial bug in her own kids, especially her 17-year-old daughter, Maggie Stein, a student at the Calhoun School in NYC. Maggie began a business selling greeting cards when she was just 13, and has a travel web site idea simmering on the back burner (but was smart enough to secure the URL even though she has not developed it yet).

 

For the card sales, Denham helped her daughter figure out the nuts and bolts—how much the cards cost to make, how much to charge, and how to get supplies. Out of that experience grew her college essay on starting her own business and why she would like to dual major in education and entrepreneurship with a goal to ultimately graduate and start an educational business. She plans to attend Gettysburg College in fall 2012.

 

But that can-do entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t without hiccups. Denham remembers going to the beach with her daughter and niece when they were 13 years old and hearing them talk about how they could never be lifeguards because all the lifeguards were boys. “It was like somebody flipped the switch and started talking about the things they could never do because they were girls,” Denham says. “I’d worked so hard to make sure they’d never think like that,” but realized that message hadn’t gotten through. As if a light bulb went on, she suggested, “Let’s start a business.”

 

In the Denham household, entrepreneurship is part of family life. In addition to her daughter’s card business, Denham’s 15-year-old son makes and sells duct tape wallets, raking in, she estimates, probably $400 or $500 dollars from the enterprise. He plans to sell them on his sister’s web site once she gets it up and running.

 

 Read more: It Takes a Village to Grow Wealth

 

Clearly, entrepreneurship is part of the Denham world. Around the dinner table, the talk regularly focuses on business ideas, whether it’s the kids’ business or what’s going on in their parents’ careers. “We talk about the possibility that you could be an entrepreneur and start your own business with equal weight that you could do anything else,” she says. Any kind of business the kids are interested in—it doesn’t matter if it’s scalable, what the economics would be, or if they’ll be interested in this forever. It’s about not being afraid to talk about ideas or to just go for something. Early on, they had stoop sales, selling their old toys and then giving the money to a lady around the corner that feeds stray cats. “It doesn’t have to be some lofty thing like curing cancer,” Denham says. “It’s just an emotional reward for doing something with an economic return. I didn’t make them give it away, but that’s what they wanted to do.”

 

How to inspire young entrepreneurs:

 

Show it’s possible to start a business. Talk about new business ideas—big and small—over the dinner table, in the car, even while watching television together. Encourage her to both dream and do.

 

Work out the details together. Help with research on what products or services already exist, how to develop pricing strategies, and together, figure out how she can make the project become real.

 

Don’t make it an overwhelming project.  While more women creating scalable ventures is certainly a good goal, your daughter doesn’t need to worry about that now. She doesn’t have to create the next Facebook, nor does every idea have to become her life’s work. Kids’ interests change over time, and even small projects can teach big lessons.

 

How do you inspire your young entrepreneurs? Join the discussion on Ballooning Nest Eggs Facebook page.