Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Starting your own business is hard. Here's some advice

One big factor in a rise in female entrepreneurship is the increasing number of role models and leaders. They talk about how they launched their organisations, fund-raising and more

By Kerry Hannon
Published: Nov 21, 2019

Starting your own business is hard. Here's some adviceOne big factor in a rise in female entrepreneurship is the increasing number of role models and leaders.
Image: Harriet Lee-Merrion/The New York Times

These women are shaking up their industries around the world by making bets on their vision and on themselves. They have started their own businesses to solve problems, to follow dreams and passions. While they have doggedly kept their businesses moving forward, they have reached back to counsel and invest in other women.

One big factor in a rise in female entrepreneurship is the increasing number of role models and leaders, said Joanne Hession, founder of The Entrepreneurs Academy. They are “important, observable examples of what can be accomplished by women,” she said.

They talk about how they launched their organizations, the challenges of fundraising, and they provide some advice.

LuLu O’Sullivan

As a young girl, O’Sullivan spent Saturday mornings watching her grandmother deftly chat up customers at the counter of her sweet shop on Merrion Row in Dublin. “Granny was quite a character,” said O’Sullivan, founder of, the largest online retailer in Ireland, and, which sells Irish products globally. “She loved running her own business. Customers would walk blocks past other similar stores just to spend a few minutes with her.”

In 1987, O’Sullivan embarked on her own journey as an entrepreneur, selling teddy bears and driving a moped to deliver them. She took off with startup capital of 2,000 pounds funded by her friends and family — and the soul of her grandmother driving her forward.

Seek out women-friendly initiatives and supporters. “Going for Growth is an initiative to support female entrepreneurs in the Republic of Ireland. Look for funders who support women-owned businesses. Enterprise Ireland, for example, has a special fund for female entrepreneurs.”

Keep learning. “In 2009, the opportunity to attend an intensive yearlong program sponsored by Enterprise Ireland, Leadership 4 Growth, held at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, boosted my leadership, strategic capability and confidence. It was like an MBA with no exams, thank you. This was a game-changer in the business. It allowed me to step back and say ‘hang on a second what is it we really need to do to get to the next stage?’”

Build a strong team. “Hire the right people around you. You don’t need to be sitting in every meeting. Delegate, and take time for self-reflection. Have an excellent financial person beside you. I was all about sales and marketing and a beautiful website, and I had to learn that one. Know what you’re good at and not good at to fill the gaps in the leadership team.”

Kristen Miller and Amanda Johnson Mented Cosmetics

Miller, known as KJ, and Johnson, founders of New York City-based Mented Cosmetics, were frustrated they couldn’t find makeup for dark-skinned women like themselves. “We decided if we couldn’t find that brand, we would create that brand,” Miller said. They started in 2017.

Start small. “If it’s something you’re passionate about, find a way to start testing it and doing it, even if it’s on a really small scale,” Miller said. “Instead of debuting with a wide range of makeup products, we had a niche product-nude lipstick.”

Partner with someone. “There are eight bazillion things that have to be done, and having someone who is a sounding board to bounce ideas off, to push back when something doesn’t make sense, is really helpful,” Miller said. You can play off each other’s strengths. Miller focuses on communication and long-range strategy; Johnson is the day-to-day, detail-oriented, hands-on operator.

Go after your network. “The world truly does work on a ‘who you know’ basis, and even in the best intentions people invest in, and want to work, with people who look like them, talk like them, have similar experiences,” Johnson said.

Practice makes perfect. “When we talk to investors now, we ask them what they can do for us,” Miller said. “In the beginning, we never did that because we needed the money. Our question was always: What can we do for you, and how many ways can we show you how amazing we are, and how much data can we show you, what kind of dog and pony show can we put on? Now we have a better understanding that No. 1 this is a partnership.”

Fran Dunaway and Naomi Gonzalez TomboyX

Dunaway, wanted a comfortable, button-down dress shirt. “What really kicked off this journey was my frustration with the lack of choices that fit my style,” she said.

In 2013, she started TomboyX with Naomi Gonzalez via a Kickstarter campaign to fund the manufacturing of the shirt. The next year, TomboyX introduced its first boxer brief for women — a product requested by numerous customers. Based on the demand for the briefs, TomboyX pivoted to focus on gender-neutral underwear and related apparel.

Lean in to each other. “Women are gathering into groups, teaching each other and getting smarter about investment, about finance, about funding,” Dunaway said. “Seek out pitch competitions and incubators and women’s entrepreneur networks near you. Look for firms that make investments in other women, such as the Women’s Capital Connection.” Being part of the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program in 2017 also bolstered Dunaway’s network. The program provides high-potential female entrepreneurs with education, connections and community.

Lay the groundwork. “Have a thoughtful strategy around why you are raising capital and what your investors will get out of an investment,” Dunaway said. “Build a strategy around who you talk to, so you don’t waste your time kissing any frogs. Have they invested in companies like you before? Is this their sweet spot? What do I want from them besides a check? You will save yourself so much heartache by being strategic about that and using your network on LinkedIn to get introductions.”

Amy Nelson The Riveter

Nelson of Seattle was looking for a workplace where she could network with other women. When she could only find a co-working space that was male-centric, she decided in 2017 to open her own — The Riveter.

Know what you’re selling. “Your job as an entrepreneur is to tell them how they will make money. I have had to overcome the perception that I am a woman, a mother, in my late 30s, so I made a decision to take it head-on and describe how I see motherhood as a strength. I would hear: ‘Great pitch ... but I have to ask are you physically up for this? Are you physically up for building a national company? You have three kids and one is a baby, can you do this?’”

Put yourself out there. “Enter pitch competitions. I entered a small-business competition when I was thinking about launching The Riveter. The competition forced me to get everything together — to write a financial projection, a business plan, to figure out how to pitch my business. It was a compressed amount of time, and I was forced into this funnel. I often wonder: Would I have made the jump if I hadn’t done that? It pushed my idea forward to a place of action.”

Claudine Adeyemi Career Ear

Adeyemi, creator of London-based Career Ear, discovered the challenges of trying to find a job and a career path when she didn’t have resources or role models. She lived it and was determined to make that transition easier for others, so in 2016 she launched her own online career advice and networking app and website.

Think bigger. “I’m still learning this myself. Most women and, certainly, women of color, often don’t dream as big as men. If you’re thinking of a particular problem that you want to solve, or business you want to launch, be thinking of how that can be done at its biggest possible scale.”

Take action. “If there’s a cause you care about, or an issue that you want to resolve, do something. Maybe your project will turn into a hobby and not a business venture, but you get into the habit of making a start. You will learn along the way and impact, no matter how small, is still impact.”

—— How Can Female Entrepreneurs Attract Financing?

By Kerry Hannon

The number of female entrepreneurs is on the rise around the world.

Women-owned businesses in the United States, for example, are surging, according to the 2019 State of Women-Owned Business Report from American Express. Between 2014 and this year, the number of such enterprises climbed 21%, to nearly 13 million.

By contrast, the number of businesses overall in the United States increased just 9%. Companies owned by women of color grew even more, by 43%.

Ireland and the rest of Europe have seen a burst in female entrepreneurship as well, said Joanne Hession, founder of The Entrepreneurs Academy, based in Dublin.

It’s generally acknowledged, however, that women get a fraction of venture capital globally and that those who are black, Hispanic or Asian get significantly less.

“Money is the biggest stumbling block for female-led startups,” said Suzanne Norris, a partner at Victress Capital, a Boston-based firm that invests in companies with female founders and gender-diverse teams.

“People invest in people who look like them,” said Nathalie Molina Niño, author of “Leapfrog: The New Revolution for Women Entrepreneurs” and chief executive of O³.

Still, leadership and financing experts say there are ways women can attract money to their startups.

Show your value. Half the challenge is seeing things through the lens of potential funders. Step into their shoes when you’re asked, “What’s your background? What have you done that shows your credibility to succeed in this business?” said Sanyin Siang, executive director of the Fuqua/Coach K Leadership and Ethics Center at Duke University and author of “The Launch Book: Motivational Stories to Launch Your Idea, Business or Next Career.”

“Don’t get defensive,” she added. “Lead them to your point of view.”

Create an inner peer circle. Start a “Mastermind” group of six to eight women with diversity in terms of ethnicity and industries, Molina Niño said. Commit to six to nine months of meetings. Come up with two or three concrete things to do each month, so you have accountability, which is imperative in the initial stages of entrepreneurship because that is a period full of unknowns, self-doubt and, in many cases, loneliness. To recruit your group, use every tool available: Facebook, LinkedIn, your school, your place of worship, your neighborhood bulletin boards, your chamber of commerce.

Seek out accelerators, incubators and pitch contests. Even if you don’t win, you create an ecosystem, connect with potential advisers and build your network. Stronger and broader networks are linked to improved access to a variety of funding sources, according to the Boston Consulting Group. “Peer-to-peer networks encourage women to set higher aspirations for their businesses, plan for growth and embrace innovation,” according to the researchers.

Be audacious. “Women tend to be more realistic, conservative and authentic about what they are asking for when it comes to funding,” Norris said. “Men think bigger and more boldly about their idea and conviction of where they’re going. Women undersell themselves and tend to downplay those things. When you’re betting on the person, you want to believe it’s big and it’s bold. Be boastful.”

Consider crowdsourcing. Crowdfunding via sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo is an effective way to get a business off the ground. There are also a few crowdfunding platforms specifically for female entrepreneurs, such as iFundWomen and Women You Should Fund. Find other similar businesses and projects that have crowdfunding campaigns and observe what levels they set for their goals. Each crowdfunding platform has a different fee structure.

Spread the word. If you have a burning idea or a young business, tell someone. Tell everyone, Molina Niño said. “Women have really good reason to be reticent to unveil things before they are fully baked, because the level of scrutiny that we are under is measurably more significant” than for men. “Perfection is what is expected of us,” she added. “Don’t rob yourself of the community think that helps your idea get better.”

©2019 New York Times News Service