At the end of the trip home from Alt Summit in January, I was sitting in Oakland’s baggage claim, completely exhausted. I’d just spent a whirlwind three days at a nearly mile-high altitude, running meetings, networking, pitching business deals, teaching, and of course learning. I’d done it all pregnant in heels, and had rewarded myself on the way home with an inflight panic attack that required me to be put on oxygen by the lovely in flight crew. (No surprise there. Wear yourself into the ground, and that’s what you get.)
The gentleman next to me at the airport had clearly also come in from Salt Lake, and he asked me if I’d been there for the huge conference that takes place at the same time as Alt every January, The Outdoor Retailers show. I explained that no, I’d been at a conference for women entrepreneurs, because that’s the best terminology I have at the moment to sum up what happens at Alt.
Nursing In The Board Room
Alt Summit was founded as a blogging conference, but as the Internet has changed (and blogging as a business has given way to new formats and new businesses) the conference also evolved. Almost all of the powerhouse women in attendance use the Internet as a driving force for their businesses, but the crowd ranges from Susan Peterson and her now multi-million dollar baby moccasins empire (as powered by Instagram), Jordan Ferney and her newly launched Bright Lab Lights (as powered by Instagram, Pinterest, and her killer site), Lisa Congdon and her six books and endless illustration work (you’ll find her on Instagram and her blog), and oh right, the CEO of Polyvore. Just for starters.
As an entrepreneur himself, the man started peppering me with questions about the conference, and how it being by and for women changed things. I tried to offer a quick sum up of what had stood out to me over the course of the week. The fact that you’d catch women taking business meetings while nursing a newborn. That dads and other partners routinely showed up as the support team, taking care of one or more tiny children so a mom of toddlers (or six kids) could be on her A-game. Or that a tiny baby was fussing behind me at lunch while two big time female CEO’s were interviewed, and all that garnered was some smiles.
As I tried to sum this up in a succinct sentence or two, you could see the wheels in his head turning, trying to understand what I was saying. Finally he said, “But, I don’t understand. Why would you bring a baby to a conference? Conference tickets are expensive.” And I blinked, realizing the depth of male privilege in the working world.
Why would you bring a baby to a conference? Well, the year I brought mine, it was because he was six weeks old, I had just given birth and was nursing, and he couldn’t be separated from me for more than a few hours. If I hadn’t been able to bring him to the conference without question, I wouldn’t have been able to attend. But there are plenty of other reasons. Because you don’t have a sitter. Or because you support your whole family, so your partner is more than happy to come help you out you while you do your thing. Or because that’s why you went into business for yourself in the first place.
And it’s not that Alt Summit is a conference all about women with kids. I spent years attending Alt before I had kids, and there are tons of women in those halls who don’t have kids yet, and plenty who never plan to. In fact, one of the great things about that conference is that they’re all part of the same big crowd. There are conferences that are focused on women’s identity as “moms,” and those conferences are not my scene. I’m there as a business person, not as a mom, thank you.
But I also happen to be a businessWOMAN, with a small child, and complicated female biology that doesn’t always make things straightforward. Getting spend a few days in a place where women walk around doing their jobs nine months pregnant and three centimeters dilated (Because that is an actual conversation I’ve had. “How are you?” “Dilated!”) means that for that tiny window of time, I know that nobody going to try to hold me back no matter what life choices I make. If I want to slow down, because of kids, or my life goals, or just because I feel like it, that’s accepted and encouraged. But If I want to do a huge business deal through mild contractions… well… what exactly is wrong with that?
In The (Pink) Ghetto
All of which brings me to the idea of Pink Entrepreneurship, the term I use to describe being a woman who runs a business in a women’s space. (This phenomenon has otherwise been described as the “Pink Ghetto” and “Pink Collar” work.) As someone who works in weddings—an industry that could not get any pinker if you dumped a bucket of pink glitter on it, which I could get behind—I live with constant shaming when I tell people what I do. I’m a reasonably young woman, so when I tell someone that I run a wedding business, there are two assumptions that are commonly made. One, that I couldn’t get over my wedding. And two, that I must have a hobby business that my husband supports.
If I were a guy, running a business in the same space, everyone would assume I was a crazy smart businessman. Why? Because weddings are big business. Market-research firm IBISWorld estimates the US wedding market as being a $51 billion industry employing 800,000 people. A growth industry in this post DOMA world, at that. (Though the issue of thinking of gay weddings in terms of dollar signs is… too big to get into here.) And men who run growing businesses in lucrative industries are generally considered to be smart business people. But the average assumption about me seems to be that I probably play with ribbon all day, with a veil on my head, while my husband goes to his real job and earns a paycheck.
The problem is that we just can’t shake the idea that things that women are interested in are just not worthwhile. Or as Venturebeat’s Jolie O’Dell memorably put it on Twitter,”Women: stop making start-ups about fashion, shopping, and babies. At least for the next few years. You’re embarrassing me.” There is this idea that “lady things,” you know, raising kids, planning weddings, getting dressed, or shopping for food, are not worth taking seriously. Though less serious areas in the “men’s space” are somehow worthy. (Because you know, beer, powerful trucks, and golf deserve your respect. Or at least your business investment dollars.)
It’s a Pink, Pink World
Increasingly, however, a male-dominated entrepreneurship space makes no sense. Forbes reports that, “Women represent the largest market opportunity in the world. Globally, they control $20 trillion in annual consumer spending (U.S. dollars). In the next five years, it is expected that this number will rise to $28 trillion. How much is that? It is more than the markets of China and India combined—the largest growth markets in the world.” More specifically, eighty-five percent of purchases and purchase influences in the US are made by women, and fifty percent of products typically marketed to men are bought by women. But ninety-one percent of women say marketers don’t understand them, because of course they don’t.
Women are still marketed to like we’re a bunch of stereotypes, and not particularly smart ones that that. Plus, we’re condescended to. The number of emails I get about “What every Bride wants…” (like the marketer on the other end of the email has a better sense of that than me, the marriageable-aged woman) is staggering. And what marketers think “Every bride wants” is appallingly bad. (A crown that looks like you could get it at the Disney Store, but for $700?)
So while entrepreneurs should obviously go after markets they really understand, women are urged to stay away from silly things like baby moccasins, or Spanx, or wedding publishing. Even if they know exactly how to build a better mousetrap. Because if only women want your mousetrap, your mousetrap is a frivolous waste of time.
Even when women start successful businesses, they’re not taken seriously. Candy Brush, a professor at Babson College and a coauthor of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s 2012 Women Entrepreneurship Report was quoted by Forbes as saying that there are still mistaken perceptions “that women only start hobby-based businesses that are unscaleable.” (Which could bring us to a whole different discussion of if all business people even want, or should want, their businesses to be scaleable.) Or as Jamie Ladge, assistant professor of management at Northeastern’s College of Business Administration put it, pink collar businesses are viewed by VC’s (and I’d argue, the random guy on I chat with on the playground) as “business light. The stigma is that they’re fun and easy and maybe begun because she’s bored. In other words, not profit-driven.”
Or to paraphrase my friend Susan, “I love when people underestimate me. Then I can eat them for lunch.”
The Gap In The Market
Smart businesses are made by capitalizing on gaps in the market. Gaps in markets that you really understand. Gaps in markets that allow your particular skills and knowledge base to shine. And I’d argue that the facts currently point to the hugest gap in the market that the world has ever seen—marketing things to the huge and growing purchasing power of women consumers that… they don’t hate. In a way that isn’t condescending. Done, perhaps, by other women, who have a pretty good idea of “what every bride wants…” (That was a trick statement of course, since the answer is NOTHING. “Every bride” is not a market, and “every bride” doesn’t want the same damn thing.)
APW’s Year of #PinkEntreprenurship With Squarespace (and that $5,000 Scholarship)
All of that brings me to the project that we’re so proud to be collaborating with Squarespace on this year. For 2015, we’ll be focusing on Pink Entrepreneurship. We’ll be talking about, and to, women who run businesses in markets traditionally considered to be “women’s spaces.” We’ll also be giving away a ,000 scholarship to a small business looking to take it to the next level this year. (Finalists to be announced February 27th!)
My personal goals for this project are two-fold: to bring more awareness to the fantastic, and really, really smart women running businesses in the “Pink Ghetto.” And to inspire more women (yeah, I’m talking to you) to start the businesses you’ve been dreaming about for years, or take the business you have to the next level. Businesses that capitalize on that way better (obviously silly, and frivolous, because ladies will buy it) mousetrap.
Because I’m tired of all the hot new businesses, as one New Yorker article memorably put it, being geared to solving the problems of guys who are “twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.” While they may be who the world is paying attention to, the truth is, they’re not the ones making the majority of the world’s buying decisions. Or wearing the Spanx. Or getting the damn groceries.
Nope, that’s women.
Squarespace offers tools (and a special APW-only discount) to build your business website without a ton of capital investment, or even a knowledge of coding. (Which plenty of women have got, but I do not.) They offer sleek, minimal designs that you can customize to your business’ needs (but that are professionally designed, so you don’t actually have to do much customization).
This post was sponsored by Squarespace. The Squarespace mission is to provide creative tools that give a voice to your ideas, so you can skip the hair-pulling part of building a business (aka making a website) and get right down to actually doing business (aka making that money). You can find out how the new Squarespace 7 makes building your business website even easier by clicking right here. In conjunction with our Pink Entrepreneurship partnership, Squarespace is offering APWers a 10% discount on yearly subscriptions when you use the code APW15 at checkout. Click here to start your 14-day free trial.