Friday, November 15, 2013

Entrepreneurs, Women and Industry

When is a handmade good no longer considered handmade? Elizabeth Wayland Barber took up that question in her recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, "Etsy's Industrial Revolution." As I read her essay, I realized that she was bringing up topics much broader than the definition of handmade goods. She was also addressing the issue of women starting and running businesses.

Etsy, the site where artisans can sell their hand-crafted goods, has loosened its rules on the definition of handmade. Too many of its participants are finding it impossible to keep up with the demand for their goods, so they agitated to be allowed to start manufacturing their handcrafts. This change is running afoul of the Etsy ethos in some people's minds. Where do you draw the line?

Barber then draws upon history to make a point, women have been turning to machinery -- and inventing their own machines -- to allow themselves to create handcrafts to sell in order to feed and clothe their families. The drop spindle and the loom are both machines used for millennia all over the world to spin thread and make cloth. Would these machines be blocked by Etsy?

But this got me thinking of how hard women in all countries and in all economic levels find ways to start businesses to give themselves more control over their lives. The glory right now is going to tech startups. And Silicon Valley is being chastised for the lack of women-owned tech startups and women-owned venture-capital-backed businesses. Why are people so worried about women getting venture capital? 75% of venture-capital-backed startups fail.

The the small, manageable, low-tech businesses -- like making and selling handcrafts -- are more successful. These startups grow. And many of them are women-owned. Women are the unsung heroes of entrepreneurship. They are creative. They form businesses that create jobs and inject money into the economy. They manage their families and their businesses. Does it matter that they don't create million-dollar or billion-dollar companies?

We need to get away from lauding the male-dominated tech startups and start looking around at the entrepreneurial vigor in our own communities, particularly the women-owned startups.

Here are some choice quotes about women-owned businesses from the National Business Women's Council:

"Even as the nation’s economic growth slowed, employment in women-owned firms continued to expand while men-owned firms were contracting.1 Furthermore, projections indicate that the trend in employment growth among women-owned firms will continue. The Guardian Small Business Research Institute projects that women-owned businesses will create 5 to 5.5 million new jobs by 2018 – more than half the 9.7 million new small business jobs expected to be created and about one-third of the 15.3 million total new jobs anticipated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics by 2018.2

"Women-owned businesses already are serious players in this nation’s economy. An economic impact study conducted by the Center for Women’s Business Research and the National Women’s Business Council documented that majority women-owned firms today are driving more than 23 million jobs – both directly and indirectly."

Let's understand what's really happening out there. Women: stand up and be counted for your contributions to the economy.
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