Insightful Discussions
Dec 6, 2017

Women in Business: Achievements & Obstacles

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Within recent years, women have made great strides in the business world, both locally and across the country. They now hold a little more than half of all professional-level jobs in the United States, and the number of women in upper management positions is steadily on the rise.

Between 2015 and 2016, women’s entrepreneurship rates increased at twice the rate of their male counterparts and, according to last year’s Kauffman Index of Startup Activity, the number of new female-owned businesses is at its highest percentage in more than a decade.

Despite these rapid advancements, women still face a number of hurdles. Female business leaders and small business owners are more likely to struggle with work-life balance, as they juggle career and children. They may have to fight stereotypes and still fall short of men when it comes to securing top leadership roles and small business lending and financial backing.

That said, with the right resources in place, women are primed to succeed in business, based in large part on some unique characteristics and perspectives. Female CEOs and start-up founders have touted – and research has backed - a willingness to collaborate and help others, as well as intuition and patience – as strengths women in business have over their male peers.

We asked four local female entrepreneurs and leaders in their field to discuss those challenges, as well as the advantages to being a woman in business.

Do you think the Cape Fear region has mirrored state and national trends regarding the recent rise in female entrepreneurs and, if so, to what do you attribute the growth?

MICHELLE CLARK: The Cape Fear region is making strides – progress that is largely driven by people coming to the area – but we still aren’t in line with the state and national growth rates.

Our area still has a strong “good ol’ boy” network that makes it challenging for females to be as successful as their male counterparts.

WILMA magazine – especially WILMA’s Women to Watch Leadership Initiative – has made a huge impact on the growth of female entrepreneurs. WILMA’s expos, as well as the Women to Watch training, networking, encouragement and support, are fantastic.

And local women’s groups, like the Women’s Impact Network (WIN), are wonderful ways for likeminded women to come together and network while also making a difference in our community. The YWCA is another organization in our area whose mission is, in part, to encourage, empower and support women.

STEPHANIE LUTHER: What’s interesting about the Cape Fear region is we have WILMA, and I think that WILMA has done a really great job spotlighting women entrepreneurs in our area with the initiative and institute and Women to Watch.

I’m not sure whether that has impacted numbers but the fact that there are so many things out there to help women entrepreneurs in this area. Just having that network has really helped women in business in this area because there are a lot of very successful women in this area.

SARAH DOBBIN: This, for me, is a work in progress, especially as a single mother of a three- and five-year- old.
Union Home Mortgage has such a strong belief in having a family lifework balance, I think it really makes our jobs easier. There are systems and an amazing structure in place that allows us to work very efficiently and effectively so that we can have that balance. In turn, that structure also makes the process very streamlined for the borrower.

How have technological advancements helped open the door for women to become entrepreneurs or business leaders?

LUTHER: Just being able to utilize smartphones and things like the cloud and Google Drive helps balance home life and work life. I have three kids; I opened a business after my second and moved my store while I was pregnant with the third. I was able to balance all of that stuff. That’s a big obstacle that women face.

Having time management and the ability to use technology has really been helpful. Perfect example: me being in my kids’ pick-up line for school and being able to answer all my emails and clear out my inbox.

But knowing that those kinds of tools are there and knowing things like Google Drive are available, and being able to use Google Drive, so you don’t have to think, Oh no, I forgot my laptop and I can’t get my resale certificate to send to a vendor is so important.

There are so many moving parts, I don’t know what we would do without smartphones and tablets and other technology that is available. I mean, spreadsheets – what did we do without those?

CLARK: Technological advances have made it much easier to work from home – or anywhere remotely. This allows stay-at- home moms to balance child-raising and career interests by giving them the opportunity to enter or remain in the workforce.

And the accessibility of technology has made it easier for women to operate their own businesses, even without, or while they are planning, for a brick-and-mortar facility. An example of this is relatively inexpensive gadgets like Square that allow you to swipe a credit card on your cellphone.

What unique strengths and talents do women bring to the business world?

CLARK: Generally speaking, women are more organized and better at planning and multitasking than their male counterparts. They also tend to be stronger and more empathetic.

There are some industries, such as real estate, in which women are very well-respected and successful.
The Michelle Clark Real Estate Team has found a good blend of agents, who all happen to be female. Our all-woman team was not intentional; we had three men join – and leave – the team along the way. I like to joke and say they couldn’t keep up with all of us strong women!

But as an all-female team, we are like-minded in our work ethic, desire to help others and commitment to community service. We understand, encourage and support each other, both professionally and personally. And we all understand the demands outside of work and the need for flexibility in a way that is different from our male

LISA OSBORNE: I have a lot of compassion for people who are going through one of the hardest times of their lives. As a woman, I think that we just automatically show care and compassion. We just go the extra mile. I’m a mom; a lot of us are moms.

I think it’s important to follow the Golden Rule – treat people like you would want them to treat you. That’s what I live. That’s just the way I live my life. When the families come in, I embrace them. Personally, I’ve lost a lot of family in my own life. So, when families walk in, even if I have never met them, I treat them as if they were my own family.

DOBBIN: I think that women bring a warm, compassionate quality to the customer experience, especially in the home financing industry. We tend to be more nurturing just by nature, so are more of a caring hand-holder throughout the loan process.

LUTHER: Women just have an innate sense of compassion a lot of times. I feel like it helps in business, too, because you’re dealing with other people; you’re not just seeing customers as a number. I feel like that’s a big advantage.

What specific obstacles do women in business face?

DOBBIN: When it comes to home financing, I think sometimes, as a female, you can be at a disadvantage because some people may not take you as seriously as they might a male loan officer.

To overcome those challenges, I really do make sure that I do stay on top of the ever-changing market, know my products and clients and strive every day to be the best. I also have positioned myself with the best of the best at Union Home Mortgage, so I am confident that I really do provide exceptional service to every single borrower and person I help.

OSBORNE: I don’t do what I do for any accolades; this is a personal walk for me. I love what I do, and I love my families. It’s easy for me to love and understand; I think most women have that kind of passion and concern for others. And you have to have a passion for what you’re doing. If anyone is going to go out and start a business, I would hope that they would have that passion because you’re going to have day-to-day obstacles no matter what you do.

But without knowledge of what I am doing and the products that I am selling, without the kind of understanding to be able to break it down to make you understand it, I think I’m doing a disservice to these families.

LUTHER: A lot of us do have children and sometimes we might be looked down upon or grouped into this stereotype that we’re just going to be a hot mess, or we are not going to be reliable or get the job done because we’re going to be too busy with our kids.

We do get lumped into this category that, if you are a mom – or not even a mom; just a woman – you’re not going to be able to hack it. It’s kind of ridiculous because we definitely can. Something I have told girls and younger women within my circle of friends or church community is there is no reason why you can’t do exactly what a man can… or more.

CLARK: The “good ol’ boy” network is still thriving, and sexism is still a challenge.

Women also have the unique challenge of balancing work and family life. Moms will always be moms, and home responsibilities don’t go away just because they’re running a business – there will always be laundry, dishes, shopping and cleaning.

What advice do you have for overcoming those challenges?

LUTHER: I have breastfed all of my children. I have worked through so many different issues and I’ve been able to attend seminars and classes, all while having my little ones.

So, I think it just takes someone who wants to succeed realizing what is available in this area to be able to balance everything. You have to be kind of thrifty in the sense of finding resources out there and finding it, not waiting for someone to tell you about it, just having a thirst and drive for knowing that.

OSBORNE: That passion is what helps me overcome any obstacles. If I need to get here early in the morning to make sure something is taken care of, or I need to stay late at night to make sure it’s taken care of, it will be taken care of. That’s just the only way I’ve ever been.

It’s important to keep learning, to have knowledge of your industry and then present that to your customers or people that you serve. I think you need to really know what you’re selling, and people deserve the truth. I have spent a lot of time in training, in addition to schooling. As a licensed funeral director in the state of North Carolina, I am required to have continuing education each year. And I want that; I want to be knowledgeable enough to be able to present what people need.

DOBBIN: Do your research and learn something every single day, so that when you talk to a borrower, your knowledge and capabilities speak for themselves.

CLARK: Plan. Be more strategic. Women have different strengths than men do, so keep and utilize those strengths while also learning from men about to build on them.

What do you think accounts for the current traditional small business funding gap between men and women, even as the number of female entrepreneurs continues to increase nationally?

LUTHER: I’ve been looking into more resources for women in business and different grants because I was exploring continuing education opportunities for my employees, and from what I have found, I feel like there is just a lot that is not tapped into yet.

Having Women to Watch, having WILMA and all of these initiatives about women in business in this area, has really helped me be able to realize that there are these resources. WILMA and the Greater Wilmington Business Journal has really helped me realize what’s in this community.

What are your strategies for striking a work-life balance?

CLARK: Women everywhere are still trying to figure that out. Planning is critical. It’s also important to get regular exercise, since it is good not only for your physical health but also for your mental and emotional health.

Stay focused on what you’re doing, and try to be present in whatever moment you are in. When you are at home, enjoy your family and try to leave work distractions behind. When you are at work, focus on work.

OSBORNE: I’m a brand-new grandmother, so right now I’m spending a lot of time with my grandbaby. I also have two teenagers, and a new grandbaby now. So, I’ve been busy; I’ve been really busy at home and work.

But that’s just me; that’s who I am. I like responsibility; I’ve had responsibility since a young age. I try to make time for everybody in my life. My fingernails look terrible but you know what, I’ve learned to let go of some things and know that it’s ok. You have to let go of some things to focus on what’s important; you can’t do it all. And I don’t look at problems; I look at solutions so I can move forward and get things done that need to be done.

LUTHER: I’m a nurse by trade, so I’ve always had to do continuing education. So, I’ve always known if I need answers, I’m going to have to dig and find them. I’ve never once let not knowing something stop me. That’s something that has always helped me balance all of this.

And you just kind of do what you’ve got to do. I make it work; I’ve always been that kind of person.

There are moments where my hair is frazzled and I think, What the heck am I doing? But if I wasn’t doing a thousand things, I’d be miserable.

How can mentors and support networks for women just starting out as an entrepreneur or in a business field impact their long-term success rate?

OSBORNE: It really just goes back to the Golden Rule. Everyone here cares about one another. We respect one another and help one another. We’re not talking about each other or nitpicking each other. That’s wrong, and if someone started doing that, it would be addressed quickly. I think it’s important to be supportive. Don’t look at what someone else is doing. Don’t try to compare yourself to someone else. There’s only one you and only one Lisa Osborne in this world. So, let’s be the best you and the best Lisa Osborne we can be. We are all beautiful in our own way and should celebrate each other.

CLARK: The YWCA has a great program called Coastal Women’s Venture that helps create and support small business opportunities for female entrepreneurs. They offer coaching, mentoring and small business education, and can assist women in finding loans and funding for launching their businesses. And I think WILMA’s Women to Watch Initiative is fantastic.

Mentors are a great resource. Not only can they provide advice on how to be successful, they can also share their experiences – including their own obstacles and hurdles – so others don’t necessarily make the same mistakes. And even if they do make those same mistakes, they can at least learn from them more quickly.

DOBBIN: There is nothing better than empowered women empowering other women.

Networking and mentoring with other successful women who are knowledgeable and have had long-standing, successful businesses can give insight that no one else would be able to give unless they have had that experience.
These women have been there, so they really understand you, where you are coming from and what it really takes to make it happen.

LUTHER: For my decision of becoming a women entrepreneur, it made it a little easier. Knowing that I had resources and knowing there were other women I could talk to and education I could receive, that really did help me. As far as just having a network, it really was kind of nice knowing that as I was going into business.

To what extent do you think women-only networking and mentorships help female entrepreneurs? To what extent are they a potential hindrance to success and growth?

DOBBIN: Women-only mentoring and networking are beneficial because we are all women with the common goal of being experts in our fields and - just by being women - already have a strong trust and bond.

The hindrance would just be that it cuts out a huge financial opportunity by not doing the same networking and business with the male community.

CLARK: Women-only networking and mentorships are helpful for encouraging women to utilize other women in business as resources, and for supporting other women-owned businesses. And women can offer a female’s perspective on how something can be improved.

Men have a lot of experience, as well, so they shouldn’t be discounted because of their gender; we don’t like it when it’s done to us! We can learn a lot from men, and there are some areas in which men may be better, such as being less emotional and more strategic.

What are your top three recommendations or bits of wisdom for a woman who may be currently considering going into business for herself or pursuing a business leadership role?

CLARK: First, have a plan in place, but adjust your plan as you learn.

Networking is also important so that you don’t feel like you are alone. Find other women on similar paths as you, as well as women who have been where you are.

Don’t be afraid to admit if you don’t know something. Everyone needs help so be sure to ask for it if or when you need it.

An extra bit of advice is, if you have a passion or dream, go for it, and don’t give up until you figure it out!

DOBBIN: It’s important to stay true to yourself.

Secondly, if you say you are going to do something, then be sure you do it! Union Home Mortgage’s slogan is “Promises Kept,” and if you want to build a successful career, you truly have to work and live by that.

Finally, knowledge is power. Always continue to learn and strive to be an expert in whatever you do so that you really can be the best.

OSBORNE: Don’t ever be afraid to establish order in your business. It’s important because the inner workings of your business will affect the outer. If this is where you are supposed to be in your life and what you’re supposed to be doing, and you have authority, then you need to walk that out.

You don’t have to say anything in a mean way. Way before a family walks in this door, we have established here that we care about each other. I treat everyone here with respect and, in turn, everyone treats each other with respect. But if you’re not going to be in control of yourself, then how are you going to control the atmosphere around you?

Secondly, details matter. I believe in doing everything with excellence. If a candy dish is half-empty, then I go and put the candy in myself. So, I lead by example. If I see something that needs to be done, sometimes I’ll just do it.

The candy dish is a good example – it seems small but it is a detail that is so important. If I walked into a funeral home and a candy dish was empty or only had a little bit of candy in it, I would think, Well, if they can’t fill that candy dish, how are they going to take care of my mom? That’s just the way I look at things.

And don’t compare yourself. It’s a waste of time. Read something instead. Learn. Further your knowledge or education. Don’t waste your life worrying about what someone else is doing or thinking.

LUTHER: My mother was a successful woman. She was a schoolteacher and she taught for 40-some-odd years. She was celebrated in the community and everybody knew her; she was very active. She always told me, “Never let anybody say no.” There’s no “can’t.” You can figure it out. Use your resources.

Ask for help. That was a big thing for me – asking for help and knowing that I didn’t know all the answers but going to other women in the community and asking for advice. Just keep looking for options; don’t take defeat.

It’s hard when you’ve grown up in a man’s world in a lot of ways, but you’re not a man. The key is just not taking no for an answer and knowing there is always a way. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. That’s a great saying, because it’s true.

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