The world needs more women entrepreneurs, says Catherine Bell, founder of the Awakened Company, a management consultancy in Calgary, Canada. But women face a unique set of challenges as new business owners. “Women carry the lion’s share of responsibilities at home and at work, so we need all the help we can get,” Bell tells Conscious Company. “The question is: How can we make it a little bit easier for women entrepreneurs to succeed?”
Bell started her first business, an executive search firm called BluEra, as a new mom with two young sons. The early days were a challenge, she says, but she grew the boutique venture into a Profit 500 company (the Canadian equivalent of the Fortune 500) and ultimately bootstrapped it to an acquisition by DHR International. “I want women to learn from my life experiences,” she says. “I’ve lived, and I’ve made mistakes that I wouldn’t want anyone to repeat.” Read on for Bell’s top tips for women entrepreneurs.
1. Be clear about how the business represents you, and stay true to it.
“Lead, or you’re going to be led,” Bell says. “If you have clarity of your purpose and your micro-purposes, you will take deliberate action. If you don’t, you will be at the will of others.”
Evidence continues to show that, on average, women are less self-assured than men when it comes to business and are more likely to doubt their abilities. But as a new business owner, you are in the driver’s seat. The buck stops with you when it comes to the vision of your company, so it’s up to you to make sure that vision aligns with your values and is maintained over time.
“For women, it’s especially important to be clear about your internal alignment,” Bell says. “What are your values? What’s your responsibility to your community? To the environment?” Once you define what is most important to you, set specific cultural and financial metrics for your business that reflect those values, and stick to them.
2. Ask for feedback . . . and then ask for more.
As Margaret Wheatley observes in her 10 principles for healthy communities: People support what they create. “When you start a business, focus on the problem you are trying to solve, and get your team involved in setting your vision,” Bell advises. “Solicit feedback from the team you’re building, from your clients, and from your community. People will buy in and feel like they’re a part of what you’re creating.”
3. Set priorities for your day.
We all know the struggle of spending so much time staring at a massive to-do list that we become distracted from the tasks at hand. Fight back against scatterbrain and overextension by setting attainable priorities that allow you to chip away at your list over time, Bell suggests.
“Ultimately great companies are built on a series of small things,” she says. “Every day, ask yourself: What’s the smallest thing I can accomplish, and what are the top three things I need to do? I often felt overwhelmed. ‘How are we going to do this?’ But we did it one small thing at a time.”
4. Be true to the leader within.
“Often in our more patriarchal and male-dominated world, the focus becomes solely financial results,” Bell says of the pressures new business owners face. “But there is a movement afoot within the private equity realm to start measuring cultural and social responsibilities. For many women, this will come quite naturally, so it’s important to stay true to who you are.”
Of course, embracing corporate culture alongside a push for greater profit is not a characteristic that’s unique to women. But the fact that women are still relatively underrepresented in the business and entrepreneurial worlds presents an opportunity to think outside the box, Bell says. “We’re doing it our own way, and we can help to create a new reality for ourselves and our brothers and sisters by doing it a different way. We don’t have to buy into what has traditionally been done.”
5. Grow stronger through diversity.
“The more diverse and inclusive we can make our teams, the stronger we’ll be,” Bell says. This is true of all businesses, but Bell insists a balanced team is even more important for women entrepreneurs, who tend to try to wear all hats in their new ventures. “You have to have the self-awareness to recognize your gifts and your blind spots and get help where you need it.” That means surrounding yourself with people who look and think differently than you do.
6. Connect with other women.
“Women need to form strong professional relationships with other women and mentors,” Bell advises. Navigating male-dominated fields is tricky, and the support of fellow female leaders may come in handy in ways you don’t expect.
“When I walked into boardrooms, the other members were usually all men, and I often felt incredibly alone,” Bell explains. “But I felt I had the support of many women who were standing with me, which allowed me to be more courageous than I would be otherwise.”
7. Be intentional about self-care.
“Self-care is absolutely huge for women in particular,” Bell says. “Women often have more trouble asking for help than men do. We take it all on.”
Burning the candle at both ends may work for a while, but it’s simply not sustainable in the long term and will ultimately impede your success. If you are intentional about taking care of yourself, you’ll be better prepared for the long haul: Get some sleep. Eat right. Exercise. Don’t be afraid to hire a housekeeping service once a week or ask a neighbor to pick your child up from school.
“Find creative ways to support yourself. Make sure you take time — it can be five minutes a day — to sit quietly and be on your own,” Bell advises. “One of the biggest mistakes I made was not getting enough sleep. My performance went down, and I made terrible mistakes in my business as a result of being tired.”
8. Let go of the guilt.
Women are under extra pressure to “do it all,” so they often beat themselves up when they can’t. “Let go of the guilt,” Bell tells women entrepreneurs. “When I got started, I felt guilty a lot of the time, and there was no need for that. In retrospect, it didn’t help me, my kids, or my relationships.”
That sounds easier said than done, but Bell offers three tricks to help women leaders be kinder to themselves:
- Prioritize: Prioritizing your day is equally helpful outside the workplace, Bell insists. Since you know you can’t do everything, focus on the three most important things you feel you can accomplish in a day — no matter how small.
- Be present: As a new business owner, you can’t always give your loved ones the quantity of time that you’d like, so focus on the quality of the time you spend with them. Stay off your cell phone, don’t think about the project you need to finish tomorrow, and enjoy every moment. “The practices of meditation and being present are incredibly helpful,” Bell says.
- Say stop: Even with the best intentions, the shadow of guilt can easily creep back in. “Women have a tendency to magnify the negative,” Bell says. “When I catch my inner critic in the act, I intentionally tell myself to ‘stop,’ and redirect toward something more soul-filling and constructive.”
The bottom line
“I want women to know that it all comes down to being deliberate and conscious about your choices,” Bell says. “There is this saying, ‘You can’t have it all.’ I say that you have what you create. We are blessed with being able to create our own realities, so figure out where you find meaning, and put your attention there.”