How women entrepreneurs are redefining success
The Businesswomen Changing the Nature of Wealth
Broadly asks what ties these diverse voices together and explores a more holistic way of how we view wealth and success.
Nestled near the city of Palmira, not far from the northern edge of the Andes, is Nashira—a matriarchal eco-village developing an alternative social model for Colombia. At its heart is the idea that to create a less violent and materialistic society, women need to be empowered and enfranchised. It is helping people reconsider what they value and what truly makes them rich.
Do female-led enterprises shape our view of what wealth means beyond the simple accumulation of money? Angela Dolmetsch is the head of Nashira, and when I asked her about whether it had changed what she values, she was unequivocal. “Being rich is not about money, it is about quality of life,” she said. For her, quality of life is about having a healthy environment, being able to grow your own healthy food, being free from social violence and living in peaceful communities.
In Colombia, 32% of households are headed by women and depend on their work as the principal source of income.
A mixture of civil war and the strictures of a patriarchal society have, in many cases, left women as both the sole breadwinners and those in charge of family care, for elderly relatives and children. 72.5% of homes with women as heads of households live below the poverty line. Women with little or no formal education have a difficult time finding work and there is insufficient state welfare to protect the unemployed.
The idea of Nashira is to empower women both socially and economically. On three hectares of land, donated by a private foundation 14 years ago, 88 matriarchs, some of them victims of the civil war, have built a sustainable and productive eco–village. By placing sustainability and quality of life at the fore, the project has been extremely successful in reintegrating women into the wider economy.
Another woman working to better enfranchise women is Vicki Saunders, the CEO of SheEO, an innovative funding platform based on the concept of female generosity. SheEO moves into a city, finds a thousand generous women willing to pledge $1,000 each, and creates a fund of a million dollars. The thousand benefactors then select businesses to get funding, with ten female-led ventures splitting the pot. This is a new model for funding, one that places a big emphasis on the power of the network, something that has no fixed monetary value but has proved itself to be worth as much, if not more, than the actual money offered.
“One of our ventures is set to exceed her revenue targets by 200% this year. A lot of that is women from the network stepping forward at an early stage and introducing her to key people that she wouldn’t have had access to otherwise,” Vicki said.
She came to start the SheEO because she saw that current funding models for young women entrepreneurs were broken––not only were women receiving just 4% of venture capital, but economic models optimized for growth at the expense of everything else disadvantaged women.
“What I have seen is that from a VC [venture capitalist] point of view we look at women and see all the things that are wrong with them,” said Vicki when I spoke to her, before listing many of the gendered criticisms she’d heard while working in Silicon Valley: “women aren’t bold enough; women aren’t confident enough; women don’t take enough risks…” Vicki, however, turned the meaning of these insults upside down; what she heard instead was that women don’t overpromise on what they can deliver, that they do what they say they are going to do. Studies have shown that women often extract more value and profit from capital than men, giving Vicki the confidence to pursue SheEO.
Surveying the state of our economic system, Vicki argued it was time for a change.
“What if we were optimizing for wellness, or for quality of life? We made up this current model, and it is no longer working for us, so we need a new one. Providing women with funds and a network is the best way to bring that about.”
SheEO has not yet opened in Bangkok, but a business that firmly shares the same values is The Commons, a community mall in Bangkok built by Vicharee Vichit-Vadakan with her brother. Unlike the standard design for a shopping mall, The Commons favors green space and promotes wellness; the shops are all local producers, there is a yoga studio, and kids’ play areas.
For Vicharee, entrepreneurship was a way of providing the flexibility to succeed both in her career and as a mother. Moreover, echoing the Nashira project’s emphasis on quality of life, she conceived of The Commons as a way to live a wholesome life in Bangkok. When I asked her what she meant by that, she said,
“For me, wholesome living means you eat well, you look after yourself, you exercise, you take care of the ones you love, and you are closer to nature. All of those elements I try to incorporate into The Commons and all these things I hope support a more wholesome lifestyle.”
The Commons is an example of a business that is both financially successful and succeeds on intangible metrics like community building, environmentalism, and wellness. It is exactly these kinds of businesses, the ones that are not solely focused on profit and growth but that take a more holistic approach, that are redefining how we view wealth.
When I asked Vicharee if she thought women in general were better at this kind of holistic thinking, and of finding greater balance, she demurred. “I think it’s hard to say they’re better at it. But I think the struggle to balance your time and your work and your family pushes women to be more conscious of it.”
Balance is often associated with female entrepreneurship. For Vicki, part of the drive to fund more women businesses is to create conditions whereby women have the freedom to set their own goals. Vanessa Hong, a globe-trotting fashion blogger and designer, has put balance and wellness at the heart of her brand identity.
“I know women who all they do is eat, shit, fashion,” she told me.
“But from an evolutionary standpoint, women are built to be multitaskers––in our DNA we are built to do more than one thing.”
For her, this has created a space for her to pursue yoga and explore other forms of wellness.
This has also led her to change how she measures success. “What I care most about is the value that I bring to other people’s lives. It’s connections that make me feel beyond wealthy,” she said when I asked her about what made her feel rich. Not only does she see her blog as a way to inspire people––she has 650,000 followers on Instagram––she also places huge importance on the personal connections that running a business fosters. “All the people who work for me have always been women. When I was growing up I never really had someone who was really there,” she said, explaining how when she meets younger people, “or people searching” she is incredibly blessed to be able to share with them her own journey.
This kind of view—willing to look at non-fiscal measures of success—is not universally shared. When I asked Otegha Uwagba, the founder of WomenWho, a platform for creative women in London, what made her feel rich, she was blunt:
“Money! To be perfectly honest, it does a disservice to women to suggest that they can be paid in other ways, or can be compensated in other ways, particularly in the creative industries. I don’t think that that is at odds with balance and self-care.”
This is an important point to remember; finding balance and interpreting success differently does not prevent a woman from being a success in the way we traditionally conceive of that term. Vanessa, for example, is a constant presence at fashion weeks around the world; her fashion line, The Haute Pursuit, is sold worldwide, and she has partnered with brands such as Chanel, Fendi and Valentino. The same is true for all of the women that were interviewed for this piece.
Angela’s Nashira is a startling success in a Colombia still recovering from sixty years of civil war. “[In the village] there have been no murders or personal injuries caused by fighting. Unplanned teenage pregnancies, a constant problem in developing countries, have been eradicated through a program of sexual education,” she noted.
The businesses funded by SheEO are wildly outperforming expectations. “On average our ventures have grown their revenues over 60% in the first seven months,” Vicki proudly told me. The Commons was shortlisted for the Blueprint 2016 Award in Best Public-Use Project, narrowly missing out to Zaha Hadid.
It is true that women entrepreneurs often run into troubles in an economic system defined by competitiveness, where growth and profit are sought at the expense of everything else. As more women push boundaries and break past the confines that are so often imposed upon them, they are free to conceive of wealth and richness in a more holistic and healthy manner.
To do so, and to strive for balance, does not come at the cost of being simultaneously successful in a traditional sense. It means being successful in more ways, more sustainably.
“Just because you have balance doesn’t mean you can’t be focused on one thing and not be really good at it,” said Vanessa. “Balance doesn’t mean coming second.”
By Barclay Bram