It is no secret that women have long been underrepresented in the executive managerial ranks of large, innovative companies. In fact, according to AmericanProgress.org, while women make up 52 percent of all professional level jobs, only 14.6 percent of executive positions are held by women. Dive deeper into the list of Fortune 500 CEOs, and you will find a paltry 4.6 percent of the positions held by females.
This management gender gap is improving, but it still has a long — very long — way to go. Many companies, especially in the technology field, are taking an active role in closing this gap by providing opportunities for and encourage young women to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math education) and leadership roles at a very young age. This approach, however, requires a generation to affect change.
Many ambitious women, seeing the slow change in the gender-cap trend, are taking matters into their own hands — by starting and leading their own companies. Five women in general, all under the age of 35, have forged their way to entrepreneurial success, and while the paths they traveled were different, the lessons for other aspiring women are universal.
Julie Fredrickson, co-founder and CEO of Stowaway Cosmetics, launched her beauty company in 2015 and is aiming to disrupt the $60 billion dollar beauty industry by developing a cosmetic brand “made around a woman’s life, not the other way around.” The company’s innovative leaders has already attracted $1.5 million in investment capital — no small feat in a highly competitive beauty-product industry.
Carrie Hammer, founder and CEO of CarrieHammer Clothing and Apparel, is aiming to disrupt the professional woman’s fashion industry by challenging our perceptions and expectations of female models. This past year, her runway models featured real executive women of all different sizes and abilities. In 2015, Hammer was named as one of Forbes 30 Under 30 as well as one of 15 Women Entrepreneurs to Watch at Entrepreneur.com.
Kellee Khalil is a West Coast transplant to New York, where she founded and serves as CEO for Loverly. Founded in 2012, her company seeks to fill a desperate need for efficiency in the wedding-planning service industry. Leveraging her business development background and entrepreneurial studies, Khalil has achieved tremendous success in a highly competitive New York wedding market.
Monika Kochhar is the co-founder and CEO of SmartGift, a leading provider of ecommerce technology aimed at disrupting the gift-card industry. A serial entrepreneur, Kochhar previously founded another innovative technology company aimed at the independent music industry and was later acquired by Sony.
Heather Marie, an entrepreneur since the age of 11, is the founder and CEO of Shoppable, a technology platform that is reinventing the checkout experience for online consumers by allowing them to shop, sell and save products from multiple retailers within one universal checkout.
I asked each of these women three questions about their innovative careers:
1. How have you and your company innovated and disrupted — and found success in — your industry?
Fredrickson: Stowaway’s success really comes from the combined talents of myself and my partner Chelsa (Crowley). Together, we bring both the direct to consumer retail and beauty experience necessary to bring our vision to life. With our diverse backgrounds as serial entrepreneurs and beauty experts, we have been able to meet the challenge of entering the highly competitive beauty industry.
Hammer: I started my career as an entrepreneur and designer after recognizing a need in the market for personalized and contemporary work wear for modern and professional women. What sets me apart are my innovative fashion shows, “Role Models Not Runway Models,” during which we send real and talented CEOs, executives and inspiring women down the runway (in lieu of professional models).
Khalil: I would attribute the success and rise of Loverly to a keen understanding of the audience (modern brides) and knowing what makes them tick and what they love. We know what soon-to-be brides are seeking by monitoring and understanding the content they are consuming, how they are staying social and where they are going for news and inspiration.
Kochhar: SmartGift brings a highly targeted and relevant product-level digital workflow to the $200 billion gifting industry that transforms the consumer experience. We provide greater choice to gift shoppers and a new channel to market for retailers. We work with award-winning designers, have built an exceptional team of advisors and partner with the most visionary companies in payments and ecommerce.
Marie: The primary reasons for our success is the passion I have for working on Shoppable and the excitement I have for the future. Building a business is extremely difficult, and no matter your age or experience level, it will wear you out. Make sure that you are doing something that you are passionate about, so much so that, as Elizabeth Holmes recently stated, if you were fired, you would still want to do it.
2. What are the top challenges you have come across in your executive and leadership role?
Fredrickson: Try explaining to a man why a heavy purse and overflowing makeup bag is a genuine pain point. It is a genuinely challenging problem for the majority of the investor base to empathize with. Being a woman is a tremendous advantage in our business and helps us overcome this challenge. We are, first and foremost, the customer base of Stowaway and can provide insight across development, production, retailing and marketing.
Hammer: Fashion is a challenging and crowded industry with many expensive barriers to entry and steep learning curves. Just because we have had success now does not mean it will stay that way. We have to make sure that our ideas are always fresh and continue to understand the changing trends and needs of our customers.
Khalil: Overall, one of the biggest challenges I have confronted is raising capital. Historically, the wedding industry has been dominated and predominantly run by women — which is great — but largely uninteresting to investors, the majority of which are men. It has been tough at times to excite and attract investment from a community that looks at the wedding industry as a fluffy, pink-washed space.
Kochhar: One of the most exciting challenges has been to think about gifting design and understanding how we humanize the gifting transaction. For instance, it is exciting to tear into wrap while opening a gift, not click on it in an ecommerce shopping cart — so how do we bridge that emotional gap? Thinking through and building the best workflow that makes digital gifting flexible, and deeply personal has been an awesome problem to solve.
Marie: One of the biggest challenges I have found for entrepreneurs is focus. You need to remind yourself to focus on what is most critical and what will move your business forward in a big way. Everyone on the team should be very clear about the current goal so all are working toward the same outcome. Focus can absolutely make or break your company.
3. What tips can you share with other aspiring women working considering executive leadership and entrepreneurship?
Fredrickson: Running a startup is a roller coaster, so be prepared to stomach a lot of ups and downs. You will work harder than you ever expected, and it will still never be enough. You cannot let it deter you, however, so just keep going. Oh, and never be afraid of being embarrassed.
Hammer: Start anywhere, start now and do not be afraid to ask questions. You should not and cannot be afraid of what people are going to think of you, so you should put your doubts aside and just get started. Also, be prepared to get out of your comfort zone. The best things in my life have always come from situations that made me the most uncomfortable.
Khalil: My best advice for women trying to make their way in the business world is simple. Bringing your best self to the job — each and every day — requires you to have a sound mind and body, so make sure you do what you need to do to maintain your sanity by making time for yourself in your busy schedule. Also, do not be afraid to fail. It is truly a pivotal moment when you understand and accept that failure is not final — rather, it is feedback.
Kochhar: Remember the three Ps — persistence, passion and people — which are keys to success. Also, it is crucial that you find the right co-founders and build a talented team, around which you will create a great company culture. All else follows from that. Lastly, I have learned that everything takes longer than you anticipated — but it is always better than you expected.
Marie: I think it is extremely important to set a personal career goal. If you do not have a clear understanding of where you want to go, you will never know if you ever get there. Once you have set your goal, work backwards and think about the key experiences, skill sets, contacts, requirements, etc. that are needed to get there. From there, you will have a thoughtful and clear path to achieve your goal.
By Peter Gasca, originally published in Entrepreneur Magazine.