Despite the frequent interchangeability of phrases like “women-owned” and “female-founded,” the two terms aren’t always related — a female-founded brand might not be owned by a woman anymore and a presently-women-owned business might not have been founded by a woman. During social-minded instances like International Women’s Day, understanding what each label denotes could mean the difference between supporting a brand that’s actually run by women, or one that happens to have women working within it, for example Proactiv was founded by two female dermatologists is now owned by Nestlé.
So what’s the difference? Female-founded means that a business was created by a woman or women, according to a spokesperson for nonprofit Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), which certifies women-owned businesses in the United States after they meet a set of eligibility standards, like a woman heading up the day-to-day operations of a company. But when it comes to women-owned businesses, things can get trickier. The Department of Defense, for example, defines a women-owned business as one wherein at least 51 percent is owned and operated by a woman or by women — that is, a women-owned business can have male co-owners, as long as they don’t make up the majority of ownership.
The Small Business Administration (SBA), which is designed to support small businesses no matter who owns them, uses the 51-percent requirement when brands apply to its Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contracting Program, which offers government contracts for small businesses. These “set-asides” were implemented to help guarantee at least 5 percent of federal contracting budgets involve women-owned businesses. In 2019, the SBA noted that women-owned small businesses received $26 billion of eligible contracting dollars, equating to more than 134,500 jobs.
Women-owned businesses in 2021
“Ambitious women can face hurdles that men don’t in terms of family planning,” said Katie Kaps, co-founder of HigherDOSE. She called a woman’s 30s “an incredibly important decade for career advancement,” but noted wanting to have kids during that time frame “puts a lot of pressure on women.” There are plenty of significant challenges that female entrepreneurs face, otherwise, including gender bias from investors, managing child care and pregnancy discrimination. And just over 30 years ago, things were much worse. With former President Ronald Regan’s signing of the Women’s Business Ownership Act of 1988 into federal law, women were (finally) no longer required to have a male relative cosign a business loan and various resources were made available to women entrepreneurs — the law included the formation the National Women’s Business Council, among other things.
Still, identifying women-owned businesses isn’t straightforward. This month, the WBENC partnered with Target to put a women-owned logo on products meeting the aforementioned 51 percent standard. With this Target collection, you can find more than 200 woman-owned brands, ranging from Good Dirt’s potting mix to nail polish from Olive & June. Target is also part of the organization’s Women Owned in Retail education and outreach program, which aims to help female entrepreneurs better navigate the retail industry. Since any WBENC-certified brand can use the women-owned logo on their packaging, you may find the logo on products regardless of where you’re shopping.
Women-owned businesses and coronavirus
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has hit women-owned businesses particularly hard. According to a July 2020 poll conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, only 47 percent of female business owners considered their company’s overall outlook as “good,” compared to 62 percent of the men polled.
For Black women, business ownership can be even more difficult, according to a February 2021 survey from Visa, which partnered with market trends firm Wakefield Research to survey more than 250 Black women business owners whose revenue is less than $1 million and who employ less than 100 people: 71 percent of respondents predicted they’ll have to shut down their operations if current pandemic conditions continue for one more year. And though more than half (54 percent) of Black women respondents said their businesses received support during the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, less than a quarter (22 percent) saw that financial support flow into 2021. Widening the aperture on the effects of Covid paints an even more grim picture: By April of last year, more than 40 percent of all Black-owned businesses had shuttered.
When Ju Rhyu, owner and founder of Hero Cosmetics, reflected on what it means to be Asian American and running a company in the U.S., she noted the role is accompanied by “a lot of responsibility” to support her community, “especially as a business owner, since there is privilege and influence in being in this position.” That sense of responsibility — and privilege — are only accentuated given that 44 percent of unemployed Asian American women have been out of work for at least six months. Last year, the Asian American Federation also found the unemployment rate of Asian Americans in New York jumped from 3.4 percent in February to 25.6 percent in May.
Women-owned business resources
Rhyu credits networking with helping her successfully navigate her business. For example, after launching the brand’s signature Mighty Patch, she wanted to expand into face masks for your skin. However, a female investor encouraged her to “dominate patches and to be really known for that.” Rhyu ended up scraping the idea and “really changed the trajectory of our company, because I thought she was right.”
Among Rhyu’s tips for aspiring female business owners is patience. “Creating your business will not happen overnight. It’s a series of actions that you take every day that accumulate and become the business you aimed to grow,” she said.
Social media and networking
Although Rhyu considers networking to be “critical,” the Columbia Business School alumna didn’t utilize formal organizations like her university’s career network or the WBENC. Rather, she found success on LinkedIn, cold-emailing and messaging people because “a lot of times you’re one or two degrees away from other people.” She advised readers to introduce themselves and briefly describe their company and key stats to “hook their attention in case they don’t know the brand.”
Who to reach out to? One group Rhyu said is “important” to connect with is other founders. “They will be extremely helpful and crucial as you build and oftentimes they will be the only ones who can empathize and understand what you are going through in successes and failures,” Rhyu explained — the SBA recommends reaching out to industry leaders through SCORE, too, its volunteer network of mentors for both women and men.
Rhyu “definitely recommends” female entrepreneurs join Twitter to connect with other founders, as well. A few of her favorite Twitter accounts for “interesting and cool” e-commerce takeaways include Web Smith, Jaime Schmidt (“a must follow”),Chris Cantino,Patrick Coddou andTaylor Sicard. Another pro tip from Rhyu is to look out for profiles whose bios say they’re “open to DMs” in their bios, “which signals that they’re more than happy to connect with folks.”
“Sometimes I joke that it’s better than an MBA,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot.”
Slack isn’t a traditional social media site, like Instagram and Facebook, but there are specific Slack channels for women on it, like Female Founders, which is targeted at women in the tech industry, and you can apply for free online. Rhyu, herself part of Lean Luxe (for luxury business news), DtoCEcommBrainTrust (for e-commerce news) and designer Rebecca Minkoff’s FemaleFoundersCollective (for networking with other female founders), called these groups a “great way to meet other people and just share knowledge and learn from each other.” Those three Slack channels are also free and open to join.
Beyond social media sites, there are formal organizations offering resources with an eye toward female entrepreneurship, like New York Women in Business, which has a directory of more than 570 female-owned local businesses. The organization also hosts virtual webinars and uploads free videos on its YouTube channel, like how to run a business remotely. The WBENC offers various scholarships and networking opportunities for women in business. In 2017, they launched NextGen, which focuses on providing resources like mentorship matchmaking and coaching to millennials and Gen Z.
Before the nonprofit Asian Women in Business (AWIB) shut down in 2020, the organization spent 25 years helping female Asian entrepreneurs through various corporate task forces, forums and scholarships. One AWIB database still available online is its resources page, which includes domestic and international Asian and Asian American organizations, guidance on general business development by state and resources for anyone facing foreclosure.
The SBA compiles information for aspiring female business owners, too. The organization offers content ranging from how to launch your brand to tips for discovering which business structure is best for your needs.