Welcome to The Power of She, a new blog series dedicated to featuring women entrepreneurs and leaders. With this series, we hope to create a platform to help readers better understand the unique challenges that women entrepreneurs face, the opportunities they have created and the lessons they can share with other women who are interested in following the same path. The full series appears on the Crossroads blog.
is no stranger to entrepreneurship. Early in her career, she founded and spent 14 years as managing partner of a Hong Kong-based textile trading company. But this time around, her entrepreneurial adventure is personal. She founded Chapel Hill-based Dragonwing girlgear
in 2010 out of a dream that her daughter and girls everywhere would be empowered to play sports with confidence, comfort and joy—free from distraction and constraint.
When her daughter was a preteen, she was a serious athlete in need of performance clothing. They were forced to shop in the boys’ department because the girls’ department’s so-called “athletic wear” was fashion-oriented and made out of lower-quality fabrics. There was nothing meant for serious girl athletes.
Shopping trips were awkward and sent the subliminal message that athletic girls weren’t feminine. When other mothers of female athletes shared similar frustrations with MaryAnne, she was inspired to change that message by starting a line of athletic wear designed just for girls.
MaryAnne (pictured top right with her daughter) sees a lot of similarities between the perceptions many have of women business leaders and the perceptions many have of women who play sports.
“It’s not enough for female athletes to play well; they’re also supposed to be pretty, to look good,” says MaryAnne. She references comments made by FIFA itself last year about US Women’s National Team player Alex Morgan—the organization wrote that she was “a talented goalscorer with a style that is very easy on the eye and good looks to match.”
“We don’t put that kind of expectation on boys to look a certain way and be a star athlete,” MaryAnne says. “Boys can be good at their sport, and that is enough. I want that for girls, too.”
I asked MaryAnne for her thoughts on women entrepreneurs, some of the unique challenges they might face and the unique opportunities they can create. Her answers are below.
Q: What are some of the unique challenges that you think female entrepreneurs face?
A: Raising funds is difficult, especially in the consumer product field. It is estimated that only four to nine percent of all VC funding goes to women. Most of the angels and venture capitalists are men. Imagine presenting to a group of 90 men and one woman, talking about adolescent girls and underwear.
Q: Do you think women face more unique challenges than their male counterparts based on societal expectations of leaders, women, etc.?
A: Every entrepreneur faces a range of challenges. No matter what you imagine the norm to be, don’t try to act in a way that is not natural to you just to conform to those self-perceived societal expectations. Every entrepreneur faces societal or market expectations, but they’re different in different situations. I encourage every woman who’s starting or running a business to stay firm in her values. If things don’t go your way in one situation, re-evaluate, pivot (if necessary), stay positive and persevere.
Q: Have you personally faced discrimination as a female leader in your industry?
A: Every time someone hears my business’s target audience is girls, they think it’s a “hobby” or “lifestyle business.” There’s a stereotype or assumption that a business for girls can’t be serious, that it must be a small niche business. But 52 to 69 percent of all girls in the US play a sport; that’s not a niche.
Q: Do you feel that you have good role models and a good support infrastructure as a female leader in your industry?
A: Yes, we do have good role models. Missy Park of Title Nine, Barbara Corcoran and Lori Greiner of Shark Tank, Meg Whitman of HP, Tory Johnson of GMA. My best role models and inspirations are Joanne Domeniconi and Jules Pieri, cofounders of the buy-differently e-commerce site The Grommet. I’m also grateful to them for helping to launch Dragonwing girlgear.
I’m also inspired by today’s young women entrepreneurs. The girls coming up, especially our athletic girls, will have a huge advantage. Two local examples are Stephanie Santistevan-Swett
, who launched Eva Jo Rompers
while getting her Ph.D., and Tatiana Birgisson
, which she started as an undergrad at Duke.
Think of what this generation of 8- to 17-year-old girls will be doing in 10 to 15 years. Right now, there are only 21 female CEOs running Fortune 500 companies. In the future, we won’t have only 21 female CEOs—we will have 250 female CEOs! I can’t wait to see how the coming generation of girls and women use their voices and power. I’ll be cheering them on.
Q: What are some of the unique opportunities that female entrepreneurs have and can create?
A: The Internet is a meritocracy, a vast learning tool and a boon for entrepreneurs. You can start selling on Amazon or start an e-commerce business very quickly and inexpensively. One thing I recommend to young women is to take programming and bookkeeping courses. There is also the opportunity to do good through a successful business, so don’t be afraid to use your voice and your business for something you believe in.
Q: What advice would you give other women entrepreneurs?
A: You matter! We need you, your unique talents and your unique solutions to problems big and small. Just because there is someone else out there doing the same thing you want to do doesn’t mean you can’t do it too. Just because no one is out there doing what you want to do doesn’t mean it is not possible, needed or valued. You can do anything. Don’t let anybody make you feel that you can’t.
Develop some mental Teflon. Let comments about things that aren’t important to you roll off.
Fight the urge to downplay your achievements and to suffer over a negative experience or perceived bad decision.
Choose to be happy and positive. Every day is a gift. Do something every day that is fun, makes you smile or feeds your soul. Even better, do all three every day!
Know an amazing woman entrepreneur whom you think should be considered for this series? Send Shawn an email.