Women Entrepreneurs from Around the World Gather in Rio

Buzz is like pornography. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it (well, hear it). Last week I was in Rio de Janeiro, courtesy of Dell Computers, which gathered about 150 women entrepreneurs and journalists for their second annual Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) event. For two days the noise level (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) was high, the conversations went deep, and the connections were instant.

I can’t count the number of entrepreneurship conferences I’ve attended. This was simply the best. From the opening moments when emcee Moira Forbes informed us her great-grandfather B.C. Forbes had the foresight to include a women in business column in the very first issue of Forbes magazine in 1917, to the closing ones, where Forbes reminded us that “the only constant in business today is change,” this meeting hit all the right “i-notes”: interaction, information, and inspiration.

Regular readers of this column know I’ve been covering small business for more than 30 years. And while I feel privileged to have witnessed and participated in the technology-fueled entrepreneurial revolution in this nation, sometimes we Americans think we own entrepreneurship. We don’t. The story of Leila Velez reads like a typical rags-to-riches American success story. Velez was raised in the slums of Rio. Like many other Brazilian women, Velez had a headful of unruly, curly hair. She was determined to open a beauty salon to help poor women but had no money. She sold her car to get her startup funds, and today her company Beleza Natural operates a chain of beauty salons throughout Brazil, and has its own line of hair-care products.

Entrepreneurs across the globe share the same challenges. Katherine Sampson, the founder of Healthy Habits, an Australian-based sandwich franchise, has grown her chain to 34 shops in Australia, and one in New Zealand. (That may sound small, but remember the population of Australia is smaller than that of either California or Texas.) At lunch Sampson and I bonded over our mutual annoyance of the “work-life balance” issue. As Sampson emphatically stated, “There is no work-life balance when you’re growing a business. There are only so many hours in a day, and there’s so much you have to learn. It’s important [for women] to know you’re not the only one [dealing with this] – and you’re not doing anything wrong.”

And that attitude emanates from the core of DWEN — the sharing of experiences, expertise, and energy. In fact, says Steve Felice, Dell’s president of Consumer, Small and Medium Business, that’s why the company started DWEN: “to help women entrepreneurs connect, and inspire the entrepreneurial spirit.”

One of the most common concerns women entrepreneurs have is lack of access to capital. In fact, according to Laurie McCabe, co-founder of The SMB Group, a market research and consulting firm, “Women entrepreneurs receive less than 10 percent of all equity financing, relying instead on their own funds, friends and family, loans and credit cards to bootstrap their businesses.” That’s likely why two of the most popular sessions at DWEN were all about getting funded. Led by Amy Millman, president of Springboard Enterprises and a self-described “venture catalyst,” we learned what funders are looking for, and some women practiced their elevator pitches.

I was struck during this “Dolphin Tank” session (a gentler version of TV’s “Shark Tank”) how even successful women entrepreneurs are not comfortable asking for money. (The expert’s advice: “Hit the ask within the first 30 seconds of your pitch.”) Does this have to do with how we’re raised? Perhaps. Years ago a female entrepreneur told me, “As children, our mothers taught us not to talk to strangers, and never ask anyone for money. But, when I started my business I not only had to talk to strangers, I had to ask them for money.”

If women are truly going to succeed we must get past this. We not only need to get comfortable asking for money, we need to demand our fair share and spread the wealth. Women control 50 percent of the wealth in the U.S., yet do less than 8 percent of the investing.

According to Kim Hibler, Dell’s VP of Medium Business Sales, globally, minorities and women are the fastest-growing segment of entrepreneurship. Which is why it’s imperative we women follow the advice of Carley Roney, co-founder of wedding website The Knot and “think big.”

It’s not enough to have potential power. As one member of the Dolphin Tank team said, “If we women band together … and invest in other women-owned companies, we can transform lands.” Think big, indeed.

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