A Start-Up of Her Own
Meet the new generation of American CEOs: They're young, wired, fearless--and female
It is not your usual girls' night out. By 6 p.m., when most employees have already fled a corporate steel-and-glass low-rise in Redwood Shores, Calif., a dozen women are just drifting into a borrowed second-floor boardroom for their semimonthly get-together. Sporting everything from tailored power suits to jeans, they pick up Styrofoam cartons of Chinese takeout and settle around the oval conference table to catch up on each other's news. Marianne van Gelder, a single mother and recent law school graduate, can hardly wait to report her latest coup. "This week was just awesome," she enthuses. "Tomorrow I see my $10 million guy."
In another era--say, even five whole years ago--her audience might have concluded that van Gelder had just landed a hot date with a sugar daddy. But in this room, when the subject turns to courtship, the women mean their own wooing of "VCs"--which, for the uninitiated, means venture capitalists, not Viet Cong. For van Gelder, who heads her own E-commerce start-up, AnWang Enterprises, the next day's rendezvous is her chance to pitch one of Silicon Valley's leading firms for $10 million in second-round funding. Listening to that news, the boardroom breaks out in the kind of admiring oohs and applause once reserved for a debutante showing off a high-watt diamond. Welcome to girl talk in the new millennium, where budding female entrepreneurs would rather chat about boosting the bottom line of their businesses than updating their hairstyles. For these aspiring tycoons, dishing the dirt means getting the lowdown from that night's guest CEO on when to demand a nondisclosure agreement. The evening is the fourth in a six-part training series sponsored by the San Mateo, Calif.-based Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, one of a handful of organizations that have banded together in an effort to put more women into the driver's seat of the "new economy." Although the movement so far is small, its aims are by no means modest. "We didn't want women to be doing nail salons," says Denise Brosseau, the forum's executive director. "We wanted them to be thinking about joining the Fortune 500."
Across the country, Brosseau and a group of private foundations--some funded by the first generation of Silicon Valley's female millionaires--are tackling one of the last frontiers of the women's movement: boosting a new generation of female entrepreneurs into the country's loftiest economic circles. In doing so, they are accelerating a trend that has already begun to change the face of American business. During the past decade, women have been starting their own companies at nearly twice the national average and now own 38 percent of all U.S. firms. Since 1987, the number of female-owned ventures has doubled from 4.5 million to 9.1 million, according to the National Foundation for Women Business Owners (NFWBO).
No longer sidelines. Once, the majority of those businesses were dismissed as minor-league operations. But over the past three years, their staff and revenues have skyrocketed. By 1999, female-owned companies employed more than 27 million Americans--nearly 9 million more than in 1996--and their annual sales had risen from $2.3 trillion to $3.6 trillion. "Quite clearly, these aren't women who just want to stay home and start a little something on the side," says NFWBO Executive Director Sharon Hadary. "Their businesses are getting bigger and more substantial."