A Start-Up of Her Own
Meet the new generation of American CEOs: They're young, wired, fearless--and female
The National Foundation for Women Business Owners reports that women are decamping from corporations out of growing frustration over their treatment. But Gencer, at 28, doesn't share that complaint. For her and others, the tales of thwarted ambition told by older women entrepreneurs seem alien and exotic--a symptom of a yawning generational divide. "Today, young women are much more confident, not only in their own abilities," says Hart, "but about their place in the business world."
There are also more women with M.B.A.'s and high-tech degrees. In 1997, 34 years after the first woman graduated from Harvard Business School, women earned 39 percent of all graduate business and management degrees. JoMei Chang, 47, the CEO of Vitria Technology--a $5 billion company specializing in applications integration software--has watched the ranks of women in high tech grow as well. In 1984, when she arrived at a small Silicon Valley start-up called Sun Microsystems with a Ph.D. in database management from Purdue, she found herself the only female engineer on a 20-person team. By last year, when she was asked back to speak, her hosts couldn't tell her how much those ranks had swelled. "There were so many, they couldn't count." In her own case, she says, "I never let the fact of my gender or race become an issue."
Today, the greatest challenge to women entrepreneurs--after finding capital--is as old as biology itself: the difficulty of juggling both a fledgling company and a fledgling family. Heather Blease, 37, who founded EnvisioNet (which provides technical support for the Microsoft Network) in Brunswick, Maine, five years ago, can speak to those conflicting tugs. At a time when her company was exploding from three to 1,500 employees, she was changing diapers for three toddlers under 6. Leaving for one pivotal fundraising trip to the West Coast, she was kissing her second son goodbye when he demanded, "Mommy, do you love your company more than me?" She got over that moment--"You just have to," she says--and has gone on to build Maine's fastest-growing company.
But no female entrepreneurs pretend that such warring demands are without a price. "It's not easy," says Sandra Kurtzig, the 51-year-old founder of the Ask Group, a manufacturing software system that was once the country's second-largest woman-led firm. Kurtzig recalls her mother phoning to scream at her, "How can you fly off when your son has measles?" And she admits her work played no small part in her divorce. Still, she now urges young women M.B.A. students to "Go for it. Just be willing to take the same amount of risks as men."
In fact, she offers the prospect of a future payoff. At a time when some women are grappling with empty-nest syndrome, her oldest son has just asked her to join him as a partner in a start-up. "Now my kids need me in a different way," she says. "And the more mothers that are working, the better effect it will have on their sons' hiring women in business."
Two years ago, a pair of female students at Harvard Business School asked Hart, one of the four co-founders of the Staples office empire, to add a course on entrepreneurship for women to the curriculum. "They saw entrepreneurship as a career choice that was much more compatible with raising children than corporate life," she recalls. But after hearing horror stories from some of the country's top women CEOs, many revised their opinion. Now, Hart says, unlike earlier generations, they look at starting their own businesses as "one among a number of career choices. There's a feeling you can have it all--and you don't have to do it all at once, or at the same time."
At the Women's Technology Cluster, Meneske Gencer shares that view. As a single woman without children, like most of the new generation of female entrepreneurs, she hasn't yet had to figure out how she'll juggle family and her start-up, but she's confident she will. "Today, you think, `Thank God, women don't have to be one thing or another--a businesswoman or a mother,' " she says. "If women are the CEOs, they can make it OK to be both." Sharon Hadary of the National Foundation for Women Business Owners agrees. "The rules for business are being rewritten even as we speak," she says. "And what's become clear now is that women will have a role in rewriting them." GRAPHIC Picture |s THOMAS BROENING FOR USN&WR |c Kim Fisher, CEO of AudioBasket, calls herself a "born entrepreneur." As a child, she sold hand-decorated lunch bags at school. After getting her M.B.A., she helped set up an Internet portal in Lithuania.