What We Can Learn from Female Entrepreneurs About the Future of Business

Business

Towards the end of 2019 the CEOs of 181 of the world’s largest companies issued a joint declaration entitled “Statement on the purpose of a corporation”. The idea: reframe corporate capitalism to focus on delivering value to all stakeholders – employees, suppliers, customers and investors “for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country”. It’s the most honest admission of the failure of modern capitalism that we have ever encountered. The system is broken, and we need to fix it. 

The letter feels revolutionary. But, actually, it’s not. Thousands of business leaders, many of them women, have been doing this for a while. Not everybody has been putting shareholder value first and pushing for growth at all costs. But hardly anybody has been paying attention to these renegades.

Starting a Revolution

Starting A Revolution

Since founding their companies, Naomi Ryland (tbd*) and Lisa Jaspers (Folkdays) have been on the lookout for meaningful business advice. Advice that helps to build great companies but that also reflects the challenges of our times: climate change, deeply divided societies, growing inequality, and a disillusioned and burnt-out workforce. Hardly any of the advice they heard from the startup world, and read in business books, seemed up to the challenge. So, they interviewed some of the most progressive female founders in the world and wrote their own book: Starting A Revolution. It covers topics such as organizational development, leadership, recruitment, personal development, team building, innovation and fundraising.

Dame Stephanie Shirley is one of these women. Dame Stephanie, or Steve, is a software developer and entrepreneur who founded a ‘tech startup’ in the 1960s with an investment of just 6 GBP.  A few decades later the company would be sold for 407 MILL GBP. By this stage, Dame Stephanie’s stake in the business was only 5%. Not because she had sold out to investors, but because she had given away (or sold at a hugely undervalued rate) most of her shares to her staff. She did this against the will of her management and external investors, and despite it being unprecedented and thus extremely difficult to implement - because she firmly believed that those who work for a company should not only share in its profits but also share in the decision making. When she stepped down as CEO, her staff had 62% of the voting rights.

Dame Stephanie’s disregard for conventional (read: male) business practice did not stop there. For the first fifteen years or so (until equality legislation outlawed it) Freelance Programmers only employed female programmers and others who were often excluded from office environments, such as disabled people. Her entire team worked remotely and flexibly, job-sharing was common. This meant that all code had to be submitted by post and all communication was done by landline. And it worked. The team was responsible for coding the Concorde’s black box and for developing new technologies for many of Britain’s biggest companies.

Yes, it was tough at times, but it was a win-win-win. It allowed her employees to use their skills to contribute to the economy while earning an independent living. Dame Stephanie balanced running her company with caring for her severely autistic son and, after his death at just 35, became a driving force in autism research and the development of better care facilities for patients.

"We were looking for people who were building businesses for the global context in which we found ourselves: gross inequality, a dying planet and a burnt-out and disillusioned workforce."
Naomi Ryland
Baratang Miya (right) is the founder of Girlhype, an initiative based in Cape Town, South Africa, that empowers women to code. This picture was taken during the BMW Foundation Global Table in Cape Town on "Leading Towards Equal Opportunities". Claudia Leisinger

You have probably never heard of Dame Stephanie, which is not surprising because neither had we. Lisa Jaspers and I interviewed her for our book, “Starting a Revolution”, after we went on the lookout for new role models for our own businesses. We were looking for people who were building businesses for the global context in which we found ourselves: gross inequality, a dying planet and a burnt-out and disillusioned workforce.

We wanted to understand how to run our business in a way that doesn’t adhere to “conventional business wisdom” because “conventional business wisdom” has failed us. We chose to focus on women because we know that, since the very dawn of capitalism, women have been largely excluded from discussions around how to do business.  Perhaps for this very reason, the women we got to know during our research were by no means in need of a guiding hand, but were constantly pushing the boundaries and challenging the status quo. And yet they often weren’t putting themselves in the spotlight, or weren’t being given it. They were quiet Revolutionaries.

Until now. One of the other women we interviewed was Jennifer Brandel. Jennifer is a contemporary American founder who has started a global movement called Zebras Unite with three other female founders. Last year she wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review in response to the Business Round Table declaration. She explained that, “over the last three years, a diverse founder community has come together in the Zebras Unite movement.

Unlike “unicorns”, high-growth startups valued at more than a billion dollars, Zebra companies prioritize mutualism, shared prosperity, and social good over Silicon Valley’s “winner take all” mentality. Many of these companies were founded at the margins, by women and people of color.” The Zebras Movement has spread organically around the world and now encompasses thousands of companies.  Brandel goes on to encourage the CEOs of the world’s largest companies, The Roundtable members, to “draw on the lived experience of “zebra” founders”, those who have long ago realized the goal of ‘stakeholder-value’ over ‘shareholder-value’ – and exhibit this through their corporate structures, hiring practices, operations and community involvement.

Our book, too, highlights precisely these types of companies and their leaders – those that you are unlikely to find in the business section of the newspaper, because they are unlikely to have an “exit”, they do not strive for an IPO, and their founders are not fueled by an ego-driven need for publicity. They are authentic, purpose-driven and people-centric. And they represent the future of business.

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