The challenge of the #ShopSmall and Small Business Saturday rallying cry is that women-owned businesses don’t really need the added stigma of being considered ‘small.’ Obviously, that’s not the point. But let’s be honest, there is a tiny bit of fetishization that goes on when discussing women-owned businesses. For instance, if your neighbor has a business making candles (and they are fantastic) do you think ‘cute’ or ‘wow, they will be in thousands of stores worldwide in no time.’ See what we mean? We are conditioned to think of women-owned businesses as hobbies. While male-owned small businesses are ‘startups’ in ‘growth’ stage.
Of course, and especially this year, we should support all businesses on their way up. Including those that represent the fabric of our communities and that we want and need to remain in our lives. But it should be (and usually is) because they are very good businesses. They are businesses we are cheering for because they enrich our lives. Not for the sake of their mere existence.
Women are on par with men as new business creators; and they are creating excellent new businesses every day. Particularly Women of Color. So let’s not assume a smaller ambition for those who identify as female. Or shop small this holiday season out of an obligation to rail against the big guys. But instead let’s shop in anticipation of something great.
Women are inching toward parity as business creators. According to American Express ‘State of Women Owned Businesses’ 2019 report, women own 42% of all businesses in the United States. A 2020 report by tech company UNEI places that number closer to 45%. And yet only about 33% of these businesses have four or more employees. And predictably, there are two factors holding women back from growing overall: money and influence.
According to Bank of America’s 2019 ‘Women Business Owner Spotlight’ women overwhelmingly need access to capital. Bank of America looked at women-owned businesses that were already generating between $100k and $5m in revenue and more than half did not have the necessary access to capital to grow. With 90% believing that access to investment made a difference to their future success.
It also goes without saying that with power (…which women don’t often yield) comes access to opportunity. Bank of America cites a painfully long list of societal changes that female entrepreneurs think would be game-changers. From having more women overall in positions of power to pay equity, better childcare options, stronger female networks and so on. While small business advocates SCORE, lay it out even more starkly in a 2020 article, saying that female business owners are held back by:
Not only are women creating businesses in record numbers, they are creating the products and services that at least half of the world wants and needs. We are continuing to innovate in the areas we know instinctually…from childbirth and childcare to feminine hygiene, health, beauty and aging. The innovation that women are bringing to all industries is exciting, fresh and needed. So like climbing a mountain over and over again; women are finding ways to innovate with products and services that make women’s lives better…despite obstacles. Although these barriers make the path to launch longer and more arduous. A lose-lose for all of us.
And that also doesn’t mean that businesses with less ground-breaking products and services should be marginalized. Each day men are making oodles of money on goods and services that aren’t saving the world. Snuggie, Slinky, Chia Pet anyone? (Although it’s worth noting that the male founder of Slinky, Richard James, fled to Bolivia to join a cult leaving his wife Betty to successfully run the business…so much to say… but we’ll leave it at that). So perhaps we reconsider whether these are small businesses or those #OnHerWayUp.
When you shop small and, or local this holiday season, perhaps think about what you are looking for and why. Because, really, none of us spends gratuitously. We look for something special, unique, well-made. For gifts with purpose or meaning. We look for the new, the interesting, the ground-breaking or just cool. And we find what we want we don’t just think we did some business a favor we feel like we’ve won. And so when that business owner is a women, we should tell someone. Women are good at that.
The truth is, until women use their power, women-owned businesses will struggle to outgrow their smallness. And whether we like it or not, the most potent power we have is financial. The list of ways in which we are hindered from affecting change is mountainous. But with our collective power of the purse, we are mighty.
Women’s collective buying power is awesome to behold. Harvard Business Review memorably put that figure at $20 trillion more than 10 years ago. Today it is surely more than $30 trillion. So we need to use our power to support and enjoy the best products and services we can get our hands on….and many of those are women-made.
Let’s then shop like we do have power; even if we feel less powerful as business creators and owners. Let’s be more thoughtful about what we purchase and why. We should try hard to find great things and even harder to tell everyone we know when we find that product. We shouldn’t bypass Amazon in favor of small businesses but instead bypass Amazon in favor of better.
Because women know what women want and together we can start to reverse what’s unfair and unjust about our ability to grow the female economy. There is nothing ‘small’ about that.