I had the pleasure this week of teaching a one-day session on entrepreneurship at Wellesley College, as part of a three-week course called Management Basics offered to Wellesley students and taught, in part, by the many devoted alumnae like me (’82) who so enjoy being on campus and getting to know the students.
My friend, Laila Partridge (’85, former Intel Venture Capitalist and CEO of a new company, Cover4Me) and I were asked to design an interactive class to help bring together all the things the students had learned earlier in their course. We started off the morning by asking the students to define entrepreneurship and ended the day with a critique of three actual companies’ business plans. In between, everyone participated in a brainstorming exercise to demonstrate how easy it is to come up with new business ideas (this particularly resonated when I used my hobby of quilting to show how many people build hugely successful businesses in this “craft” arena), and then Laila and I put them to work on our own companies’ challenges.
It was during the lunchtime discussion, though – the unplanned part of the agenda – that I really had the most interesting interactions. Like many times that I have talked with other women, I brought up the topic of money, and the wage gap statistic of women earning only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. I pressed the girls to change that statistic when they go out into the workforce by asking for what they deserve. I surmised that at least part of the reason women make less then men is that women don’t ask for more. I then told them a rather embarrassing story from my own career experience.
In the mid-90s, when I was managing the product development department at a Fortune 500 company, I found that I was paying the men who worked for me more than I paid the equally qualified women. As a longtime feminist, this was a shocking moment for me, but it serves to underline an important truth. The men on my team regularly asked for more money, they expected to make more money, they came to me with all the reasons they should make more money and sometimes they threatened to leave if they didn’t get it. In most cases, the women did none of those things. They were content with a title change, different work responsibilities or more time off. And, with a limited budget and a sincere desire to keep my team together and happy, I paid the men more to keep them. Not only was it clear that the women were settling for less, I was now part of paying them less. For the first time, that 77-cents statistic was no longer something I could blame on men.
As you can imagine, a story like this opened the door for the students to ask me questions that they wouldn’t usually ask, and one of those questions really stuck with me. “If I don’t need more money, because what I am making or what my husband and I are making is enough for what we need, is it really right to ask for more money?” My answer to that was an unequivocal “YES!”. Not just because your colleagues are going to measure your worth by what you are earning and might respect you less for not asking. Not just because of a knee-jerk feminist reaction to unfairness. I would argue that the most important reason to make more money than you “need” is that the world is full of terrible problems that you might be able to fix if you had the money to put where it is “needed.”
As I flew back to California after the class, I reflected on why I continue to enjoy my work in the women’s leadership arena. It is precisely because of conversations like this. My personal motto is “to empower others is to empower yourself” and while it may sound corny, I am motivated by the opportunity to open women’s eyes to the possibilities around them to take charge of their lives as employees or as entrepreneurs – that is what I will always love about the work I do. It is no accident that my new company is called Invent Your Future! And as we prepare for our Entrepreneurial Skills Conference for Corporate Women & Small Business Owners this week in Mountain View, CA, my goal will be to create an environment during those two days for just such conversations to take place. I welcome you to join us. The dialogue is only the beginning.
Denise Brosseau is the Co-Founder of Invent Your Future Enterprises, a professional development accelerator for corporate women and entrepreneurs. She also co-founded the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and theSpringboard Venture Forums.