A few weeks ago, Penny Peavler and Valerie Horn were deep in a $50,000 grant application to fund food distribution to kids in Eastern Kentucky, when Horn realized what she had: a food distribution network.
Since 2017, Horn had been building a nonprofit, Community Agricultural Nutrition Enterprises, to get farm produce to families that needed fresh food. Peavler, who recounted the story, has a tourism consulting business, sits on statewide boards and has connections in the restaurant business in Louisville.
“We realized, we can make this soup. We could make up boxes. We could get these first responders to deliver it. It wasn’t like a complete anything,” Peavler said. “But we thought we could make it work.”
The duo didn’t end up winning the grant from the founders of Boston-based Curriculum Associates. But idea took on a life of its own, and they ran with it. Within a week, they’d gotten a truckload of food from Louisville, put together a network of volunteer firefighters and first responders to pack boxes in a community kitchen and delivered food to 600 families in four tiny communities where kids, home from school, probably weren’t getting much to eat.
“There is no limit to what you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit,” Peavler said.
Tend and Befriend
Coronavirus is perhaps the first global crisis in which enough women are in positions of power to make the recession and recovery different — though how is not yet clear. The texture of how women respond, and amount of support women business owners get from the patriarchal world of finance, will help determine how our economy rebuilds.
On the world stage, as CNN first noted, women leaders have been standouts. In the business world, research and interviews with about a dozen business leaders suggest that they are responding differently to the crisis than men, with actions that are particularly reflective, resilient and resourceful — what scientists call “tend and befriend.” The number of women business owners has exploded in the past 20 years, so that they now represent 42% of the ownership of formal businesses in the United States. Between 2017-2018, women started 1,820 businesses a day.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years. When I started women business owners weren’t even a conversation,” said Camille Burns, CEO of the New York City-based Women Presidents’ Organization. “What this looks like as it evolves, I don’t know. I am seeing resilience. They want to make it. They want to keep their people employed.”
The 140 chapter leaders are meeting weekly now. The group has 2,000 members whose businesses have at least $1 million in revenue. There’s a been a shift in the conversation, from fear to action. “It’s about, ‘Get out of the pity. You just lost big contracts and you’re scared. What can we do as we go forward?’
Members are doing free and discounted work for each other, she said. “So many members are doing work for each other.”
For women in business, this is a new world. And for the world, having so many women in business, is new, too. Women-owned businesses are small, with less than one employee on average. Younger and smaller businesses were less likely to survive in the last recession, according to the Brookings Institute.
But women in business have had a lot of practice with hardship: Women are 60% less likely to be funded for the same business idea as men, according to research from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (disclosure: The Foundation is a supporter of Times of E.)
Women in business have grit many men don’t bother to imagine. Consider: Horn and Peavier fed 600 families in Appalachia on a less than a shoestring. If they’d gotten the grant, they would have kept going for six weeks.
What The Science Says – and Suggests
In 2000, Harvard researchers published an influential paper suggesting that women respond differently to stress than men. Instead of “fight or flight,” it’s “tend and befriend.”
A general awareness of the difference still hasn’t made its way into the public consciousness. But there are implications for the way they might respond. For instance, will they be slower to lay employees off in a crisis, and more likely to act in the community’s interest?
“Tending involves nurturant activities designed to protect the self and offspring that promote safety and reduce distress; befriending is the creation and maintenance of social networks that may aid in this process,” wrote the researchers.
As I interviewed women business owners and leaders, I found evidence of tend and befriend everywhere I looked. It’s not that we wouldn’t find this response among men, too – but as women in business grow in number, power and influence, norms are reshaped and changed. The texture starts to matter more. And in the up-and-down cycle we’re likely to see over the next months, there will be a premium on the ability to adapt fast and to work established networks.
The Definition Of Lean
Women are closing in on men when it comes to business ownership, considering their rate among formal businesses: 42% in 2019, up from 26% in 1997, according to the American Express State of Women-Owned Business Report. They are, on average, tiny, with 0.7 employees in 2019. That’s because so many are solopreneurs who work with other solopreneurs — networks — to get their work done.
Those qualities mean they’re less likely to get help from aid programs set up to measure businesses by old standards of size and employee count. But as trust in institutions continues to decline, relationships and trust will be at a premium.
“As a female founder myself who has worked to support other female founders in Egypt and beyond, the one thing I can say with certainty is that women demonstrate incredible resilience and agility. Both are qualities that are deeply needed at this time,” said Dina Sherif, executive director of the Legatum Center for Entrepreneurship & Development at MIT, by text. (Disclosure: Time of E founder Elizabeth MacBride is journalist-in-resident at the Legatum Center).
“Perhaps what has been most documented in literature and through my own observations is that women are more conservative in their spending, do more with less, and reinvest excess funds back into their business. All of this makes me believe female founders were already following much of the advice being provided by investors and experts since the start of the crisis – most of whom are men.”
The changes of the past 20 years mean there are companies and people now focused on women, so we can gather evidence and understanding of women’s different experiences, and the differences women make in this crisis. Take, for instance, data that the CEO of Gennev, Jill Angelo, shared from a survey of 10,000 women in March. Gennev is a telehealth service that helps women go through menopause.
“Oddly in our Menopause Assessment data, we’ve seen women report less anxiety than before,” she told me via email. When she looked deeper, she found that while women were still reporting the same symptoms, like fatigue, weight gain, anxiety and hot flashes, they also said those symptoms (aside from weight gain!) had a lower impact on their quality of life.
Is this a sign of tend-and-befriend in practice? At the least, I think it’s an early indication that the way women are processing their feelings is changing. It may that the way men are processing their feelings is changing, as well, but it took a company where a woman was in charge to ask the question.
Three Women’s Stories
Starting in early March, Sarah Mirth, CEO of St. Louis-based furniture company Artifox, started reaching out to suppliers, to ask about their families. Then she reached out again as orders at her home office furniture company unexpectedly jumped. Did suppliers have the right people in place to handle the shipments? What kinds of lead times did they need in the changed environment?
She and her seven employees talked to customers, too. “We just want to make people feel comfortable and confident. When you’re making a larger purchases, that’s already a little nerve-wracking,” she says. “They’re stressed about other things.”
Artifox, which Mirth co-owns with her husband, was launched with a $50,000 grant from the city of St. Louis. The company’s high-end desks cost in the range of $1,000 – $1,500 and are shipped all over the world. Artifox might triple its revenues this year.
This kind of deep networking, that combines professional and personal concerns, is the hallmark of what I heard from women business owners as they described their responses. Those kinds of personal relationships are harder to navigate in a recession – you might eventually have to lay people off. But they might also pay off, with deeper trust, as companies morph in response to the changing environment.
Mariam Nusrat, a U.S.-based Pakistani and education specialist at the World Bank, founded a social venture, GRID (Gaming Revolution for Inspiring/International Development) to build games to inspire positive behavior change in areas like financial literacy, the opiod crisis, child protection and entrepreneurship. To reach a global audience, they work on low-tech phones.
With one full-time employee, the nonprofit has a team of seven around the world, which means it won’t be able to access much of the stimulus funding. When Nusrat started hearing about the virus in early February, “I started talking to my team. Are you safe, are you healthy? Work and conversations around personal and professional well-being were entwined.” Those conversations were supportive and transparent and helped the company turn on a dime. GRID has between $100,000 in revenue each year from nonprofits and foundations that use games to support development projects.
As funding that was in process fell away – about $40,000 – $50,000 worth – Nusrat and her team produced a new game focused on educating young people about coronavirus. It was a bold move, because the game wasn’t funded; Nusrat tapped into reserves to produce it. And it’s not clear whether it will work. “Up until July, we have a bit of runway. If in July, we don’t have any new cash flow, we will put a pause on it,” she said.
She’s hit an unexpected snag: Google and Apple won’t distribute coronavirus information apps other than those from large institutions, like the WHO. GRID got around the restriction by posting the pandemic game on a web site, but still: “Tech entrepreneurs are being encouraged to develop digital solutions to help with the crisis, but the last mile is broken and solutions cannot be deployed,” Nusrat said.
Make No Decisions In Fear
Others are multitasking mode, balancing adapting to the new world with managing the contraction.
Marcia Tal, a former executive vice president at Citigroup, launched New York City-based consulting business Tal Solutions in 2012. Last summer, taking a deep breath, she went bigger, launching the PositivityTech intelligent platform to give voice to consumer complaints and provide insights for financial institutions. The upheaval in finance could mean that the service is more valuable than ever.
Enterprise sales has a long sales cycle, however, and the pandemic crashed right into the middle of it. She’s been frustrated by the way the PPP has left out companies like hers. She is still waiting for a loan. “Part of the team are employees and another major and critical part of my team is from the “gig economy,” she said. “If the PPP program would have allowed me to include both my payroll employees and my non-payroll team members, that would have provided a much more significant outcome for a business like mine. “
A recent survey found that many women-owned businesses weren’t able to apply for PPP loans because of their size and the way the loans were distributed, through big banks. Extrapolated nationally, 3 million women-owned businesses that needed funding critical to stay open likely never even had a shot at a PPP loan, the survey’s backers, including HelloAlice and Builders and Backers, reported.
“Additionally, the EIDL program, in early days, communicated grants which brought a sense of optimism that, to date, has not happened. Instead the lack of communication, action and funds brings disappointment and worry. Even the SBA customer service representatives have no information,” Tal said.
One key advantage that may come from age as much as from being a woman is that she listens.
“I don’t want to bring a gender bias to the conversation, but women sometimes reflect deeper,” she said. “For instance, I’m an action-oriented person. I understand that there are things that just have to be done.”
She read a great piece of advice recently: Never make major decisions in fear. “I have big decisions to make. I’d like to say I’m hopefully balancing caution with the need to act.”
Moving Forward When You’re Mission Driven
Just after I wrote a story about the number of women over 50 starting businesses last year, I heard from Kirsten Quigley, an entrepreneur who founded LunchSkins, which makes reusable and paper sandwich bags and other containers – a company literally started at a kitchen table more than 10 years ago that now has distribution in Whole Foods, Target and 3,500 other stories. A former Nature Conservancy executive, she’s relentlessly committed to growing the business and improving the environment. LunchSkins has replaced more than 2.5 billion plastic sandwich bags.
The pandemic took the wind out of the company’s sales, but when the conversation shifts – perhaps in ways that deepen people’s commitment to the environment, as one big communal challenge begets awareness of another, she will be ready. For now “we adapted our message to be more humanized and sensitive to people at home looking for ways to prep food/snacks, live a little cleaner/greener/less plastic-y,” she wrote by email.
“The collective health of people and planet could not be more relevant,” she wrote recently on LinkedIn. “In fact, our very human existence (and ability to thrive and prosper) hinges on a healthy environment, life-sustaining resources and climate that make our world live-able. The global pandemic has heightened our awareness about health and connectivity around the world. Our actions matter, our choices matter.”
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