Women in Business: how they did it

Anna Thompson
Anna Thompson
Discover content team
5 min read
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According to the Peterson Institute, companies with women in leadership positions consistently post higher annual profit margins than that without1. Yet, in many industries, women are still held back by discrimination and inequality. So, how can they break through? These famous female business leaders have some advice…

Global statistics about the gender gap within business can make for depressing reading. Across the world, within various industries, women are consistently paid less than their male colleagues, given fewer opportunities for promotion, and are underrepresented in top-level positions. For women of color, the inequity is particularly prominent.  

Despite this, there are female trailblazers powering through to break the glass ceiling and bring girl power to life. We’ve rounded up some of the most inspiring female entrepreneurs and channelled their advice and words of wisdom into mantras you can take into the workplace to help you reach your goals – whatever obstacles stand in your way.

1: Fake it until you make it

What would you do if you weren't afraid?" asks Sheryl Sandberg, American business executive and philanthropist2. With an impressive CV that includes stints as Chief of Staff for the US Treasury and COO at Facebook, she knows a thing or two about aiming high.

Despite her own ambitious nature, she believes that women often hold themselves back in their careers: “We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve."3

To overcome this mindset, "women need to shift from thinking "I'm not ready to do that" to thinking "I want to do that – and I'll learn by doing it” […] Feeling confident – or pretending that you feel confident – is necessary to reach for opportunities. It's a cliche, but opportunities are rarely offered; they're seized.4"

2: Follow your passion

"You see, it really all begins with trying to know as much about yourself as possible. What do you care about? What will you fight for? Then, give it your whole heart. Through your strength and perseverance, you will succeed." – Dr. Jill Biden, First Lady of the United States

They say if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Many successful businesses are born out of passion – indeed, during the pandemic, a wave of aspiring entrepreneurs took the leap to turn their hobbies into fully-fledged businesses. But, before you rush to quit your full-time job to join them, check out our tips for side hustle success. 

Mala Bryan

3: Be the change you wish to see in the world

Progress against inequality only happens when those who notice it do something about it. When Mala Bryan, founder of Malaville Toys, saw there were very few dolls of color on the market, she didn’t get angry, she got productive.

"The journey started when I began collecting dolls; I realized that there was something missing from the market – more dolls of color. Dolls that represented not just people of color, but also people with albinism. I just felt like a lot of the bigger brands had failed to understand what the environment is and what's really needed. So, I took it upon myself to see what I could do to fill that gap. I design dolls based on my personal experience and based on what it is that I know a lot of people like me are going through.”

This mantra is something Whitney Wolfe Herd can attest to, too. In her early twenties, she landed the impressive role of VP of Marketing at Tinder6. Yet, within a couple of years she resigned amidst sexual harassment allegations against the company7. Undeterred, she took her experiences and founded a female-friendly dating app called Bumble8, which has gone on to achieve enormous global success and a US$13 billion valuation9.  

4: Don’t ask for permission

Opportunities won’t fall into your lap – you must go out there, find them and seize them. As Whitney Wolfe Herd says: “How does a queen bee behave? However she wants to. But please don't wait for someone to hold the door open for you when your own arms work perfectly fine – do it yourself.”10

Wise advice, backed up by Katia Beauchamp, co-founder and CEO of cosmetics giant Birchbox11“Whatever it is that you think you want to do, and whatever it is that you think stands between you and that, stop making excuses. You can do anything.”12

5: Funding: do your research

E-commerce is leveling the playing field for female entrepreneurs – after all, anyone with WiFi access can make a start with online selling. However, there’s still the issue of funding – and that’s where women are at a disadvantage.

A study of US-based small- and medium-sized companies found that in 2020, the female to male ratio for successful business loan applicants was 27% vs 72%, whilst the average loan size for women-owned businesses was 33% less than those owned by men13.

A good tip is to research some of the funding schemes available specifically for female-led start-ups. The UK-based Women in Innovation Awards14, for example, is a government-backed funding competition which awards successful applicants with business grants and a bespoke package of mentoring and coaching.

6: Learn from your mistakes

The path to business success rarely runs smoothly – it requires unlimited reserves of determination and resilience. The key is to remember that every mistake you make is an opportunity to learn and grow. “Expecting it can be done exactly right is a recipe for disappointment. Perfection is the enemy,” Sheryl Sandberg says15.

Sara Blakely, founder of women’s shapewear brand Spanx16, agrees: “My dad growing up encouraged me and my brother to fail. It’s really allowed me to be much freer in trying things and spreading my wings in life.”76 Her embracement of failure clearly works: in 2012, she landed the cover of Forbes magazine as the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world.

Feeling inspired? Discover more tips for business success with our guide, 10 ways to be a more effective entrepreneur.

1 - Peterson Institute for International Economics, May 2020

2 & 4 - Sheryl Sandberg, Inc, accessed April 2022

3 - Sheryl Sandberg, Forbes, March 2013

5 - Dr. Jill Biden, Women Deliver, March 2017

6 - Tinder

7 & 9 - Whitney Wolfe Herd, Wikipedia, accessed April 2022

8 - Bumble

10 - Whitney Wolfe Herd, 365 quotes, accessed April 2022

11 - Birchbox

12 - Katia Beauchamp, SBBC, accessed April 2022

13 - Biz2Credit Women-Owned Business Study, Yahoo Finance, March 2021

14 - Women in Innovation Awards

15 - Sheryl Sandberg, Good Reads, accessed April 2022

16 - Spanx

17 - Sara Blakely, CNBC, October 2013