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Factors Influencing the Growth of Women-Owned Businesses – Risk Tolerance, Motivations, Expectations

In our continued effort to provide resources for Entrepreneurial Women Over 40 herein is a resource from the National Women’s Business Council:

About the NWBC

The National Women’s Business Council (NWBC) is a non-partisan federal advisory council created to serve as an independent source of advice and counsel to the President, Congress, and the U.S. Small Business Administration on economic issues of importance to women business owners. The Council is the government’s only independent voice for women entrepreneurs. Members are prominent women business owners and leaders of women’s business organizations. NWBC is composed of 15 members who are appointed to three-year terms.


Like all entrepreneurs, women business owners face many challenges in making their entrepreneurship dreams a reality.  Some of the challenges faced by women may be specific to women, due to the historical and cultural context within which they do their work.  Women have the challenge of confronting and overcoming the historical barriers of being kept out of business and capital markets until the late 1980s.  Even today, women’s access to information (or lack thereof) about financing strategies and opportunities may be limited due to a lack of access to the social networks where many key decision makers and capital players make deals.  A lack of information about financing a business may result in more women raising lower levels of capital or pursuing only debt financing, which can limit their growth potential.  Even more challenging are the cultural and personal challenges that women may face.  Many women business owners also need to manage family-related responsibilities that still fall disproportionately on women despite progress in this area.  Finally, some women struggle with being comfortable with living through and overcoming risk and failure, a critical skill set for any entrepreneur.  Women still trail men in size of business and business receipts, and women need to become more comfortable with risk in order to grow their businesses.  All of these issues hit close to home for many successful business owners, yet, they are important to continue to explore, particularly in relation to how women start, grow, and expand their businesses.

The National Women’s Business Council (NWBC) initiated this research to understand the reasons behind the general lag of women-owned business growth in terms of business size and receipts, as compared to firms owned by men.  Other studies have indicated that, on the whole, women and men approach entrepreneurship differently.  In order to assist women, and the nation, to advance economically, the NWBC looked to the research to provide insights on key considerations when reaching out to women entrepreneurs to encourage maximum growth of their businesses.  The research centered on questions about three key attitudinal areas associated with business ownership and growth: risk tolerance, motivations, and expectations.  The research team also listened for instances where culture could be influencing behaviors or experiences.

About the Research

This research was conducted by Public Policy Associates (PPA), Incorporated, a public policy research, development, and evaluation firm headquartered in Lansing, Michigan.  The research was qualitative in nature with the goal of exploring attitudes and preferences; as such, it is not meant to be representative of all women business owners.  The research was based primarily on focus groups and telephone interviews with 81 women entrepreneurs from three metropolitan locations in the United States (Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C.).  The participants were organized into four segments of women business owners: (1) having high-growth expectations, (2) having moderate-growth expectations, (3) having children at home, and (4) making frequent use of outside advisors (such as lawyers and accountants).   These categories were selected by the NWBC and PPA because the team hypothesized that these business and personal characteristics might have an influence on attitudes about risk and motivations for starting a business.  Overall, the women in the study tended to be more diverse, more educated, and older than the population of women business owners nationally.  However, they were roughly similar in terms of business size (defined as gross receipts and number of employees).

Key Findings

Risk –  It’s about managing risk, not avoiding it.

  1. The study participants who were most risk tolerant also held high expectations for business performance and growth.  Business owners who already have high expectations and are comfortable with risk appeared to be on track to grow their businesses.

  2. Utilization of outside advisors was not associated with greater tolerance for risk.  However, most participants used one or more outside resources, and all participants recognized the value of such resources, particularly during the startup phase.  Participants recognized that external advisors could assist in mitigating risk during growth.  NWBC has concluded that finding the right advisors can help a business owner develop confidence and become more comfortable with risk.

  3. Because of the inherent instability of micro-businesses in the market due to business cycles and changes in market dynamics, the riskiest strategy may, in fact, be the unwillingness to take necessary risks.

  4. Investing in hiring new staff or consultants was seen as a highly risky activity and was viewed with caution. There seemed to be difficulty among some owners in delegating daily management responsibilities, as owners were concerned about finding employees that they could trust.

Motivations – The original personal motivations for becoming a business owner drive the subsequent path that a business takes, and perhaps the owner’s willingness to take risks.

  1. The business owners in this study were mostly motivated by independence, flexibility, and work-family balance. Wealth creation in terms of net worth, as defined by these women, was not a motivator that these women had in common.

  2. One distinction among the segments was that more women in the high-growth expectations segment said that they started their businesses in order to capitalize on an opportunity or to fill a gap in the market than women in any of the other segments.

  3. The original personal motivations for becoming a business owner may well drive the subsequent path that a business takes, and perhaps the owner’s willingness to take risks. NWBC has concluded that these original motivations need to be considered potential influencers on business growth planning.

  4. Women entrepreneurs who are highly motivated to grow their firms take tangible, consistent steps toward that end.

Expectations – Women define growth in similar ways, but have different timelines and strategies for achieving it.  In many ways, growth appears to be a choice. 

  1. Growth was not a central focus for many at the outset of their businesses; rather, the focus was on startup and stabilization.  With more experience as a business owner came more attention to growth, ostensibly from an increase in confidence in running the business.

  2. There did seem to be difficulty among some owners in delegating daily management responsibilities (e.g., processing payroll), which may be compromising business growth potential.  The owners were concerned about finding employees that they could trust, as mentioned above in the section on risk.

  3. This study found that women entrepreneurs with high-growth intent are, in fact, making strategic decisions that best positioned them for growth, particularly through marketing.

Cultural Influences – Women business owners juggle multiple roles.

  1. The owners saw success in business as a reflection of their personal and professional success.  However, the point at which an owner considers herself sufficiently successful seems to be influenced heavily by a need to balance business success with success in other areas of her life.

  2. Perceived expectations and norms around women’s responsibilities and roles (e.g. within their households) had at least some influence on business growth decisions, as well as ownership decisions.  Risk taking, motivations, and expectations were all affected.

  3. Women business owners are taking a holistic view of work and personal life.  Women expressed concerns about adding focus on business growth to their current workloads, which include home and workplace leadership roles and responsibilities.

  4. Women business owners with children at home defined risks in terms of family finances, personal time, and personal reputation.  In the high- and moderate-growth segments, the owners pointed to risks associated with business investments and finances more frequently.

Policy and Program Implications

The factors that influence the growth of women-owned businesses are dynamic and interrelated. Motivations for starting a business can impact both expectations for growth and tolerance of risk. NWBC believes that policy and programming for women business owners should help women to see how to remain true to their motivations for business ownership while accomplishing business expansion and wealth creation.  This study reveals a number of considerations:

  1. Programs:  We need to focus as much on expansion as on startup and stabilization. Particularly valuable may be training on second-stage business assessments, expansion planning, or similar resources for those women business owners who are beyond the startup stage, but are not confident about how to pursue growth on their own.

  2. Programs:  Women in this study appeared to struggle from front-line service provider to CEO as their business grew.  Programs should emphasize problem solving to achieve goals and encourage the use of resources and tools.  Training on organizational development, human resources, and hiring may assist women in finding the right people as advisors or employees, and increase their confidence in making smart decisions about expanding their workforce and delegating responsibilities.

  3. Messaging:  In addition to advocating for ‘risk taking,’ organizations working with women business owners should focus on risk management and positioning for opportunity as part of business growth planning and implementation.  It may be that owners who appear to be willing to take big risks are in fact just better at seeing how to manage or mitigate the risks required for successful business ownership.

  4. Messaging:  Programs that recognize that business ownership is a viable path to generate wealth, including adequate retirement savings, and that provides strategies to help owners get to that point, would likely be valuable to women business owners of all ages.  In general, the value of business growth in connection with other goals, like helping one’s community or family, may resonate better.

  5. Messaging:  Acknowledge the multiple roles that women business owners play (work, home, community) and their desire to perform well in their roles.

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