Q. Should all women aspire to be entrepreneurs?
A. The word “entrepreneur” comes from the French word entreprendre, meaning “to undertake”. While all women should aspire to be someone who "undertakes", they should not all aspire to be someone who creates and runs a company. Not every woman's skills, interests, and ambitions are well suited to this task.
Many authors, in this issue of the OSBR and elsewhere, highlight the relative lack of women entrepreneurs and suggest ways that we can overcome the challenges women face so that we can increase the numbers. However, I wish to offer another perspective. I do not want to be an entrepreneur and I am not the only woman who feels this way. Here, I wish to highlight the importance filling gaps as a form of leadership. This alternative to entrepreneurship is valuable and is also in need of encouragement.
Why I Am Not an Entrepreneur
People often tell me that I would make a good entrepreneur. They also imply that I should want to be one, and yet I do not. While I retain the freedom to change my mind in the future, I am choosing an alternate route. In part, I am choosing not to be an entrepreneur because I do not have a burning idea that I want to pursue, or at least I find that I have freedom to pursue and express my ideas in my current role. Mostly, I choose not to be an entrepreneur because I prefer to focus on my strengths and interests. I enjoy writing code, learning from my colleagues, and hopefully creating something that a large number of people will find useful. I enjoy not having to having to write business plans, think about cashflow, deal with HR issues, or worry about how to monetize a product. I do have a growth mindset and believe I could rise to the challenges that entrepreneurship would bring, but I do not believe I would enjoy it as much as what I am doing now.
I am fortunate because I have an abundance of choices. Thanks to my European passport, there are many places where I am welcome to live. My degree in computer science gives me a number of options for employment, not just as a software engineer. I currently work at Google, where I enjoy a choice of projects to work on and where I know I can make an impact. I was recently frustrated, having spent three days perfecting something that seemed small and trivial, when a colleague reminded me to think of the number of people who will use it; this changed my perspective. It reminded me that impact is not always proportional to the “impressiveness” of a project. It is important to recognize different types of impact and different forms of leadership.
The form of leadership celebrated in the media is the single superhero, the visionary, the larger-than-life figure with great ambition and an ego to match. However, Jim Collins, in Good to Great, found that this form of leadership did not create an enduringly great company, in terms of sustained growth over a 15-year period. The defining characteristic of a good-to-great CEO was “level 5 leadership”. A level 5 leader is someone who “blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will”. By contrast, in over two-thirds of comparison cases – particularly those with a short period of growth followed by decline – a gargantuan personal ego was found to contribute to the demise or continued mediocrity of a company. Collins asserts that, while a lesser leader will look in the mirror to apportion credit, and out the window to apportion blame, a level 5 leader looks in the mirror to apportion blame, and out the window to apportion credit. Of course, this is just one attribute of level 5 leadership, but women in engineering have been found more likely than men to attribute success to hard work or outside help but tend to attribute failure to their own lack of ability. Men were found more likely to attribute success to their own ability, while attributing failures to a lack of effort or unfair treatment (Felder et al., 1995).
Robin Sharma (in The Leader Who Had No Title) and the Arbinger Institute (in Leadership and Self Deception) reinforce the importance of bottom-up, rather than top-down, leadership. This quieter form of leadership does not require permission from anyone else, only from oneself. In fact, that is the whole point of it. If a person – anywhere and in any position – starts behaving differently, it will affect those around them.
Leadership in the Gaps
The examples above illustrate that quieter forms of leadership are desirable and they challenge us to reconsider our celebration of overt leadership. Many leaders may be overlooked because they are not seeking a title or fame, but desire and work towards change. They are not seeking to influence others, yet do so by their actions. I call this quieter form of leadership “leadership in the gaps”. Leadership in the gaps often takes the form of ownership of problems that others have missed, sometimes in ways that are small but have great impact. Examples include owning a feature on a product, or making sure that a new person on a project received the support they need to quickly become productive. Women seem to be more willing to take on tasks that do not have as much recognition. Of course, lack of recognition of this kind of contribution is career-limiting, and a recognized problem for minority academics is limiting the number of committees they are on in order to retain time for research. Ultimately, I do think that women need to step forward and take on bigger roles, more than gap-filling, but gap-filling leadership is under-recognized for its utility, and also a helpful stepping stone towards the spotlight.
Often, gaps are larger than they seem. Sarah Blow grew tired of being the only woman at technical events. She saw a gap and filled it with Girl Geek Dinners, which hosts regular dinner events with talks on technical subjects or topics of particular relevance to women. From its first event in London, England in 2005, the idea has now spread across 30 countries. This one woman identified a local gap and filled it, but she also led others by revealing similar gaps that others could fill. I helped fill one of these gaps by bringing Girl Geek Dinners to Kitchener-Waterloo. Similarly, I helped bring the Awesome Foundation to Ottawa with Awesome Ottawa, and Awesome Foundation KW. The Awesome Foundation provides a series of monthly $1,000 grants to projects and their creators. I also helped resurrect the University of Ottawa’s chapter of the Women in Science and Engineering organization because I felt strongly that it could fill an important gap for female scientists and engineers. I do not mention these projects in order to celebrate my own achievements, and of course many other people contributed to the success of each of them, but rather I wish to point out the similarities between leadership in the gaps and entrepreneurship. Observing a gap that you are passionate to fill is similar to coming up with that burning idea that will become a company. It is crucial to be able to articulate why a project is important, in order to connect with fellow gap-fillers and obtain funding.
Further examples of leadership in the gaps are all around us, and the people who find and fill these gaps often do not even see themselves as leaders. Leadership in the gaps might be just a small stepping-stone on the way to more overt forms of leadership or even entrepreneurship. Perhaps this is why we do not always notice leadership in the gaps, because it looks small and easy. But it is never really that easy to find time in an already-busy life to fight against inertia and face the criticism of those who do not act, other than to make their opinions heard. Seeing something that should happen and then making it a reality is rarer than it should be. We need to encourage women to recognize that leadership in the gaps is valued and encourage them to take action to prove it.
Some women aspire to be entrepreneurs and we should do all we can to help them be successful. However, we should also recognize that some women do not aspire to be entrepreneurs and we need to encourage them to be leaders as well. They should be encouraged to undertake leadership actions in a way that will make an impact and fulfill their passions, whether that is by being an entrepreneur, a politician, a CTO, a social innovator, or through other forms of leadership in the gaps. Above all we should recognize that leadership is a quality that is needed everywhere, and we should encourage those who demonstrate it, wherever and however they do so. We need the people who stand up to be entrepreneurs and visionaries, but we also need the people who observe the gaps in their communities and fill them. Women may make up disproportionately few of the former, but I suspect they make up disproportionately more of the latter, and if we recognized, encouraged, and celebrated leadership in the gaps, who knows what bigger gaps such people might find and fill.