In almost every article on women in business or other minorities in business, you will have seen disheartening statistics. Only 2.5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Only 9% of billionaires are women. Only 30% of UK business owners are women. Women earn 20% less than men. African Americans make up just under 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Asian Americans only make up 6% of board members in the Silicon Valley’s top 25 companies, despite making up a third of all software engineers. It’s all rather depressing, isn’t it?
When I attended the Women in Business Club event at the London Business School last week, one feedback I consistently heard was that the students loved seeing examples of women traders, women bankers and women entrepreneurs. They found it inspiring and motivating. Suddenly, it didn’t matter that only 5% of women are entrepreneurs or traders. What mattered was that there were alumni from their school, with the same degree, just a few years ahead, who had done it, so it must be possible! If you’re a women who wants to be a trader, what would you rather know: only 10% of traders in New York and London are women, or: three women who studied the same degree as you at your business school are now successful traders in London and New York? If you want to set up your own business, would you rather hear that only 30% of entrepreneurs are women, and among those, less than 3% had more than $200k in revenues? Or would you like to hear stories about ten young women who have set up their own businesses successfully and find out how they did it?
The problem with statistics is that they don’t capture what is possible, and instead tell you that whatever you dream of is improbable. People easily forget that just because a low percentage of women have done something, it doesn’t mean they can’t, it doesn’t even mean that it is difficult. A low percentage can conceal a very high number, if you’re talking about a big pool of people. For example, the statistic that only 30% of entrepreneurs in Britain are women sounds very different from the statistic that there are ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND businesses run by women on this small island in the Atlantic. In the US, we have NINE MILLION women running their own business. The statistic that only 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women sounds different from there are 10 Fortune 500 CEOs in the US, and by way, the CEO of Pepsi is a woman, and the CEO Kraft Foods, and the CEO of HP is a woman. Similarly, what’s more inspiring for young ambitious African Americans to hear: less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are African Americans, or the fact that the President of the United States of America is of African American origin? One of the highest profile media stars and most incredible self-made billionaires is an African American woman, Oprah Winfrey.
Once I started looking for role models to profile in this blog, even I was incredulous how many fantastic and inspiring women entrepreneurs, scientists and business women there are. Now that I have open eyes and ears, I see them everywhere. Karen Finerman, who manages her own $400m USD hedge fund. Sheryl Sandberg, one of the top executives at Facebook. Shama Kabani, 25 year old founder of the Marketing ZEN Group, one of the leading social media marketing experts. Sky News reporter Alex Crawford, who was embedded with the Libyan rebels in Tripoli when they ousted Gaddafi, while journalists from all other networks where nowhere to be seen. I don’t even need to introduce CNN’s Christiane Amanpour to you. If you follow TED Talks as avidly as I do, you might have heard of Amy Smith, MIT engineering professor who teaches her students to develop useful appliances made from locally available materials in underdeveloped communities. Or of Nadia Al-Sakkaf, editor of the Yemeni Times who fired half the male staff when she took over the newspaper from her father! I could go on and on. If you want to see hundreds examples more, I encourage you to check women 2.0 which profiles womentech entrepreneurs and TED Talks for amazing women and men of all from all over the world in all fields.
You sometimes hear the complaint that there aren’t enough role models for ambitious young women, but the truth is, once I started looking for them, I found far more than I can even profile here. They are EVERYWHERE! 10 or 20% may not sound like a lot, and it may mean you won’t have an immediate role model in your department or even your company. But it still means there are millions of role models out there, as soon as you open your mind and look in other countries, companies or industries. I am not trying to be unrealistic or deny there are obstacles along the way. But what I do know is if anything is going to change, it will only come because we try to inspire, motivate and educate the next generation, not because we tell them the odds are stacked against them before they even try.
Are you finding it hard to find female role models? If yes, let me know what you dream of and what area you want to find a role model for, and I am sure together we can find her!