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Career Success
JUL 14, 2020

What It Takes: Female Entrepreneurs Aren’t the Only Victims of Tired Stereotypes

By Melissa McIvor
iStock/katrinaelena

Women. The fairer sex. Despite “fair” having about a dozen definitions, from “beautiful” to (ironically) “free of obstacles,” women are somehow still regarded as delicate, weak, and overly emotional.

Translation: a bad fit for business.

The positive words we associate with men in business—logical, confident, and versatile, to name a few—compared to those we associate with women—compassionate and organized—reveal a divide in who’s allowed into the club, and for what.

Raegan Moya-Jones, founder of the swaddle blanket and baby goods company aden + anais, takes on this issue of adversity in What It Takes: How I Built a $100 Million Business Against the Odds. The book follows her entrepreneurial journey: starting up, raising capital in the lean times, reaching the USD$1 million revenue milestone, selling the company, and finally (somewhat unwillingly) leaving it all behind.

Moya-Jones has a pretty clear chip on her shoulder for all the men who’ve done her wrong, but the takeaway here is not that men are the force against which women must fight to earn their place. It’s that stereotypes in the world of business are wrong about what it takes for anyone to be successful in the world today.

What It Takes to Be an Entrepreneur

When a company gets shaky and a woman is at the helm, the woman is blamed and is often removed, whereas when a company gets shaky and a man is at the helm, it’s the circumstances that get the blame, and he is given the support and opportunity to fix the issues.

Raegan Moya-Jones

Among all the TED Talks, social movements, and memes about how women are held back in business, few seek to debunk entrepreneurial stereotypes the way What It Takes does. And that’s an important element of the discussion. Evolving the business world is not just about empowering women or involving men in the conversation. It’s also about relearning what it takes to succeed.

How much of a risk taker do you actually need to be?

Should you really never take no for an answer?

Is it absolutely necessary to quit your day job so you can fully commit to your business?

Moya-Jones addresses these kinds of questions with anecdotes and research to prove that entrepreneurs aren’t the all-in go-getters we expect them to be. Much like our perception of leadership, entrepreneurship is an evolving concept.

“The myth of entrepreneur as risk-taker,” she says, “[has] the potential to do … damage.”

Expectations of a wolfish Wall Street personality serve only to raise doubts in budding entrepreneurs of either sex. Worse still, those same expectations can make investors hesitate when a pitch doesn’t fit the mold.

The renowned author and psychologist Adam Grant learned this the hard way when he turned down a chance to invest in online prescription glasses retailer Warby Parker. From general appearance and attitude during the pitch to slow decision making and a lack of full-time commitment, these entrepreneurs seemed unlikely to ever get their business off the ground.

As Grant told Forbes, “When I compared the choices of the Warby Parker team to my mental model of the choices of successful entrepreneurs, they didn’t match. In my mind they were destined to fail.”

Today, Warby Parker is valued at USD$1.75 billion, and Grant counts his missed investment opportunity among his greatest regrets.

What It Takes to Let Go

At the end of the day, I think it’s difficult for most men to yield the ultimate power to a woman.

Raegan Moya-Jones

Revolutions against tired stereotypes and accepted wisdom take time and effort, not least because those who benefit from the current system must accept that they will lose some of their control. Admitting that a system is broken is one thing, but actually incorporating change is quite another.

Reluctance to let go is another thing men and women have in common.

Moya-Jones fought tooth and nail for her company right from the beginning, when there wasn’t yet a market for her product. aden + anais swaddles are made from muslin, a cotton weave that creates a uniquely breathable fabric. In her home country of Australia, muslin was the swaddle cloth of choice, but no one in the US had heard of it in 2004—not even textile suppliers. She had to learn the ropes of business and build a market, all while holding down a full-time job.

Later, her cofounder (another woman) tried to force her out of the business—an account that puts to rest any suggestion that women lack the ruthlessness of men. Other anecdotes cover everything from exhausting door-to-door sales and messy financials to toxic employees and branding struggles with Walmart.

Despite all of these obstacles, aden + anais kept climbing. The company expanded beyond luxury boutiques, went global, landed products in the hands of celebrities and royalty, and built an enviable corporate culture. From such humble beginnings, Moya-Jones had every right to be proud, not to mention attached, to her company.

Then came letting go.

The story of aden + anais doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. Moya-Jones sold the company to Swander Pace Capital, hoping it would bring long-term financial stability for her family and a stable future for the brand. While she’s by no means in financial ruin and the brand is still around today, her relationship with the new owners quickly turned sour. Focus shifted from brand loyalty to profit margins, a tight-knit startup culture to inexperienced corporate networks. After a few years of futilely trying to wrest control back, she was let go.

Much of the trouble came from clashes with dismissive male counterparts who preferred the advice of other men. We can only imagine where aden + anais might be today had Moya-Jones not been shoved aside.

What It Takes to Move Forward

A fractured culture has an enormous and negative impact on the success of a business. The reason we accomplished so much in a short amount of time early on is because we had such an incredible culture; everyone was in it together.

Raegan Moya-Jones

When a culture fractures—whether it’s a single company’s culture or the culture of business as an industry—the results are devastating. But blaming those fractures on male dominance is, perhaps, an oversimplification of the problem.

What It Takes presents a clear message that we need new, accurate definitions of entrepreneurial traits and business acumen to rebalance the business world. Humans have an incredible ability to connect with each other, especially when unified around a common goal. There’s no limit to what our global society might achieve if both sexes were to become equally “fair” players in the game.

Free of tired stereotypes, none of us would have to work against the odds to prove we have what it takes.