Do women need their own women-in-business organizations? Clearly, back when girdles were mandatory, they did: once, at a National Association of Women Business Owners annual dinner, I met an imposing older woman who had started her own trucking company back in Mad Men times, when women were unable to get credit cards in their own names. Badass. Truly badass.
I did not experience a feeling of badassery when I signed up for the Ladies Who Launch Incubator Intensive Program. (Does the name “Ladies Who Launch” make you smile at the clever pun, or cringe like when you hear the ’60s term “lady lawyer”?)
A business incubator is a specific, recognized thing: There’s an office space. There’s an application process, during which prospective entrepreneurs submit business plans (the real kind, with financial projections that you often hire an outside consultant to help you prepare). Those admitted — and it’s usually a competitive process — move their startups into the office space, where they share resources and network with other startups, all under the guidance of the venture capitalists or the city or state government business development agency that put the whole thing together.
The Ladies Who Launch “Incubator Intensive” program was a support group, open to any woman who was thinking of maybe someday starting a business, but maybe needed some more friends and self-esteem first. You know what I find off-putting? An office featuring a giant bulletin board covered in index cards, on which women have written their goals, and which reads like this:
- get six new clients for my graphic design business
- meet a man
- find a man
- apply for a small business loan
- meet a man
- put my jewelry on Etsy
- meet a nice man
I’ve blocked out some of these memories the way I also have a hard time remembering the details of the E! True Hollywood Story Suzanne Somers episode I once watched while the laughing gas wore off, but I think we met six times over six weeks. You didn’t have to have a business, much less a business plan, in order to join, so while one woman was flying around the country to spas, selling advertising packages on her spa portal website, one dilettante had no real ideas, seemed to be independently wealthy, and after some loquacious, irrelevant blathering about her life, declared that she wanted to be “the next Oprah.” (Of course, anyone who wants to be “the next Oprah” had best start as a teenager and work with a superhuman, Machiavellian drive. It’s too late when you’re 45 and just now writing that thought on an index card next to “meet a man”).
Every week, we did an exercise. Here was one of them: come in next week with three adjectives about each of the other people in the group! For instance, the woman who is a personal coach is “compassionate, tactful, and driven.” Yay! Do we get a Girl Scout badge for self-esteem?
Another week, we did an exercise in which we all tried to help each other. But in a group of six people, no one really had what the other people needed. “Do you know a buyer in the Monroe, NC office of Belk, childrenswear division?” Um, no, actually. Also, sadly, I did not know any spa owners, or Oprah.
I gritted my teeth through all six weeks; I might have put some (man-free) index cards on the board. Nowhere in the incubator was there any advisor who, say, knew her way around a spreadsheet. There was no actual knowledge being presented whatsoever. Perhaps the idea that some people know things that other people don’t would damage someone’s self-esteem? It was six weeks of “The View,” except conflict was against the rules, because we can only “put positive energy out there” (please see Barbara Ehrenreich on this score).
By the end, I was only really attending because I had paid $350 to be there. Additionally, I had been under the impression that the incubator program was the only way to actually join Ladies Who Launch. This was not the case. Any woman can join — for another $425. For some bizarre reason — sinking good time after bad, a fallacy I try not to commit — I joined, after which I was treated to “benefits” such as the privilege of purchasing web advertising on the Ladies Who Launch website for “just $495 — a $5,000 value!” Now, back when I ran an internet marketing firm, I was the author of a whitepaper on Internet Marketing Metrics (that is, using actual math to quantify the value of internet advertising) that was used in graduate business school course readers at California Polytechnic University. They had really pushed a button on this one. I emailed to ask how the advertising was worth $5,000 — what valuation method were they using? What was their CPM or CPC? Had anyone ever paid $5,000 for it? I got an utterly number-free, information-free reply. Because we can only “put positive energy out there.”
Yet, despite the Kafka-esque recursive loop of non-linear thinking I had foolishly subjected myself to, I couldn’t help but notice that plenty of the female entrepreneurs featured on the site run actual, serious companies that make actual money and have actual full-time employees. (On the other hand, far too many of them make new kinds of baby gear that only very rich women would care about). Do they, too, cringe at the frequent references to “attracting money,” The Secret-style, and just take advantage of the free publicity? Or do they really buy in? The LWL mission is “to make entrepreneurship accessible to every woman” — can the owner of a multimillion dollar company really get off on the idea that “every woman” can do what she’s worked her ass off to accomplish? Please, try that. Tell me that my greatest life accomplishments can be achieved by anyone with a vagina, and I will punch you.
On the LWL website, there’s a video in which founder Victoria Colligan talks about something called “Fresh Entrepreneur,” the idea that “women view their businesses in the context of their lives, and vice-versa,” and that it’s not about work-life “balance,” but rather work-life “integration.” Now, I could not agree more. (For all you know, I am writing this column from a beach in Bali, or while breast-feeding, or while my hair dye sets, or while looking at porn every five minutes!) Then Colligan goes on to claim that women’s brain chemistry leads us to think about our businesses this way, which is a controversial claim.
Here’s what I’m getting at: there are a TON of resources written by and aimed at mostly male entrepreneurs all about how to make your business serve your life. Ever heard of Tim Ferriss and a little bestseller called The Four-Hour Workweek? Ever heard of Lifehacker? Ferriss, in his book, even provides a formula whereby you can calculate your wealth as a ratio of how much money you make to how much time you have to enjoy it. I think it’s safe to say that male entrepreneurs also want their businesses to help them enjoy life. Sometimes they use their free time and profits to run with the bulls or become cagefighters, but it’s the same idea: why start a company if it’s going to be just another job?
While Ferriss comes off as a bit of a douchebag (becoming a “national Chinese kickboxing champion” by exploiting a loophole in the rules saying that if your opponent falls off the platform, you win by default — so he just kicked everyone off the platform, which, if I haven’t made it clear, is what a douchebag would do, and then the opponent would be like, “What a douchebag,” because no one likes to deal with a douchebag, especially one who kicks), his book contains about 40,000% more actual information that anything LWL has ever produced. I’m 100% happy to pay $14 for a book that contains at least three really good, specific, useful ideas, even if I don’t care for some of the things Ferriss has used his good, specific, useful ideas to accomplish.
So, if we can all agree that we want our businesses to give us the freedom and money to live better lives, is the difference between Ladies Who Launch and The Four-Hour Workweek merely one of aesthetics? If so, why make gender the defining factor? Maybe there’s a whole contingent of gay men (or straight men, or anybody) who would prefer a “fresh entrepreneur” approach. Some people like the color pink; some people like to think of themselves as “hackers.” Some people really want to meet a man; some people like fast cars and adventure travel. Some people enjoy the message that everything is achievable by everyone; some people enjoy the knowledge that they are smarter than those other people. Cool. So start your own company. Let’s just not pretend we’ve pinpointed some universal truth about women.