Just like I didn’t appreciate how American I was until I spent time living abroad, and just like I didn’t realize how Midwestern I was until I moved to the east coast, I didn’t realize how female I was until I started my own business in a male-dominated field. I became acutely aware of this while listening to the 5th episode of the Pancake Town podcast from Chicago business owners Emily and Michelle about their distaste for the word “girlboss” in particular and for women-focused business support groups in general because those things are, or at least represent, a lifeline for me.
I didn’t always feel like I needed to be a part of women’s groups. Industrial design is a male dominated profession (although that’s certainly changing) and I always liked working with the guys. In my mid-twenties, I was the Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the Industrial Designer Society of America (IDSA). At the annual meeting, where the Chapter Chairs from across the country got together, I got chummy with a woman of a similar age who ran the Atlanta Chapter. At one point during the meeting, a woman in her 60’s got up to speak about her Women in Industrial Design initiative. My new friend rolled her eyes and muttered to me, “I hate stuff like this. It makes it seem like women designers need special help or attention. We’re beyond that now.” I agreed with her. Even if women made up just 20% of the profession, in my personal experience, I felt respected and my input valued. I recall feeling a touch of embarrassment that this woman was talking about how women needed additional support. Why do we have to be women designers? Why can’t we just be designers?
Going from woman designer at a design agency to woman entrepreneur in the bike industry was a big adjustment because never before had I felt so acutely that I was living in a man’s world. I came from a place where women were the minority but welcomed, even if only because women do most of the shopping and as a woman designer you were expected to intuitively know what women would buy more than a man would. Then I went to the bike world where women were either a) ignored, or b) objectified. Definitely not respected.*
I recall walking through my first Interbike trade show, stunned that women were more likely to be wearing bikinis and handing out samples of energy bars than they were to be conducting business. Stunned at how many dick jokes and lewd comments about women’s bodies I overheard. Mind you, these comments were not made in hushed tones and they weren’t glancing around to make sure they weren’t being caught by someone like me, like guys normally do at bars or whatever. No, these comments were made in public, in normal conversation voice, and accompanied by pointing and/or gestures. Probably did not help that the show took place in Vegas, but also probably explained why it was there. Needless to say, it was rather shocking.
Yet rather than send me screaming, it only reaffirmed to me how important the idea of Po Campo was. How could we count on these dudes to design things for me and people like me? They clearly had no interest in what I needed or cared about, which is the very first thing you usually (and ought to) think about when designing products for someone. I felt like I had a calling, to build a company creating things for women who love to use their bike to get around.
And you better believe that I go to women business groups for support in doing that.
Why I love women’s business groups
First, it helps to be around women who understand what you’re trying to make and encourage you to keep doing it. Because it can be discouraging to continually hear that your market is too small and that you should design things for men instead.
Second, it’s nice to talk about building companies that do more than just make millions. Men, whether they’re actually this superficial or not, tend to talk about success as a fleet of expensive cars and a big paycheck, proudly sharing tales of whom they stepped on or over to get there. I’m interested in building a company that supports its employees, honors work/life balance, and uses its success to help others by partnering with organizations like World Bicycle Relief. Say this kind of stuff to a man in chest-beating entrepreneur-mode and they sneer at you like you’re clueless to how the world really works.
Third, women’s groups typically offer an environment where you can be honest about your insecurities. Sometimes you need help navigating the periods when your confidence falters without being looked down upon. Men, especially in entrepreneur-mode, see this as a sign of weakness and look at you like chum in the water if you publicly confess that your sales are below forecast, or if you have doubts about whether you should continue. Women tend to treat it as a naturally occurring phenomenon and help you work past it.
In the podcast, Emily wondered why men weren’t welcome in these groups. I agree that some men are great and could, in theory, be a wonderful addition to a group’s conversation. But, honestly, most men wouldn’t be. Something about the topic of business, and growing a business, seems to turn on the testosterone valve with guys. They suck the air out of the room, dominating the conversation and talking over people. No thanks.
Why I’m okay with being a #girlboss
I read Sophia Amaruso’s book #Girlboss back in 2014 and even wrote a book review of it. I don’t like the term “girlboss” because of the “girl” part, which, as a 40-year old woman, doesn’t feel like it applies to me. But, as I wrote in my review, this isn’t a business book for people like me. It’s a book for younger women and girls who need a role model of a successful female entrepreneur who built a business on her own terms.
When I had the idea for Po Campo, I just jumped in. I didn’t ask for much advice because the challenge of figuring it out for myself really appealed to me. It wasn’t until I had several (costly) setbacks that I realized that the learning curve was awfully steep and that I could benefit from learning from someone else’s experience. It took awhile of sifting through business books and attending networking groups to find the right people who would help me build my business on my own terms. Because the established mental-model of entrepreneur success, with the 70+ hour work weeks and fancy cars and sleek offices is not my aspiration.
If nothing else, to me the term #girlboss gives young women the permission to be bold and start her business on her terms. To determine what her own success criteria is and abide by it. And that’s why I give some of my @po_campo Instagram photos the #girlboss hashtag – because I’m proud of myself when I’m doing just that.
*For all my bike industry friends reading this who are thinking, “It’s bad, but it’s not THAT bad,” let me say that I agree that there has been some improvement over the last eight years. There is now a lot more attention placed on the inequities and sexism in the bike industry and concrete moves to fix it. But, stuff like this keeps happening: