Outside the Box: Are women taking over small businesses?

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The 2019 American Express State of Women-Owned Business Report has landed. And it’s a doozy.

According to Amex AXP, +1.63%, between 2014 and 2019, the number of women-owned businesses climbed 21%, to nearly 13 million; by comparison, the number of U.S. businesses overall increased just 9%. Firms owned by women of color grew even more, by 43%.

While the analysis does not specifically break those female founders down by age, I surmise that many of these businesses were started by women at midlife.

In the U.S., that age cohort is launching more startups than any other group, according to Elizabeth Isele, founder of the Global Institute for Experienced Entrepreneurship. In fact, Isele was 70 when she started the institute.

There’s no room for fear for many of these women. They are starting businesses out of necessity, because they can’t find decent jobs, or are unemployed, according to Amex. Some are launching their own businesses because workforce rules aren’t flexible to adapt to their caregiving duties for aging relatives or children, or they want more power over their working lives. Then, too, some of these entrepreneurial women boldly see prospects in a market where they have the passion, skills and vision to succeed and make a difference.

Read: Can self-employed people ever really retire?

Launching a business is not for the timid. It takes an ability to set audacious goals and step outside your comfort zone, take a risk, and believe in your own abilities.

As someone who writes often about midlife entrepreneurship, I’m well aware that when it comes to opening your own business and handling the day-to-day management, from stressing over finding clients and work to managing cash flow, there’s lots to make you feel anxious, especially if you’re launching a business when you’re 50+.

To get some advice on what you can do to address your fears that go hand-in-hand with starting a new venture, I sat down with business and work coach Patricia DiVecchio, author of Evolutionary Work: Unleashing Your Potential in Extraordinary Times and president of International Purpose, based in Arlington, Va., who has been helping people for over three decades years manage fear and uncover their work potential and purpose. More on our conversation shortly.

Most of the midlife entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed consider some degree of fear a good thing because it comes with a jolt of adrenaline.

But there’s also the downside if you let it stop you. There’s never the right time to make your move to open your own business, to take the leap. You get stuck in the dream. It’s safer to imagine what might be.

Read: Why is it still so hard for women to save for retirement?

It’s a whole other ballgame when you verbalize, tell others, and start taking the actions to make it a reality. Something shifts. It’s uncomfortable. The “what if” becomes “what now?”

Are you ready? Is your ego prepared to be the beginner, the newcomer, the one who has to ask for help and advice?

It’s OK to be nervous. But it’s not OK to let those doubts stop you from following a new path that might make your life a heck of a lot better in countless ways — personally and financially.

One refrain I hear time and time again from successful midlife entrepreneurs: “I never second-guessed my decision. I only wish I had done it sooner.” There’s an inner assurance these successful midlife entrepreneurs, male and female, have that keeps them going, even when things get rocky.

The fact is, starting a new business is risky, and how you navigate that uncertainty will be unique to you. It’s not a one-size-fits-all challenge. This quote from Rosa Parks resonates with me: “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

So I asked DiVecchio, why fear might keep some potential entrepreneurs in a holding pattern. It’s often the following, DiVecchio explained:

• Fear of losing something we see as having great value — which is sometimes just the comfort of the status quo and our pride.

• Fear of not getting what we want or what we think is the best for ourselves. Here we find ourselves fearing success and failure — I believe it’s more the fear of success. Could we handle it once we got it? Would we, if it’s too much responsibility? Everyone will then have expectations of me.

• Fear of being found out. The old impostor syndrome: maybe we just aren’t who we say we are. In fact, we are usually more than we even think, and we are playing too small.

To get a grip, think about these three concepts: “See fear as an ally,” DiVecchio said. “Don’t fear what you want most. Embrace your resistance.”


“Yes, fear can be your friend,” she said “It can be a great motivator, a great teacher. We don’t see it like that. We tend to run away from fear, back or shy away from it, instead of stepping into it. You need to recognize it as something you can learn from.”

“It should be exciting to do something you’ve always wanted to do, or are passionate about, but most people have a genuine fear of change, even if it is positive change,” DiVecchio said. “It’s the unknown. We’re afraid of the conflict that it might create, within and outside of ourselves, when we stand up for our true wants and needs.”

Then there’s the fear of greater responsibility, she added. “Or if you are starting over in a new field, there’s the fear of a downgrade in status, at least initially. That can come with a fear of a loss of power, respect, acceptance, and money. Funny, those same things can be scary in the reverse, too — people are sometimes afraid of the gain of power, respect, acceptance, and money.”

Who is fearful of success, I wondered. “Getting what we want most in life can be scary,” DiVecchio said. “There’s a huge accountability.”

One final thought from me: The independence to control their own future was the pull for most of the midlife female small-business owners I’ve met. Yet, while they all told me they had flashes of fear from time-to-time, they had the moxie to press on.

“It has been scary at times, but I persevered, said Joan Saddler, 59, owner of Dragonfly Woodwork, in Gretna, Va., who started her equestrian-themed woodworking business after retiring from a career in nursing. “I didn’t realize how creative I was, or that I could be a salesperson. And I never thought I was comfortable talking to people.”

Her mantra: “Do everything you can do to do what you’re passionate about. You make the choice. It might not be perfect. But you made the choice. You are going with it. I’m muddling my way. I have learned to quit taking myself so seriously. When I am driving home after being out and selling for several days a row, and I am going ‘Ahh…I did it. I did it.’ That’s the good stuff.”