Entrepreneurship opens new vistas for young women

ON EXCELLENCE

June 14, 1993|By Joline Godfrey

Tom Peters has asked several colleagues to guest-author his column while he is traveling abroad. This is the third of five guest columns. Mr. Peters will return later this month.

Your daughters are at risk. Your sons are, too, though in different ways. But until the American Association of University Women published its report ("How Schools Shortchange Girls") and the Ms. Foundation urged everyone to "take them to work," girls got precious little attention.

Consider this: 40 percent of teen-age girls will get pregnant at least once before the age of 20. The school dropout rate for teen-age girls in urban centers is often as high as 60 percent. And nearly 75 percent of teen mothers under 17 do not finish high school. Eighty percent of all working women are still clustered in 80 of the 410 job classifications listed by the U.S. Labor Department, and the average woman earns 72 cents for every dollar earned by a man.

Conscious of their economic vulnerability and eager to have some control over their own destiny, some teen-age girls have begun to explore entrepreneurship. A 17-year-old in New York City is the inventor of a hot-selling toy, a fabric-covered balloon. A young woman in Pennsylvania started her muffin business when she was 11, selling door-to-door; at 15, with the help of her family, she opened her first shop. And in a national business competition for teen-age women, 100 calls a day come in from young women eager to "put their business dream on paper."

Retraining today's work force in the ways of the New Economy is today's biggest challenge. But the teens I meet don't need to be retrained.

Young women, who have learned (too well, sometimes) to cooperate, be responsive and communicate, bring practices once considered unbusinesslike to the business of business. In the days when partnerships and alliances were less important and "dog eat dog" was the prevailing sentiment, the qualities women exhibited were considered too soft for commercial enterprise.

But it turns out that reciprocity and respect are key to effective partnership; that win-win has strategic benefits; and that in a world of diverse needs, points of view and stakeholder claims, sensitivity to others is a competitive advantage. How times change. And what a gate to the future are the daughters of America.

Young women, unburdened by tired ideas about what they can't do, are free to invent. They haven't yet learned that business is about winning at any cost, that cooperation is suspect or that short-term results necessitate long-term problems.

The young women I encounter think of business as a new adventure, a way to imagine and channel their aspirations, a means of becoming economically whole, not a way to put others at a disadvantage. They remind us the zero-sum game is an adult invention; environmental indifference, a form of adult hTC denial. They are hungry to learn how to take care of themselves -- and make a contribution to their society. They worry about the future and are painfully aware of how precarious it is.

The growing economic literacy movement for young people opens a door for the country's 24 million teen-agers. To help young people combat their own economic vulnerability, local communities and several national organizations are creating vehicles to bring youngsters into the realm of enterprise.

As with all new movements, some experiments will fail; others will provide breakthroughs. In no way is teens' entrepreneurship the new "answer" to the ills of society. Not all young people (or all adults) can or should try their hand at entrepreneurial careers. But it is an option some will choose to explore. And those explorers deserve our support.

Adult women who are entrepreneurs report that the greatest barrier they face in business is not lack of access to capital -- that's No. 2. The first is not being taken seriously. Not taking young women seriously imperils their economic well-being and cheats the business community of a vital bridge to the future. If we pay serious attention to them they may well help lead us to business as we dream it can be.

Investments in the future generally do not include investments in girls (only 4 percent of all foundation expenditures are directed to serving the needs of girls). But smart business leaders, with a keen eye to the not-so-distant future, will reallocate some of the dollars now spent on worker training to support and celebrate the entrepreneurial efforts of everyone's daughters.

(Joline Godfrey is the author of "Our Wildest Dreams: Women Entrepreneurs Making Money, Having Fun, Doing Good" and the co-founder of An Income of Her Own, Entrepreneurial Education for Teen Women.)

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