Leveling the Playing field: Supporting the underrepresented women in social entrepreneurship
Women have historically been unrepresented in all sectors of business; only recently have prominent leadership positions in business become occupied by women. Lee-Ann Gries, the president and chief investment officer of JumpStart Inc, recently commented on Huffington Post that “A measly three percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are female.”
In social entrepreneurship the situation may not be much different, though it’s hard to tell—partly because there’s no official data on how many women identify as social entrepreneurs. Ashoka told Dowser that, of its current international fellows, 38 percent are women. Ashoka explained that there might be some advantage for male applicants, who had “a greater enabling environment twenty years ago” and as a result, have stronger profiles.
Young Women Social Entrepreneurs (YWSE) is a volunteer-run, national organization with chapters in four major cities: New York, Washington, D.C., Miami, and San Francisco, where it began ten years ago when a group of women began gathering to discuss topics related to sustainability and socially-conscious business. It is free to be a member of YWSE and easy to join—you can simply join the LinkedIn group nearest to you, and be put in touch with thousands of women in an urban area who are working in the social enterprise field.
Kari Litzmann, a graphic designer who is currently working on launching an innovative platform for artisans and designers in India, was appointed president of the New York chapter of Young Women Social Entrepreneurs (NYWSE) in January 2012. NYWSE has over 1500 members in its LinkedIn and Facebook groups combined.
Litzmann joined NYWSE because it was one of the first places she saw women coming together and truly helping each other—there was “no cattiness,” she said. Instead, women were listening to each other’s goals, and offering to connect each other to resources. Litzmann wants her tenure has president to be focused on “building leadership within the group,” she told Dowser recently.
“I think there haven’t been a lot of spaces, historically, where women come together,” said Litzmann about the purpose of YWSE and the role it serves in the social enterprise world. “There have always been men’s clubs—but there wasn’t a lot of that for women. A place where women can come together, realizing that someone will listen to you and want to actively help connect you to something that will make that come true, is really needed.”
The first thing Litzmann did as president was to create a leadership team that supports the group by collaboratively planning events. Their events are planned through a process that starts with a monthly conference call where the leadership time discusses upcoming events. One or two people take the lead on a specific events, and they can in turn build their own leadership teams in their networks or by seeking out people who are knowledgeable about certain topics.
NYWSE holds one event per month. These include bimonthly “How She Does It” dinners, where a female social entrepreneur is invited to share practical and inspirational advice from her own experience with other female social entrepreneurs who are at various stages of their careers, over a meal.
“Our dinners are very intimate settings, and sometimes questions will come up, like, ‘how did you get across this hurdle,’ or, ‘how did you get to be the only woman at the table,’ or, ‘what gave you the confidence to do that?’” explained Litzmann.
Besides being a place for women to share stories and advice, NYWSE provides a venue for cross-pollination from various fields within the social enterprise sector. Litzmann told Dowser that many members of NYWSE belong to various social innovator groups, and when they come to NYWSE events, they bring with them their professional networks, experience, and knowledge.
The name “Young Women Social Entrepreneurs” may, however, be a misnomer in some respects. Litzmann explained: “The members in the New York chapter encompass a fairly wide age range. I think it’s more about being young at heart, not being afraid to go after crazy ideas. Not so much an age, a state of mind.”
Not only are all ages welcome in NYWSE, but the notion of top-down knowledge transmission is also largely ignored in favor of more lateral forms of exchange. “You’d think that older, more experienced women would be teaching younger women, across the board,” Litzmann said. “But ideas about sustainability are so new, that in our events we have more experienced women trying to learn from younger women about that topic. We also don’t want the space to be so hierarchical—it’s co-mentoring, rather than older women just teaching younger women.”
Nationwide, YWSE is working on expanding and broadening their goals; their national conference recently drafted a “5-year vision” that includes identifying, amplifying, and financially backing high-level initiatives within the chapters, and strengthening ties between chapter leaders. NYWSE’s next event, which is focused on networking, will be on March 6.