The pandemic has resulted in a big boom of entrepreneurship. The number of Americans filing paperwork to start businesses hit a record 5.4 million in 2021, up from the previous record of 4.4 million new business applications in 2020
. And while words like “startups” and “innovation” may provoke images of “30 under 30 lists,” male college dropouts dressed exclusively in hoodies, and direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands in a certain aesthetic– the reality of the entrepreneur economy can actually look a bit different. Many entrepreneurs are older in age, increasingly female
, and not only concentrated in retail and technology.
2018 research showed that the average age of a successful founder is 45, and since 2016, the rate of entrepreneurs among those aged 45-64 was higher than those younger than aged 44.
Women entrepreneurs, especially those who are older and in historically male-dominated industries, need to fight not only the typical challenges that confront entrepreneurs but also the biases and challenges that come with ageism and sexism. Ageism is a longstanding bias that is persistent across industries, yet it is not a discrimination that is commonly discussed.
These biases, of course, aren’t exclusive to entrepreneurship; research finds older women in the traditional workforce are facing the same struggles. Employers are systematically less likely to hire older applicants than younger applicants and once employed
, older workers have less access to training. Research
shows that women are the primary victims of age discrimination in hiring, which means that women are driven out of the workplace earlier than men and have a much more difficult time finding a way back. Yet in 2021, almost twice as many women
joined the workforce than men.
As the general population of women in the working world and in entrepreneurship continues to grow, women are also expanding their interests, exploring new opportunities and making inroads into industries that were once almost exclusively male, such as construction and manufacturing. In fact, the number of women-owned construction firms increased 68% in the five year period from 2014 to 2019
When I think of women who are “winning” as entrepreneurs in male-dominated industries like manufacturing, I can’t help but think of the Tapani sisters. Lori and Traci Tapani are Co-Presidents and owners of Wyoming Machine
, a Stacy, MN-based sheet metal fabrication business they inherited from their father. These remarkable women have managed to expand and successfully run their family business for nearly 30 years and are responsible for the 6% annual growth of their company in an extremely competitive industry. Lori and Traci entered the business in the 90s when there weren’t many women or women leaders in the industry. In a recent discussion with Lori, she emphasized how she was met with skepticism from her peers and colleagues, being a young female leader. It wasn’t easy, but she and her sister worked twice as hard to gain the trust of their team and fellow industry peers.
Lori also explained how she learned how to lean into being different and how it turned out to be their secret weapon. Her advice to women facing the same challenge is to own being unique–it allowed her and her sister to bring a new perspective to the table and unlock new strategies to help their business grow and be successful.
Another incredible woman entrepreneur who has persevered and succeeded against the odds is Shirley Plummer, Founder of Inpro Workspaces
, a Langhorne, Pennsylvania-based office furniture manufacturing business. Shirley has experienced her own set of issues as she worked to establish herself in the “all-boys club” of manufacturing. Oftentimes, Shirley was the only woman at subcontractor meetings in her industry, and as a result, she credits her success to being persistent, making more calls and getting in front of future clients more often than her counterparts.
Women are charting their own courses when it comes to entering and competing in traditionally male-dominated spaces. Long-standing biases are not stopping today’s female founders and entrepreneurs from pursuing success on their own terms. There are stories of women across all industries that showcase their perseverance and success – but wouldn’t it be even better if these additional obstacles weren’t there to begin with?
There are signs of progress. We are seeing that work culture is shifting and diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) conversations are becoming more prevalent (though “conversing” is not enough, it’s a start)! In 2022, as organizations look to rebuild and rehire, my hope is that ageism and sexism are more widely addressed with greater empathy, as well as employee training, workplace policies and general societal mindset shifts.