Feminine Capital
Unlocking the Power of Women Entrepreneurs
Barbara Orser and Catherine Elliott


Feminine Capital

Globally, two hundred million women are engaged in business ownership.1 Across North America, women retain ownership in half of all small businesses.2 In the United States alone, over eight million female-owned firms generate $3 trillion a year in economic impact.3 Women are creating jobs, products, and services, and are investing earnings in their families, firms, and communities. In doing so, they are changing the landscape of venture creation around the world, one venture at a time.

Despite these encouraging statistics, from our perspective, being female is too often deemed to be an entrepreneurial handicap. When compared to male-owned ventures, female-owned enterprises are judged to be smaller, less successful, and less likely to grow. With women around the globe making progress on their own terms, however, it is time to redefine entrepreneurship and what it means to be successful.

Traditionally, entrepreneurship is defined as enterprise creation, including actions taken to create for-profit, nonprofit, social, ecological, and sometimes publicly funded ventures. “Fear of success,” “risk adversity,” and “failure to delegate” tend to dominate discussions about the reasons for gender differences in enterprise performance and notions about women’s entrepreneurial identity. These apparent psychological flaws have little value in explaining women’s economic progress. It is time to recognize feminine capital as an asset.

Feminine capital captures that which is feminine within one’s experience and identity. It is an aggregation of ways of knowing, roles and expectations, values, and behavior that is both individual and collective. These assets have social and economic value. Feminine capital can be developed, just as risk-taking behaviors within venture creation can be learned. This book celebrates the feminine. We do so by describing women’s experiences in the world of venture creation.

Feminine attributes traditionally are associated with females, behavior that is reinforced through socialization. For this reason, we listened to the experiences of women to better understand the nature of feminine capital. In conversations with, and studies of, thousands of women business owners we learned that entrepreneurs embrace a continuum of perspectives about how gender has an impact on the ways that they do business. For some, they perceive that being female has no influence on their business practice. For others, it’s all about being female. Women are making the conscious decision to not let others’ perceptions about aspirations and behavior limit their commercial success. Underlying the way in which some women do business is a sense of determination and passionate belief in the importance of their enterprises. In certain cases, perceptions about inequality and women’s subordination have triggered entrepreneurial inclinations. A common ambition of many women entrepreneurs is the desire to empower others. Entrepreneurship is seen as a mechanism for creating opportunity, economic self-sufficiency, and equity-based outcomes. These feminist entrepreneurs are change agents who employ entrepreneurship to improve women’s quality of life and well-being. By doing so, they enrich our understanding about contemporary feminism. They are showing us how venture creation can lead to social and economic transformation.

We conducted other studies that compared the experiences of male and female entrepreneurs. While research tells us that gender is associated with differences in enterprise performance, we found more similarities than differences between groups. Building on these studies and an emerging literature about gender and entrepreneurship, this book explores three questions:

• What is feminine capital?

• How is feminine capital transforming entrepreneurship?

• How does entrepreneurship inform feminism?

This book takes a fresh look at the intersection between entrepreneurship and feminism, and how female entrepreneurs are infusing new values in business practice. Stories and scenarios are used to explain concepts and theories that are presented throughout the book. “Reflections” are questions intended to link these ideas with your own perspectives and experiences. Drawing on four decades of research that examines entrepreneurship, the book consolidates the most important lessons learned. These insights will help you as a business owner, student, scholar, or future entrepreneur to challenge dated assumptions and to recognize your own unique talents and skills.

How This Book Came to Be

Our first encounter with feminist entrepreneurs came from an unexpected source—the women of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, a small town in Atlantic Canada. It was among these business owners that we recognized the power of feminine capital. Conducting interviews was not initially part of a holiday, but surrounded by the panoramic beauty of the Annapolis Valley, we were introduced to the founder of a community-based theater troupe.4 Then we were introduced to six more local entrepreneurs. All had founded business or social enterprises. All spoke about the need for social change. They all told us about their efforts to earn a living while improving the lives of others. These women were calling on their knowledge as caregivers, community champions, artisans, and former employees to develop new products, new markets, new services, and better processes. Some were creating “by women, for women” enterprises. They saw themselves as feminists, women of Wolfville, and women of the world. Their commitment to equity through enterprise was inspiring.

Arriving back in Ottawa, we decided that we would seek out more women who share such entrepreneurial perspectives. Surprisingly, it was not difficult. Reaching out to our North American contacts in small-business training agencies, we asked if the directors would forward our request to speak with female entrepreneurs with a double bottom line, one that includes helping other women. The email produced more responses than the study could absorb. Never had so many business owners contacted us to tell their stories. Diamond extractors in Northern Canada, midwestern manufacturers, and west coast retailers described the ripple effects of their enterprises. Motivated by their insights, in this book we draw on the lessons we learned from the many business owners who sought to talk to us, as well as from other findings of our ongoing research program. Collectively, our studies document the experiences of over twenty thousand entrepreneurs.

One lesson is that for many women, venture creation is not gender neutral.5 Yet recognizing feminine capital in the venture creation process is not obvious. Its impacts are subtle. Its magnitude is obscure. At the surface lie visible markers of gender. But gender effects are realized in many ways: in entrepreneurial decisions and assumptions, within identity and perception, and through actions and interaction. Gender is linked to the firm by way of governance and corporate culture, and is reproduced through institutional relationships within financial intermediaries, government, and academe. In other words, gender is embedded within the venture creation and exchange process.

Organization of This Book

To position our research findings, the first section of the book (Chapters 1 to 4) introduces the concept of feminine capital. Chapter 1 starts by debunking misperceptions about gender and entrepreneurship. The masculine archetype is exposed.6 We then explain how expert thinking contributes to the invisibility of feminine capital. The tenets of neoclassical economics, women in management, and entrepreneurial feminism are presented. Chapter 1 is the most theoretical of the chapters. This information is included at the outset of the book, as we believe that it is useful to understand the conceptual foundations upon which the rest of the book is built. For those readers who seek practical insights only, you may wish to jump directly to Chapter 2. In this chapter, we explore how being female influences entrepreneurial identity, a building block for enterprise creation. We also explore the links among definitions of success, attitudes to business ownership, and entrepreneurial intention. We then introduce the Entrepreneurial Identity Framework—a tool that will help business owners map out how their perceptions of success and intentions reflect their identities as entrepreneurs. Chapter 3 delves into opportunity identification. We describe how women entrepreneurs are capitalizing on their wisdom, know-how, and the Internet to commercialize ideas. Motivated by the desire for change—in themselves, families, and others—women are launching enterprises that align personal values with market opportunities. Pathways to venture creation are explained. Then in Chapter 4, we shift the focus from theory to practice, describing tactics for building enterprises that align with founders’ values and expectations. Innovative business models that fuel sustainability and enterprise growth are illustrated through three in-depth case studies. Many of the approaches that women are using are radically different from traditional, profit-focused pathways. This information can help you to broaden your vision of venture creation and guide decisions such as where you should invest your time, creativity, and capital.

The second section of the book (Chapters 5 and 6) explores the gendered nature of resourcing enterprises. This section is important, given that many entrepreneurs face limited time and money; an absence of peers and colleagues from whom they can learn; and significant personal, professional, and financial risks.7 Chapter 5 deals with relationships, ways of creating value-added networks, advisory teams, mentors, associations, and other forms of social capital. Best practices in mentoring and protégé relationships are shared. Chapter 6 is all about money, including types and uses of financing. Innovative financing strategies and the challenges of achieving financial literacy are also discussed.

Up to this point in the book, we focus on individual actions, the power within that enables entrepreneurs to create wealth and social change. However, entrepreneurial success is not solely the consequence of one’s intentions. In Chapter 7 we broaden the conversation to include institutional influences on enterprise performance, such as politics, policies, and training programs. Power in policy implies that public policy can be better leveraged to support women’s entrepreneurship. In this chapter we make a call to action, describing why it is important for women business owners to engage in policymaking and ways in which you can influence public policy. This information is important, given that public policy has an impact on multiple aspects of enterprise performance and that few policy frameworks explicitly address issues associated with women’s entrepreneurship. Finally, in the closing chapter (Chapter 8), we summarize the key themes of the book by revisiting feminine capital and entrepreneurial feminism—the foundational concepts advanced in the book—to explain how women’s entrepreneurship is changing the ways we think about wealth.

Each chapter contains tips, diagnostic tools, and checklists, as well as practical scenarios that illustrate alternative approaches to doing business. We also summarize ideas and highlight related studies in a series of learning aids, figures, and tables. Explaining feminine capital necessitates new perspectives and language about venture creation. To provide clarification of key terms, a glossary is presented at the end of the book. We encourage you to read the glossary and chapter notes, as this book introduces a number of new concepts.

Before proceeding, take a moment to reflect on your views about being female and entrepreneurship. Think broadly. If you are an entrepreneur, how, if at all, does gender affect the ways you do business? To what extent is the process of venture creation gendered? If you are a student, reflect on how gender is reflected in curricula, including entrepreneurship course content, case studies, and speakers. We encourage you to write down your reflections, as we will revisit this question in Chapter 8. Consider which of the categories in Table I.1 best capture your perspective.

More Reasons for Writing This Book

Several more observations played roles in our motivation to write this book. We have heard academic colleagues and policymakers at the highest levels proclaim, “There are no gender issues in entrepreneurship.” It is as if venture creation remains unadulterated by social, cultural, and historical influences. Whether the statement is echoed behind closed doors, in the classroom, or at a public podium, a substantive body of research does not support this contention. Too often, business owners assume that their own life circumstances and experiences reflect the realities of other entrepreneurs. We have pondered what motivates or gives intellectual license to such a proclamation, particularly within the academic community that is in the business of creating and disseminating evidence-based knowledge. On the topic of women’s entrepreneurship, single-study findings, anecdotes, and personal opinion trump validated studies. This is not without consequence. Such a perspective cuts off discussions of why, for example, there remain persistent gender differences in enterprise performance or why females are significantly less likely to consider venture creation as a career choice.

Table I.1: Gender and venture creation

Females constitute over half of North American business students. Many colleges and universities have introduced entrepreneurship courses across faculties. Such courses reflect the reality that many graduates will experience self-employment or business ownership at some point during their careers. Universities also face increasing pressure to commercialize faculty members’ and students’ intellectual property. Yet insights about gender influences in venture creation are essentially absent within entrepreneurship curricula and technology transfer operations. As a result, many faculty and students retain the perception that there are no gender issues. Statistics prove otherwise.

We anticipate that this book will be of interest to small-business owners who seek to grow their enterprises. Information will also assist academics, industry associations, and sector councils that wish to better understand the professional needs of students and members. The book presents an upbeat and practical view on how entrepreneurship can inform feminist thinking. This last motive reflects an observation that many regard feminism as passé. Others claim, “I’m not a feminist, but—” Our studies taught us that many women business owners are reclaiming feminism. Feminist entrepreneurs are embracing an action orientation, one that infuses values of equity within the act of venture creation.

Entrepreneurial decisions must be considered within the broader context of women’s legal and property rights, family responsibilities, culture, and politics. Once you have completed the book, we encourage you to reflect on how the lessons learned resonate with your own circumstances and the extent to which being female influences your entrepreneurial practices. We invite you to share your experiences and perceptions with other entrepreneurs in order to create a collective understanding about the ways in which feminine capital is enacted in venture creation. By doing so, you can contribute to insights that will inform business practices, training, research, and policies to create even more prosperous ventures and social change.


1. Global Entrepreneurship Research Association, Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2012 Women’s Report, accessed at; P. Reynolds, “Entrepreneurship in Development Economies: The Bottom Billions and Business Creation,” Foundations and Trends in Entrepreneurship 893 (2012): 141–277.

2. M. L. Chang, Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2.

3. Centre for Women’s Business Research, “The Economic Impact of Women-Owned Businesses in the United States,” accessed at

4. Information about the “Women of Wolfville” theater group can be accessed at

5. H. Ahl, “Why Research on Women Needs New Directions,” Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice 30, no. 5 (September 2006): 595–621.

6. L. Warren, “Negotiating Entrepreneurial Identity: Communities of Practice and Changing Discourses,” International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Innovation 5, no. 1 (2004): 25–35.

7. H. Florén, “Collaborative Approaches to Management Learning in Small Firms,” Journal of Workplace Learning 15, no. 5 (2003): 203–216.