Busting bias, building confidence

CU Denver hosts conference aimed at empowering women business owners

September 5, 2017
Linda Appel Lipsius keynote speaker
Linda Appel Lipsius, co-founder and CEO of Teatulia, delivers the keynote address.

Burpees and pushups gave way to workshops and pep talks at a Business Owners Bootcamp on the CU Denver campus, yet the goal of the exercises were similar: boosting strength and confidence in the nearly 100 conference-goers representing companies from across the state.

Hosted by the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado Denver Business School in collaboration with the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce, the day-long conference in early August brought faculty and business professionals together with a chief aim of educating and empowering local female entrepreneurs.

CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell lauded the day’s partnership, pointing first to the Women’s Chamber and its 400-plus members. “What stands out to me is their commitment to assure they are helping their members work smarter, network effectively and compete successfully, and if that isn’t a recipe for success, I don’t know what is.”

Combining Colorado’s urban-based research university with the city’s top business professionals, including entrepreneurial gurus and keynote speakers Jake Jabs and Linda Appel Lipsius, just makes sense, Horrell said. “It’s why we truly exist. We aspire to be an indisputable asset to the people and the organizations of the greater Denver metropolitan area.”

Battling start-up bias

CU Denver professor Kyle Ehrhardt
CU Denver Assistant Professor of Management Kyle Ehrhardt presents research on male vs. female entrepreneurs.

Breakout sessions led by industry experts covered topics ranging from marketing techniques and cyber security to sales tips and stress reduction, all aimed at helping business owners break an entrepreneurial gender gap.

“There is evidence that women entrepreneurs face more difficult barriers than men in setting up their businesses,” Rohan Christie-David, PhD, dean of the CU Denver Business School, told the largely female audience. “We hope we can help you navigate through those roadblocks that you face today.”

Kyle Ehrhardt, CU Denver assistant professor of management, who researches gender disparities in the industry, noted that once women-owned businesses are launched, the barriers subside. Studies using performance indicators comparing men- and women-owned businesses find no differences in success rates after five years, he said.

Yet research does suggest discrimination can sabotage women’s startup attempts, Ehrhardt said, using a study published this year in the Harvard Business Review as an example. For the study, researchers sat in on and analyzed venture capitalists’ interviews with fund-seekers; what they observed were gender-different attitudes and lines of questioning from the panelists, he said.

‘Best of Colorado’

If you missed the event, Linda Appel Lipsius will be the keynote speaker for the Jake Jabs Center’s “Best of Colorado” speaker series on Oct. 5. RSVP here.

For example, a young man in his 30s was described as “young and promising” by interviewers, Ehrhardt said, whereas a woman of the same age was called “young and inexperienced.” In the end, while the startups in the sample were comparable in terms of quality and capital needs, male-led startups raised five times more funding than female-led ones, the researchers wrote.

Boosting confidence

Studies on entrepreneurial traits also find differences in women and men just starting out, Ehrhardt said. When asked to rate their level of optimism, confidence and suitability to start a business, men entrepreneurs generally score much higher in cross-studies. But when the same questions are asked to established business owners only, the gender differences vanish, he said.

Since business students represent the “future crop of entrepreneurs,” Ehrhardt said scholars and business professionals must join together to counter the issue. “We need to build confidence, build optimism, and show women that they are suitable to start a business. Then, hopefully, we can close this gender gap.”

Although she hasn’t experienced the bias personally, conference attendee Jackie Grasmick said she knows it’s out there. “I’m kind of in the behind-the-scenes phase, so I don’t see as much,” said Grasmick, who manages the office for her family-owned business, Everything for Offices.

Business School Dean Rohan Christie-David
Rohan Christie-David, PhD, dean of the Business School, addresses members of the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce during their conference at the Business School.

Poised to take over as president of the company for her mother, Grasmick said she joined the conference to brush up on marketing and networking skills. “I also have a great model in my mom. I know that she’s been doing it for so long that I can do it. I just have to keep doing it, and be confident about it, and it will work.”

Building confidence in a family business also helped Appel Lipsius, who shared her journey in her keynote address. A Denver native and daughter of the creator of Orange Glo and OxiClean, Appel Lipsius recalled peddling cleaning products as a teen at trade shows and county fairs alongside her family.

Now co-founder and CEO of Teatulia, an organic, premium tea company that grew out of a small family tea garden in a poor region of Bangladesh, Appel Lipsius said anything is possible with passion and persistence and, most importantly for her women peers, confidence.

“I have seen in my businesses how insidious lack of confidence can be. It is inefficient. It is distracting. If you got the job, if you got the seat on the bus, trust that you deserve to be there. Don’t apologize. Just get the job done.”