Most entrepreneurs don’t begin their professional life that way. Most people who launch their own business have actually spent some time working in a professional setting for someone else. How do you know if you are ready to take the leap and start your own endeavor? This 2017 article from Forbes has some good tips to consider.
This article from Fast Company shares seven tips for young women to learn to assert themselves more in professional environments – especially those in male dominated industries. Tips include preparation, push back, persistence just to name a few.
This article from Forbes outlines some important tips for making the most of social media when you are running a small business. The options in the world of social media are endless but your time is not – so having a plan will enable you to make the biggest impact you can given your resources.
Another good set of tips can be found here on QuickSprout’s site. They also have other links for information about setting up websites, blogs and online stores.
A few weeks ago, we asked Institute participants some questions about “code switching,” including: Have you found it necessary (or important) at times to use code-switching in certain parts of your entrepreneurial journey? Do you make conscious decisions to code-switch (or not) in certain settings? How does code-switching impact your feeling of authenticity? The answers surprised and intrigued us. Below is a summary of some of the themes.
Everyone uses “code switching” (but for different reasons!)
Virtually every respondent said that she uses code switching, although the term was new to some. The main difference in what people wrote about was whether a) they see code switching as an option they can choose to employ or b) they feel code switching is a mandatory activity, thrust upon them as a necessary technique for survival.
As an example of the first group (mostly Caucasian), one woman wrote that she simply sees code switching as good business practice: “If you’ve got high EQ, you’re going to try to make your message resonate with your listeners… I believe you can still be authentic and who you are really are and, at the same time, adjust the way you’re saying whatever it is you are saying so that the other person can hear it and use it.” In this way of seeing things, code switching can be a sort of secret weapon to put into use when one is in a selling mode, relating to clients, dealing with co-workers or trying to reach another group.
In contrast, the comments from women of color (about 85% of our respondents) indicated that code switching is less an optional strategy than a mandated way of life. As one woman put it, “For a black female entrepreneur, code switching is not an option, it’s a necessity for survival.” This was echoed by many other comments that indicated that they were taught to code switch by their families and through their experiences: “Code switching is and has been a part of the African American experience for a very long time. We were taught it is more important to make others feel comfortable with us than it is to actually be comfortable with ourselves.”
In particular, black women learned that fitting in with the majority culture was particularly important in order to combat racial stereotypes, such as the “angry black woman.” Respondents shared stories of how this was reinforced through life experiences: “I didn’t even know what code-switching was on a conscious level until undergrad and my professor explicitly said you’re black you need to smile more so you come across less threatening and it’s very important for you to do this so that you’re perceived as less threatening. ” As one woman expressed it, “When we are working in spaces that are not designed for us we understand that there is a responsibility to speak in a way that makes others comfortable and is seen as non-threatening or confrontational.“ Another woman pointed out that people often have a preconceived notion of black women “in regards to our attitudes and level of intelligence. I was once told by a white man that I wasn’t ‘like he thought I would be’ before he met me. I asked what he meant by that and he said that I was ‘a sharp tack, and not like normal black girls.’ The respondent was proud to have her ideas and intelligence respected, but irritated by the concept of ‘normal black girls.’ She went on, “I feel like we do have to mask a piece of who we are upon trying to get our foot in the door and to be respected on a certain level.” A similar response portrayed the stress created by the pressure to code switch: “I’ve also been told that I’m different from other black people because I speak well. It all takes a toll on your self-identity, self-esteem, and idea of self-worth. It causes stress in daily life that those of the majority culture are privileged not to experience.”
Several women wrote that code-switching extends beyond language to encompass issues of appearance, including dress and hairstyles: “Switching language, clothing, hairstyles is a common practice. I once worked for a major organization where I was told that I looked ghetto for wearing braids.”
Women of color expressed exhaustion with the task of code-switching: “I code switch my entire work shift every day, seven days a week…The only time I don’t do this is during my lunch break.” And someone even commented: “Even now, while scribing this email, I code switch.” Another respondent offered a sardonic take, comparing the need to adapt to the white majority culture to taking a trip to France: “We grow up in these pods with our own dialects. So when we intermingle… it requires a shift to be heard and understood. And yes, generally it’s with the white majority because like in Paris… they prefer you speak their language.”
Some women found it less necessary to adapt as they gain experience: “As I mature and become more confident I find myself code switching less.” Connections over time also seemed to matter: “in the long run I do not need to code switch as our relationship grows.” Others said they found code-switching less necessary as an entrepreneur and even felt that having their own business gave them freedom to be themselves as compared to other professional settings. Entrepreneurship has provided an “escape hatch” to the need to assimilate to the dominant culture in corporate settings in order to be accepted/trusted. “And honestly, it was this understanding that ultimately led to me quitting my corporate career and becoming an entrepreneur. I now own a business in an industry that allows for individuality and even requires it. I can be true to myself and easily attract my clients. I said all that to say, No. I don’t code-switch. Not anymore!” A similar comment: “Most become entrepreneurs to do things ‘their way.’ When that’s taken away you might as well go back to corporate.”
Code Switching and Authenticity
Many women (especially African American respondents) wrote that the practice of code-switching impacted their sense of authenticity. “Code switching can sometimes feel like it completely conflicts with who I believe my authentic self is. I often find myself desiring more authentic interactions and relationships.” Others said they felt inauthentic when code switching: “I may be telling the truth, but it’s my not ‘my’ truth. It’s not coming from my heart, it’s coming from my brains.”
As a result of the conflict between code-switching and authenticity, many women wrote about resisting the need to adapt. “I do find myself code switching way too often. It is actually something that I am struggling to quit.” Others managed to use code switching without threatened their sense of self, ”I never lost myself in trying to seek approval… I simply saw it as part of being professional…” and “I would say a key with this approach is to let the person you’re interacting with lead and you follow suit (to an extent). The goal is to always present yourself in a way that you would be proud of later.”
One woman experienced interactions in the workplace that led her to believe, “no level of code-switching made me appear less combative, less cooperative…less Black. So I stopped. My entrepreneurial brand is authentic and me. I am professional in all business but I do not lighten my presence and try to take up less space than my very Black self requires. If a business opportunity requires me to be someone other than who I am, I do not want it.”
The International Take on Code Switching
Markedly different responses to our questions came from women from other countries or cultures. These women felt that switching from one language to another was just a natural way of life. If anything, they expressed a sort of wry fascination with why this act of code-switching would even be a subject for debate. As one European woman pointed out, doing business with other European countries means she and others routinely code switch, even with friends and family. “Communicating in another language is fundamental at times, even when you can use the more neutral English, because each language has specific words and nuances that don’t exist in others, and cannot be replaced by translations. Conveying the perfect message, is often key to successfully closing a deal or forming a better human relationship, which translates in more trust, better workflow and eventually better business. Languages are part of our history, culture and every-day lives, therefore we, as Europeans, don’t feel less authentic by using different languages, if anything we feel more connected.” Other respondents gave stories and examples of how being able to code switch to another language was beneficial, including knowing how to interact (ie bowing down to vs. hugging a relative) was practiced in different parts of Uganda
To end on a humorous note, we’ll share an anecdote about the advantages of code switching. A woman who speaks several different languages told us this story: “One day, my daughter and I went to get our nails done and we were speaking English and picking the colors. While the nail technicians were working on our nails, they started talking about my daughter’s born-deformed toe and started laughing about her toe. Little did they know that I have the ability to speak 5 languages, I immediately confronting them that I was not pleased about them talking and laughing at my daughter’s toe, I asked them if it was normal for them to talk about people and make fun of them in their language?” Touché!
In asking about code switching, we expected to hear about how women operate in environments dominated by men. Instead, respondents fell roughly into three groups with three different reasons and perspectives on the topic. It is fair to say that every entrepreneur has to communicate effectively with her investors, clients and co-workers. No one would argue with the need for the entrepreneur to see things from the customer perspective, so that type of code switching is likely to be necessary and beneficial to everyone. Furthermore, if code switching is actually based on different languages in order to establish trust and relationships, it seems to make sense. However, by placing code switching in a larger cultural context, we can see that sometimes it happens as a result of the majority culture imposing its communication styles on others. This can threaten the feelings of authenticity of those who must adapt to fit in to gain access to opportunities. Perhaps entrepreneurship provides a unique way to resolve the situation, providing both an escape from less inclusive corporate structures and also a means of staying true to oneself while still working to communicate in an effective way with customers, investors and co-workers.
Sharing a post from SPANX CEO Sara Blakely’s LinkedIn feed…
Blakely writes, “Wow. Standing at Barnes & Noble, Inc. and every cover in the business section is a woman! What an awesome moment. When I was on the cover of Forbes 7 years ago it was a much lonelier place to be. Congrats to these amazing women and all the women out there making it happen. And of course to all the women who came before us who paved the way. We are grateful to you. I’m most excited about the feminine redefining what success looks like for their employees, customers, communities and the world. Rock on sisters!!!! “
It’s so important to see these covers become the “norm”!
Since launching in 2009, the Founder Institute’s Female Founder Fellowship program has graduated over 575 female-led businsses across six continents. The fellowship program’s goal is to narrow the gender gap in high-tech startups.
If you are a woman who is working to build an enduring tech or tech-enabled company, you are eligible to apply. (This includes aspiring entrepreneurs currently working full-time, solo entrepreneurs, teams, and entrepreneurs in established companies that are pre-funding.) Click here for more information about the program.
Guy Raz from the NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast sat down with Tristan Walker for an interview in front of a live audience. Walker was looking for an idea for a company and his answer ended up being in the mirror. Like him, many men of color were frustrated with the lack of shaving and beauty products for coarse or curly hair.
This led him to launch Bevel, a subscription shaving system built around a single-blade razor. His company grew to include 36 different hair and beauty products and was sold to Proctor & Gamble in 2018. Tristan Walker became P&G’s first black CEO. Check out the podcast here.