Link to Webinar on “Evidence-Based Entrepreneurship: A Mindset For Startup Success”

Click this link to access the March 20, 2020 eCornell webinar entitled “Evidence-Based Entrepreneurship: A Mindset For Startup Success” where entrepreneurship experts Tom Schryver and Ken Rother discuss the importance of leveraging customer insights by asking the right type of questions and focusing on the customer problem/need rather than your imagined solution. 

Link to Webinar on “Leadership Through Communication: Navigating the COVID-19 Crisis”

Click this link to access the March 20, 2020 webinar entitled “Leadership Through Communication: Navigating the COVID-19 Crisis” where Cornell Senior Lecturer Theomary Karamanis, Vice Provost Katherine McComas and Dean Lynn Wooten shared expertise about communicating within businesses and larger communities during times of crisis. The panel also took questions from those listening/watching live.

Link to Webinar on “Legal Advice for Entrepreneurs”

statue of the scales of justice

Click this link to access the February 20, 2020 webinar entitled “Why You Need A Lawyer: Legal Advice for Launching a Startup” where Celia Bigoness shared legal basics that every entrepreneur should know and also took questions from those listening live.

Many requested the link for this cheat sheet which is maintained by Crazy Brains (a newsletter that provides information about entrepreneurship, law and finance.) The cheat sheet lists the best free resources on the web for dozens of legal documents that entrepreneurs might need when building a company.

Approaching 2020 with Entrepreneurial Vision (Results From Our Investigation)

notepaper with sketch of lightbulb and question marks.  eraser, pencil and globe paperweight rest on notepaper

In mid-January, we at the Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell asked you about your resolutions for 2020 (see full text of our question below this article) and we got a record-breaking number of responses! In fact, enthusiasm for the question led one woman to send us a photograph of her handwritten journal with goals outlined in 9 areas (even including marital goals!). Another reminded us cleverly that “2020 vision” is considered perfect, clear and perceptive.  To all those that responded, we thank you for your sharing your thoughts and aspirations.   Here we report on the results as a way to reflect, inspire and provoke thoughts for each of you as you enter the new year.

Resistance and Creative Alternatives

Many respondents said that they resist the idea of resolutions.  As one woman put it “historically [my resolutions] have been broken by week two of January.”  Instead, she takes an incremental approach, making a list of goals every on Sunday. Another argued that “too much unforeseen opportunity can appear any day,” so resolutions are too short-sighted. Others didn’t like a focus on just one goal, or wanted a spontaneous approach, either allowing “aligned intentions to bubble up organically” or just preferring to be “more transformational to be thinking about how I can achieve this vision for my life on a daily basis. ”

In addition, there were many suggestions for alternatives to the tradition of setting a New Year’s resolution.  Some suggested “guardrails,” themes (such as obedience, vulnerability, abundance and “taking up space”) or intentions (such as being inspiring or thinking in terms of “upgrade”).  Many suggested that a word or phrase for the year helps them envision their goals.  Some of those suggestions had a Nike-inspired flavor, such as #GetItDone,  “Just Do It”, “2020=Execution”, “Do It Anyway – scared, unsure, seemingly unprepared…do it anyway” and the trifecta of “courage, commitment and presence.”

For some, vision boards and white boards are being used to write out goals, intentions, words and themes. A creative idea came from one woman, who said she decided on 10 goals and created a screensaver out of the list, so that she would see them every time she sits down at the computer.     

Resolutions for Self

An overwhelming number of resolutions had to do with goals related to personal life. Sometimes those goals were a determination to overcome barriers, such as being aware of constraints and “turn[ing] them into strengths” or overcoming a lack of confidence in order to “to spark professional mission.”  Others focused on combating apprehension, for example, they wanted to put “forth dreams into action with the subtraction of fear,” or make sure that “the fear of not reaching my goals doesn’t keep me from trying.”  Another women brought a different perspective, resolving that she would to live “inside of an intention bigger than I can touch.” Moira Vetta shared an article she wrote for Forbes about visualizing and acting larger (see references at end). The mantra to simply “not give up!” was shared, along with “stay open to new possibilities.”  As one respondent put it, “if you don’t work on your own dream you will find yourself helping build someone else’s dream.”  Interestingly, several women mentioned very specific personal goals, such as writing a book or making time to “get the kids on the bus.”

Some of the personal goals included aspects of improved self-esteem, for example being determined to say no, stop “going with the flow”, think bigger and “stop being so modest” and be more connected with oneself.  One woman said she had “punted all one-sided relationships” out of her life.  Others focused on health and well-being as a commitment to self-care. Sometimes special circumstances, such as being a new mother, going through a divorce, or leaving a job provided a specific context for self-care goals.  Others pointed to decreasing stress with a variety of strategies, including better organization, and “letting go of being ‘The Fixer’ (stepping back so others have to step forward)”.  Persistence was also mentioned, with one woman vowing to reach her customers, only stopping after as many as 10 attempts. 

Personal financial stability was also mentioned by many writers, including selling their home, digging out of debt and becoming a better steward of finances.  In addition, women wrote about education or skill-based goals, such as taking courses (including the ones in this Institute!), learning and practicing new activities in industry research, public speaking, or marketing and branding. 

Resolutions for business

Start or re-start

Many resolutions or intentions were expressed in terms of business goals.  Foremost among the resolutions was launching (or relaunching) a venture, including opening the doors for business, and often with specific dates.  Sometimes a writer mentioned a detailed action, like registering the business, launching a website, producing inventory ( e.g. making 11 garment samples), but other times the intent was broader, as in “build something that solves a problem you are interested in.”  Among these launch-related resolutions, some were starting from scratch, while others were moving their venture from a side hustle to a full-time activity.  Others were entering new markets or changing marketing channels (e.g., moving away from Etsy to sell on a personal website).  The goal in each case related to increasing the active pipeline of customers, through strategic decisions such as diversification, moving from online to brick and mortar (or the reverse), starting or changing the advertising targets, and moving toward automation for lead generation.   Network and relationship building were also mentioned as a way to understand potential clients and the problems that could be solved.

Financial and overall planning

Views on planning-related resolutions ranged from those who favored specifics, such as weekly, monthly, quarterly and/or annual goals so they could be very deliberate about setting “incremental and final goals with regard to sales and planning.”  Others said they have resolved to be “less focus[ed] on checklists, more focus[ed] on being…the person I strive to be each day.”  Many respondents had specific revenue goals, with a broad range of targets (as low as $1500 and as high as in the millions). Other resolutions focused on securing funding, again, with a very broad range (as modest as $1000 and as ambitious as obtaining funding from a venture capitalist).   

Gauging progress

We were also interested in how respondents planned to evaluate during the year whether they were making progress toward satisfying their resolutions.  A common plan was to track and evaluate financial statements to compare goals and accomplishments throughout 2020.   Others suggested that they would write in a daily journal about their goals or “reevaluate my calendar [every week] and clear things that feel burdensome or constrictive.”  An innovative approach was used by another respondent, who created and shared a Google spreadsheet with friends so they could be accountable to each other.   One woman responded that she’ll just know “when it is done”  and another said to remember “done is better than perfect.”

As a final anecdote, we had one very conscientious woman give us an update on her resolution.  Lisa W. wrote the following to us just last week:  “Just wanted to send you a quick update to share that because of the Coronavirus concerns in China, I’m not going to hit my goal of Feb 14th to launch my eCommerce company – factories are staying closed longer over Chinese New Year to try to help contain the virus, and we were cutting it super close to begin with. So although we had (almost) everything lined up to make my 90-day launch goal timeline, we’re at the mercy of nature. Everything happens for a reason though, so I’m sure there’s a blessing in this somewhere, and of course I’ll still be launching ASAP!”

So please feel free to reach out and let us know how you are doing on your resolutions, intentions, themes, phrases and words as we move through 2020. We are continually inspired and educated by all that you share with us!

Resources Recommended by Respondents:

Text of the Original Question asked in January 2020 – Recently, we posted a link to a Fast Company article sharing important decisions made by four entrepreneurs that changed the direction of their business or career.  Specifically, these decisions came in the form of resolutions (one woman severed ties with her business partner, one woman resolved to stop saying “I’ll be happy when…”, etc)  Since we are at the start of a new year and a new decade, we were curious:

  • Have you have made a resolution or set an intention for 2020 with a specific business or professional goal in mind? Would you share it with us?
  • How will you know if you have achieved your goal? (Or alternatively, let us know why you chose NOT to make a resolution/set an intention!)

Acorns and Entrepreneurship (Results From Our Investigation)

acorn on the ground

Recently, we put a question** out to the Institute participants and got dozens of interesting answers.  Using the analogy of an acorn, we asked who or what has provided you with “nourishment, water and sunlight” and how have you dealt with competition. 

Part 1: Nourishment, Water and Sunlight

Constant support and encouragement is especially important for entrepreneurs because, as one woman put it,  “to be honest, it is quite a lonely road”. When writing about their core source of encouragement, family was mentioned more than any other source. Some talked about spouses, others mentioned children, grandchildren and grandparents.  As one woman put it “they are my motivational engine.”  In addition to inspiration, family also provided practical help, helping with childcare and other responsibilities in response to what one respondent called the “unorthodox schedule” associated with running your own business.  Another woman mentioned that her sister helped her with “education and wardrobe.”  

Friends also figured heavily in the responses, especially those who are also entrepreneurs, which one woman called her “business besties.”  Previous bosses and co-workers were mentioned as sources of “water and sunlight.”  Many of the business friendships grew out of participation in programs like “Tide Risers” and other networking groups.  Finding support in the voices and actions of other women was commonly mentioned.  As one woman put it, “there is so much beauty and power in women coming together to uplift and inspire one another,” as a means to deal with self-doubt and discouragement. 

Although most mentioned some source of inspiration as an ongoing “pull” to entrepreneurship, others felt pushed into it.  For example, one woman mentioned the “abject reality” that her previous job would not continue, and others mentioned the paucity of other job opportunities.  In these cases, it was the economic reality that provided the push. Still, once they “made the choice to go forward believing” in themselves, there were still forces that helped them grow and survive.  

There were sources mentioned that may help you think about additional places to find support for your entrepreneurial “acorn” to grow and thrive:  business coaches and mentors, non-profit groups supporting women, personal boards of directors, incubator programs (Chobani Food Incubator was mentioned specifically), social media influencers, role models (e.g., Oprah), Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), SCORE. Another woman mentioned the work of Barbara Stewart Smith and her work on “rich thinking.”   

Help can also be found in unexpected places from people who are strangers.  One particular impactful story was relayed about an entrepreneur who was roaming the Internet to find help and stumbled across a website for a similar product.  When she reached out to the (female) founder, she ended up getting an 8-hour training session which “literally recharged my battery.” 

Finally it is worth mentioning that many individuals found that, like an acorn, they carried some “nutrition” from within, citing their individual motivation, belief in the mission of the business, their personal faith, and their self-care and healing activities, providing the “vigor” needed to push forward.  Many mentioned the need for ongoing self awareness, noting things like vision boards and other activities to help stay focused to meet the “fiercest winds of adversity” and to “keep check on ego and emotions.” Personal savings provided help, as did a well of self-confidence and “knowing you can push through any challenge or endeavor.”  Also mentioned was the need to be honest when you see things are not working and you need the courage to pull the plug. One woman wrote “facing the truth was my water.” Echoing this thought another said,  “Not all of your ‘acorns’ are going to make it, but they’ll all make you stronger and wiser, if you allow it.”

What did these sources of sunshine and nourishment provide? Of course, financial resources were mentioned many times.  But equally important was moral support, especially from those who can see the best in the person and help to “stop the negative chatter” and encourage a positive mindset.  Valuable information and knowledge from mentors, was also mentioned, along with the advice that helped protect the entrepreneurs from bad choices, bad partnerships or from pursuing the wrong customers.

Part 2: Handling Competition

When it came to competition, it was often mentioned that there is “room enough for everyone to eat” so competitive forces were not too worrisome. More than one respondent mentioned that they were not in a “scarcity market” and that they prefer to focus on their own unique offerings. “Nobody can be me,” as one woman put it.  Others felt more pressure from the competitive landscape and used a variety of tactics to differentiate themselves and their business, such as: focusing on a specific niche, finding a powerful partner, thinking like a “specialist vs. a generalist,” creating a high level of service, offering customization and staying focused on the mission.  One interesting example of niche marketing came from someone who is actually in the “water and sunlight business,” working on solar water pumping systems for purification, with a specific outreach focus on women, who are the first adversely affected in a crisis involving water shortage. She mentioned that her competitive advantage was doing customer discovery to understand “what works and doesn’t work specifically for women in the marketplace.”

Other things that were mentioned as helpful in dealing with competition included: a willingness to learn and grow from others, understanding strategic marketing, maintaining an attitude of gratefulness, positivity and patience, keeping a focus on people (especially the customer), remaining nimble and flexible.  One response that interested us was an entrepreneur who said she has a “bless-and-release mantra” when it came to losing a customer.  She felt that when she lost out to a competitor, perhaps that meant it was not the right customer after all.  Using a “bless and release” approach she avoids wasting time on regrets and stays focused on future opportunities.  This was echoed in a comment that you must “know what you control and what you don’t.” Similar advice was to “stop paying attention to others and focus on differentiation.”

There were two very interesting extensions of the acorn metaphor.  One said “too few people focus on the acorn, a lot of people are focused on the tree.”  She sees the tree as the business model, investment and brand, while the seed is the “inner leadership and capabilities of the individual.”  If you can figure out what kind of seed you have, she argues, you’ll be able to find the right conditions under which you will flourish.  “People first need to know what seed they are.”

Another woman shared some wisdom she heard from a fellow mother:  “Shed yourself like a maple tree in autumn, in the colors of your life to rival the colors of the rainbow.  Share your time, talent and treasure to bring meaning to lives, knowing that you have brought to bear so many positive fruits that will nourish mind, body and soul.”

Thanks to everyone for shedding your wisdom on our community!

** Question: As many of you know, Cornell University is located in Upstate New York.  Fall is a stunning time here with all the leaves changing color – but it is also the time when thousands and thousands of acorns fall out of the oak trees and litter the ground. Only a very few of those thousands of acorns will ever grow into mature oak trees.  To become a tree, the acorn has to escape being eaten, be buried deep in the ground by an animal, and then get enough water and fertile soil to grow above the ground to sunlight.   Even then, the tree will face competition from other plants and many threats of nature to its survival.  Only a few will make the full journey.   What do acorns have to do with entrepreneurship?  Well, millions of people have ideas, but only some (like you!!!) actually take the steps to launch a business.  The questions that we would like to know more about are: 1) Who or what has provided you with the metaphorical nourishment, water and sunlight to push through and start your venture?  (or begin the work needed to start your venture) 2) How have you survived the competitive threats? (or how do you hope to survive them?)

Finding, Attracting and Using a Sponsor (Results from Our Investigation)

handprints on burlap that look like a tree

We asked students enrolled in the Institute a question** about your experiences with sponsors, those individuals who take actions to “pull you along,” helping you in specific ways to reach your entrepreneurial goals, as distinct from mentors, who help guide you and advise you about your business.    The most common answer (30%) was either “I didn’t know about sponsors” or “I haven’t been able to attract sponsors.  To help those who have not yet benefited from sponsorship, we share here the ideas from the rest of the respondents about 1) how they found a sponsor, 2) how they positioned themselves for sponsorship, and 3) benefits they received from their sponsors.

How To Be a Great Protégé

The person seeking a sponsor is called a protégé.  Many women wrote about the important factors in becoming a protégé who is useful to the sponsor.  It is critical to think about the needs and issues facing the prospective sponsor, so that you can highlight the ways in which the relationship can be beneficial to both parties.  A sponsor seeks credible, talented protégés whose accomplishments will shine light on him/her. One respondent described this as “being value-creating.”  Respondents said that to be identified as a promising protégé, you must ask the right questions, which will lead you to better understand the context and needs of the other individual.  As one respondent put it, “your path and the potential sponsor’s path must be able to align.”   Another woman wrote about the importance of being intentional about building relationships before you need it, or as she said “make deposits before withdrawals.”  

On the topic of credibility, several wrote about the need for the entrepreneur to express with clarity their vision, mission, outcomes and needs/goals.  As one put it, you need to speak “in clear, concise, and simple language with authority and enthusiasm in a manner that carries conviction.” Many also focused on being oneself to convey authenticity so that you as a protégé come across as genuine. Sponsors look for signs that a prospective protégé has a strong work ethic, exhibits loyalty, has useful expertise and can be of reciprocal value. Reputation matters – as one person put it: “attitude will always impact your altitude.”  

Finally, several emphasized the importance of going out of your comfort zone and asking someone.  This can be difficult for women, if they have been socialized with the idea that asking for something for oneself is selfish, pushy, or as one woman called it “being a gold-digger.”  To make the ask more justifiable, one woman wrote: “one way to ensure I am attracting what I need is to make sure I am aware of what my top three needs are in the first place.”  Other entrepreneurs mentioned the gender issues as well, saying that, “when women are seeking help from men, there is this subtle attitude that women should be giving up something in return.”  The same respondent went on to say that in her experience, women in leadership roles were not as inclined to help her as a woman.  Another comment came from someone who thinks sponsorship is “an edge men have over women in the business space.”  She attributed this to the idea that women “see ourselves as competitors instead of collaborators.”

Where To Find Prospective Sponsors

The women who responded suggested a wide variety of options for finding a sponsor.  One said “start with a mentor,” as a sort of building block of support.  Another suggested joining business forums and networking events as the first step in identifying someone who one might develop as a sponsor.  Regional business incubators, small business/entrepreneurship organizations and business owner groups are other places to network for prospective sponsors.  

Another option is to look among your customers.  For example, one woman said that her success at providing high level service to her clients led to them opening doors to another set of clients that she otherwise could not access from a position external to their companies. 

Benefits of Sponsorship

If you conquer your hesitation, find the mutual alignment of goals and project credibility and capability, the rewards of sponsorship are many.  Benefits that were mentioned included:

  • Introductions and invitations to dinners or other events.
  • Providing access otherwise not available.
  • Nominations for roles (she would not have applied for).
  • Motivation when the sponsor holds the entrepreneur accountable.
  • Cross-promotion opportunities.
  • Deferred costs.
  • Free media coverage.
  • Help with a business plan and/or pitch.
  • Recommendation for bigger opportunities.
  • Introductions to new clients/customers.

In conclusion, here are some references to other resources that can be helpful. Dr. Streeter recommends the book Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Although the book focuses more on corporate life, the concepts and strategies are equally applicable to entrepreneurs.  If you don’t have time to read, here’s quick video of Sylvia.

One respondent, Stacy Cassio, Founder and CEO of Pink Mentor, also shared a podcast called “Work-It, Girl!” where Stacy was interviewed on networking and sponsorship. You can hear it here.

____________

**Question sent to Institute Participants: Does your network as an entrepreneur include both mentors and sponsors? The distinction is important.  Mentors can help guide you and advise you about your business but sponsors are those individuals who take actions to “pull you along,” helping you in specific ways to reach your entrepreneurial goals. 

In a recent article, Alison Koplar Wyatt, president of Girlboss was quoted saying “Women have a tendency to collect mentors….Men go after sponsors.”   In many entrepreneurial ecosystems, potential sponsors (those with the power to take action to help) are male (and white), so it can be challenging for female entrepreneurs to build a network with the right sponsorship power.  

Our questions to you:  

  1. What is your best strategy for attracting sponsors who are “above you” in your business ecosystem?  
  2. How have sponsors helped you in your entrepreneurial efforts?

Code Switching: Your Voices (Results from Our Investigation)

Dahlia flower with two colors - yellow and red

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!

Conclusion

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.