Recently Program Director Kirsten Barker and Faculty Director Deborah Streeter asked students in the program for their thoughts about the concept of “side hustle.” Thanks to the student replies via voicemail, text and email, we learned a lot and wanted to share the aggregate results.
Defining “side hustle”
There was broad agreement among respondents about the meaning of the word as an activity that is a side business and not the primary source of income. But one response stood out to us. Although the question was posed in the context of gender (do men and women use this term equally?) this student discussed the origin of “side hustle.” Coming as we do from places of privilege (white, educated, born into middle-class families), we were unaware of an important historical context for this phrase. The writer, a 3-way millennial minority (Black, woman, LGBT) helped catch us up. She said that the term “side hustle” has been used for decades by people of color, as an expression of “the struggle to piece together multiple jobs to make a living. It was less about having multiple interests and passion projects, as this was not an opportunity that was available to us – it was for survival in a systematically disproportionate society.” She points out that other underrepresented communities and even those in the majority have adopted the term, but that the distinction between passion vs. survival is essential. Many other respondents mentioned that they use the term “side hustle” to talk about a dream that has to be supported by other full-time revenue-generating activities.
Anti “side hustle”
About half (55%) of those who responded saw “side hustle” (SH) as a negative term and said they do not use it to describe their entrepreneurial ventures. The most common complaint was that SH can be interpreted by others as “being scattered or not committed” and using it to describe their business “downplays its value and how seriously I’m involved.” When answering the question of how you interpret SH when others use it, one participant said, “The term leaves me with a feeling that the person’s initiative is merely a hobby. In order for others to take our businesses seriously (side or not) we have to refer to them in ways that encourage potential clients to comfortably do business with us.” Another woman who does not use SH said: “I really do not care for the phrase ‘Side Hustle’. It almost makes me cringe as much as Lady Boss, Mom Boss or Momprenuer.” To her and others, the use of SH conveys a “temporary, quick way to make a buck rather than a serious business venture.”
Pro “side hustle“
The remaining 45% of respondents were split between those who saw it as positive and those who were more neutral on the expression. Of the roughly 22% that put a positive spin on SH, the focus was on the way the term communicates grit and hard work. “It lets me know that they’re ‘grinding.’ Meaning working hard to again add value to themselves, create a better life, and be an asset to their community.” Another woman wrote, “I’m trying to convey that I’m open to exploring new ideas, am fairly daring in my initiatives and am always willing to work on something new.” A similar comment: “When I think of hustling I know it’s either do or die, so I take it very seriously and I wouldn’t start a side hustle until I am retired so that I can devote the time and energy required for its success.” And still others said they see having a side hustle as a necessity for women: “women very often do not have the luxury that men have to begin an enterprise and quickly raise enough capital to focus on their businesses full time without financial pressures.”
Side Hustle…For Now
Most who said they do use the term SH hope to evolve their entrepreneurial hustles to their main activity over time. For example: SH is “just simply a way of saying it’s not my full-time work yet, but potentially one day.” Another woman gave her personal example: “…my then side hustle turned into my full entrepreneurial goal once my ‘why’ shifted. My why now has purpose and offers a clear solution to a problem.” But one respondent said that using SH might actually delay the transition: “if an entrepreneur wants to be serious and move it to a full-time job, the psychology of using a term like side hustle, primarily the word side, may psychologically imply that you are not or do not need to put as much time, effort and resources towards it. So my main concern with the term has always been is it subconsciously holding the entrepreneur back from turning it from a side hustle into a full-time hustle.”
Not many respondents thought about side hustle as a gendered term. Instead, it seemed to be associated with generational change and the gig economy: “the increase in ‘side hustle’ is more so a reflection of my (millennial) generation and not so much specifically gender-based… When I hear other people say it, men and women, I see a reflection of myself and identify with the struggle and offer words of encouragement. It is a sign of time times, the gig economy.”
At the same time, several noted that having an entrepreneurial SH can be a result of how life is divided up for women. Many felt that a woman runs her entrepreneurial activities “alongside all of the other responsibilities in her life – in spite of inequities in investment and very often with less time due to familial responsibilities – and that is very admirable.” Another interesting perspective: “I think we minimize these things for ourselves because we tend to have our own wants, needs, desires come dead last in our lives. Who are we to have a side hustle when there’s a household to run, a full-time job to nurture, committees, etc.?” Another interesting perspective from someone who does not use SH, but shares: “I never hesitated to emphasize that my role was simply as a ‘helper’ and that my husband was the ‘real’ leader of our business. I think as a Southern woman, it’s almost expected that the man is the business leader. If a woman is the ‘owner,’ then there’s something odd in her life—maybe she’s a widow and she inherited the business, or maybe her father left her the business. I hope that mindset is changing with this new generation.”
Alternatives to SH
Some respondents said they simply talked about their company by saying “I’m working on my own venture,” or “I’m launching my own company” rather than use SH as a descriptor. Others preferred the term “passion project” but several thought that term is “one that we hear almost exclusively from women. One can only imagine the reasons why – does the language sound softer?…..do men feel less comfortable talking about ‘passion’ in a professional setting?” Several women said they wished women would stop using these terms because it is a result of pressure to “downplay their goals and ambitions to avoid looking like they’re bragging/ cover up for a lack of confidence/ to fit in and sound ‘cool’.” One person made an interesting comparison between SH and “side gig”: “I’ve noticed that by using ‘side gig’ in conversation, others aren’t as intrigued as they are when I use the term ‘side hustle.’ Perhaps, using the word ‘gig’ could indicate a lesser level of importance?”
*Original Question Posed by Kirsten Barker and Dr. Deborah Streeter (over 70 students replied)
Recently, the Institute’s Faculty Director, Dr. Deborah Streeter has been asked: “What will you do when you retire from academia?” (Although she has many ongoing professional activities, she is stepping down from her full-time faculty position this summer.) She often replies, “Oh, I have a several side hustles, including continuing my work on women’s empowerment.” This led to a conversation between Deb and Kirsten around the term “side hustle” (since we see a lot of you use the term as well!) Are terms like “side hustle,” “side gig,” and “passion project” words women use more often than men? And if so, why? One possible explanation is the tendency for women to downplay their ambitions given that we are socialized to temper any boastfulness. Or perhaps “side hustle” makes us proud because it is simply signaling that a passion is not yet a full time pursuit? We don’t know! But we would love get your thoughts on this topic.
- Do you use “side hustle” to describe the business you are nurturing?
- What do you hope to communicate with the term?
- When you hear others use terms like this, does it alter the way you see that entrepreneur?