When I first started watching the 2017 Netflix original series “Girlboss” a few years ago, I fell in love with Sofia Marlowe’s entrepreneurial spirit and fearless way of living. Despite discouragement from her father, a man at a consignment shop and seemingly everyone else on her path, Sophia successfully launches her own business, Nasty Gal, an online retail store which upcycles and resells old clothes. Against the odds, she believes in herself, stays true to her vision and never compromises her style because of others’ judgements.
When I reached the end of the first season and discovered the show had been canceled, I was dismayed. I had discovered a new role model who inspired me during a time when I felt so much pressure and competition from academia. I was disappointed in Netflix and its viewers for not seeing more value in a show with such a uniquely strong female lead. Sophia Marlowe’s fictional story, based on company founder Sophia Amoruso’s path to founding Nasty Gal, is exactly what the business world needs more of: inspiring tales of unlikely leaders pursuing their dreams.
On one hand, being a girl or woman in entrepreneurship is amazing. In a world that is always telling you what to wear, how to do your makeup and how to act in the presence of men, entrepreneurship provides a unique space to make your own decisions. It’s one of the few places where women can be free to define for themselves how to do business. With that said, being a woman in entrepreneurship also comes with unique challenges.
When women do find the courage to follow our dreams, we face both external and internal sexism. And while the experience differs for everyone based on their identity, it’s something that no woman should have to deal with.
Liisbeth, an “indie, feminist ‘zine about post-capitalist entrepreneurship,” published an article in 2019 called, “Gaslighting: The Silent Killer of Women’s Startups.” Gaslighting, as described by The Guardian, is a form of “psychological manipulation intended to make the victim question their sanity.” The term was coined from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, “Gaslight,” in which the husband, Jack Manningham, convinces his wife Bella that she is going mad by secretly turning the lights on and off in the house. The idea is that if you think you’re going mad, you’re more likely to trust the manipulator’s judgment calls more than your own. In entrepreneurship, this can look like seemingly innocuous phrases such as, “Are you sure that actually happened?” and “It was just a joke,” according to Liisbeth.
Although gaslighting is an issue both in personal relationships and in the workplace, I would argue that an equally measurable problem is internalized misogyny. How often do we think subconsciously to ourselves, “Because I am a woman, I need permission from a man to have an original idea?”
Even at the University of Michigan, women are undervalued in the hiring process. In the undergraduate Center for Entrepreneurship, women represent just 26% of the faculty. Only 42% of American businesses are run by women. While hiring more women to hold these positions is absolutely necessary, these roles are not going to change overnight. To quote Sophia Amoruso, “You don’t get taken seriously by asking someone to take you seriously. You’ve got to show up and own it. If this is a man’s world, who cares? I’m still really glad to be a girl in it.”
At least part of the challenge of the modern woman entrepreneur is to pursue her own ambitions without regard to others’ judgments –– to create for herself, not for the critics. By focusing on her own empowerment while understanding how sexism is ingrained in the culture, she gives herself a more immediate chance of achieving her goals. While men must be held to higher standards, at this point, we can’t count on them.
Going into International Women’s Month, what I want women and girls to know is that you don’t need permission from anybody to follow your dreams. Your ideas are brilliant and there are people who will support you, even if there are times along the way when you are the only one who believes in your vision.
Lily Cesario can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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