Let's Support Women-Owned Businesses, in Our Industry and Beyond

We must help women continue to make history

It's been 55 years since Mary Wells Lawrence became the first woman founder of an ad agency, and yet today, only 0.1 percent of creative agencies are founded by women. When I look at the women-owned and led agencies in our industry like Red & Co., Walrus, PB&, Joan, Odysseus Arms, Terri & Sandy and Moving Image & Content, I am excited by what great company I am in. But I'm also struck by just how few female-owned and -led agencies there are. Our industry needs many more agencies like these, founded and run by women. 

It sounds unbelievable, but it was not that long ago that women in most states could not get a bank loan for their business unless a male relative was willing to co-sign. Take a moment to let that sink in! This practice was common across the country until 1988, when it was outlawed by the Women's Business Ownership Act. This act was key to helping launch scores of women-owned businesses in the last few decades by giving women independent access to business loans. 

Women entrepreneurs have definitely made progress in recent history: In 1992, just 26 percent of businesses were owned by women; by 2019, the proportion had grown to 42 percent. According to American Express, in 2019 women-owned businesses employed 9.4 million workers and generated $1.9 trillion in revenue. 

While this progress is amazing, we can't pretend the business playing field is level. The 9 million-plus people employed by women-owned businesses represent just 8 percent of the total private workforce. Moreover, most women-owned businesses (88 percent) generate less than $100,000 of revenue per year. And we know the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on women and women-owned businesses. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce asks business owners to rank the overall health of their business. Between January 2020 and July 2020, the number of female business owners who said the health of their business was "somewhat or very good" fell by 14 points, compared to just a 5 point drop for male business owners.

As we celebrate Women's History Month, we should turn our attention to women-owned businesses both in our industry and beyond. Consumers should make a point to support women-owned businesses in their communities by buying their goods and services and promoting them on social media. Lenders and venture capitalists should work with women to finance their startups and help them grow existing businesses past that $100,000 mark. Women are more likely to start businesses, but also more likely to fund them with personal capital or credits, while men are more likely to seek loans and investments. Banks can change this. Brands should seek out women-owned ad agencies. Women influence up to 80 percent of the buying decisions in this country and share 60 percent of social media content—women-owned agencies understand this and can tap into it. And women business leaders should mentor those starting out and encourage other women to start their dream business.

I have learned so much about running a business in the last 15 years and know my experience can help others, so I spend a lot of time talking with women who are starting new businesses. I look at their plans, how they're structured, who their partners are, and how they're paying themselves. I also open up my contact list and refer them to people that can help them get off the ground. I welcome the fact that I may be creating competition for myself, and I encourage my colleagues, male and female, to do the same. After all, the best way to celebrate Women's History Month is to ensure women keep making history, and the best way to ensure that is to help each other.  

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Jean Freeman
Jean Freeman is principal and CEO of Zambezi, the largest certified female-owned full-service agency in America.

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