Sandra Garcia was en route to becoming a doctor, studying neuroscience on the premed track in college, when she had a change of heart—she wanted to start her own business. Four years after she graduated from college, Garcia’s company, POSH Agency LLC, is entering its third year and experiencing steady growth.
Garcia was in attendance at Barnard’s Diana Center on Friday for the White House-sponsored Urban Economic Forum, an event focused on women succeeding in the business world. And her story was mirrored by many panelists’, who shared their stories of breaking into the male-dominated fields of business ownership and entrepreneurship.
The forum—which was hosted by the White House Business Council, the White House Council on Women and Girls, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and Barnard’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies—also drew several big names, including Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington and Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.
In a conversation with CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo, Jarrett said that the White House is starting a new initiative to encourage women to enter the predominately male fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
“Many of those jobs are going to be the jobs of the future, and oftentimes girls shy away from math, from science,” Jarrett said.
The event largely consisted of panels, during which successful women discussed the obstacles they faced in starting their own businesses or breaking into the business world. Panelists highlighted gender bias and the economic recession as major stumbling blocks.
“I got hired at Time Warner, but three months after being hired, my whole department was laid off,” Garcia said. “For me, as a [recent] college graduate, I didn’t want that to be me 10 years down the road.”
Barnard President Debora Spar opened the forum by discussing the underrepresentation of women in positions of power. Women, she said, are falling into the “16-percent ghetto,” meaning that women make up less than 16 percent of entrepreneurs.
“Women max out at roughly 16 percent, and that is a crime, and it is a waste of incredible talent that this country has to offer,” Spar said. “So our job, all of us in the room, in this city, in this country, in the world, is to fix the situation so we can help generate the female talent and the female leadership that this country desperately needs.”
Naomi Cooper, BC ’12 and an Athena Scholar, said that she was familiar with the “16-percent ghetto” concept.
“With respect to the 16-percent ghetto, I think that’s something I’ve definitely heard a lot about, because I take Athena classes and we talk about that a lot,” she said. “But I actually thought it was really nice and different and empowering to hear the panelists because they’re really impressive and they did a really good job.”
Huffington moderated the panel, “Investing in Women Entrepreneurs,” which focused on ways women could access capital. Joanne Wilson, a Gotham Gal blogger who invests in startups, said that women tend toward perfectionism, which limits their ability to take advantage of business opportunities.
“Women need to spend more time just jumping in the game and figuring it out later,” Wilson said. “Stop crossing your t’s, stop dotting your i’s. Move forward, stand on a table, and say, ‘I am fantastic, this is a great business, and I’m going to find someone who’s going to invest in me.’”
The forum was attended by both Barnard students and women in business, among others. Hallie Satz, the owner and CEO of commercial printing company HighRoad Press, was struck by the panelists’ discussion of challenges women face in starting their own businesses.
“Most of what I heard today was the message that, as women, when we talk about asking for capital, we’re cautious and we downplay our businesses,” Satz said. “We don’t overpromise ever and we are very careful in looking for investment capital, very conservative about our expectations. It is, it’s very true, and it hurts us.”
Nikila Kakarla, BC ’15 and an Athena Scholar, agreed. Kakarla, who is majoring in economics, said she was struck by the idea that “women are scared to take risks” and, for example, tend to spend more time preparing for meetings than men do.
Another panel, “The Case for Women Entrepreneurs,” gave women the chance to tell their business success stories. Bartiromo, who moderated the panel, said she has seen that women have to work harder than men to be taken seriously as leaders.
“Women try hard. We work really hard,” she said. “We want to be the best, and we work really hard to be the best. Men don’t.”
Athena Center director Kathryn Kolbert said that the forum echoed the themes that the Athena Center emphasizes in its courses and workshops.
“In many ways, the panel has reaffirmed exactly what we at Athena have been saying for a long time, that … some men and some women approach leadership in different ways, and that women have obstacles to creating their own businesses that make it harder,” Kolbert said.
Some forum attendees, though, said that the conversations may have overlooked some key points. Sarah Belfer, BC ’12 and an Athena Scholar, said that she would have liked to hear more about “certain barriers to women put up by men or organizations.”
Others, like Cooper, wanted to hear more about how the economy as a whole would impact job opportunities for women. Cooper said she would have liked some discussion of “where everything is going and what types of jobs are going to be available.”
Nina Ahuja, BC ’12 and an Athena Scholar, said she appreciated the panelists who told their stories, including one who said she dropped out of investment banking and used her bonus to start a charity. She noted that she would have liked to have heard more personal stories.
“People dropping out of the jobs that we think that we’re doing, that we’re supposed to be doing, like investment banking and finances, especially in New York ... I wish I heard more stories like that because it’s really inspirational,” Ahuja said. “And it gives you an idea that there are different ways of getting to do what you love.”