Go For It, KIZ! Supporting That Under-30, Less-Experienced Woman Entrepreneur

We may be young, and we may be less experienced, but we are ready to take the leap (Cat Jaffee and Selin Ersoy at Ani outside of Kars, Turkey. Photo by Yakup Sasmaz).

In attempting to launch my social venture BALYOLU, I get three general responses.

Response one comes from the village. It’s the Turkish version of this: “KIZ! (GIRL!) Hold-up. You’re 25, not married, and you have no kids…? WHAT have you been doing all of this time? There is this nice young man who has finished his military service. He is even a teacher…” Or there is this recent favorite from an 18 year-old-admirer “REALLY? You’re 25? You don’t look a day over 17! You don’t even have wrinkles around your eyes!”

Response two, from the man at the regional development office who sits behind a desk wearing a nice suite: “Look, you are a sweet girl, but you are trying to do this at 25? Here is my advice to you. Wait 10 years. Go get a PhD, earn credibility at a university through teaching courses. Come back and try then.”

To my friends in the villages, good effort, but its going to be a while longer. To the man in the nice suite sitting at the regional development office, responses like yours are one of many reasons why we don’t see a lot of women run businesses, especially in eastern Turkey.

Let’s do the math. Waiting 10 years would put me at 35, leaving me a narrow window to have a family (my friends in the villages would have given up by then!). And even if I do manage to secure a family, this work would not be easy with kids in tow. It would be tough on them and tough on me. I am not saying that working mothers cannot establish businesses (the ones who do deserve the world’s respect), or that a PhD would be a disadvantage (heck, most of the people I talk to in Turkey only take me seriously because I’ve told them I am applying to graduate school, “Graduate school? Good. Good.”). But as a woman, if there is a time to take a risk, to start the business of my dreams, to move to a new place and establish something from the ground up – being that young jobless, childless, homeless 25-year-old actually has its advantages.

I read countless articles about how we need to “increase the number of woman entrepreneurs.” Many articles argue that while women are pushing the figurative “glass ceiling” in academics, law, and medicine, women-lead businesses are hard to find.* I can only speak from my personal experiences, but my hypothesis is this: society, grant giving foundations, and formalized start-up funds often target “the established business,” or at least “the established business person.” Yes there are micro-loans for women. And yes there are very cool crowed-sourcing funding platforms. But the programs that have a support network, legal backing, and the resources to help me launch the business of my dreams: a good deal of them want me to have that graduate degree, substantial businesses experience, or some affiliation that makes me greater than what I am – a 25-year-old who quit her job, wrote an abridged business plan, and moved to Kars.

Quite frankly, a part of me believes what that man in the nice suite behind the desk, and many others like him, said. I should go get more experience, go to business school, or I try for that PhD. But unlike my male friends in their thirties who have biological wiggle room, the longer I wait, the harder it will be for me to be a full-time mom and business owner.  You may argue, that women who go to medical and law school face the same kind of dilemma, often launching their own very time-consuming practices by the time they are in their mid-thirties. However studying law and medicine, to some degree, has a guarantee. You may be loaded down in debt, but people need health care, and they need legal protection. You will likely be successful in the long-run. On the other hand, business – and its sustainable but often limited revenue generating counterpart social business – is a gamble.  And I can imagine how a lot of women once having a family, don’t want to place that gamble on their loved ones. That leaves the gap for us to launch our own businesses pretty small. Sure men do it. But I think more often than not, they have more time to become established (40 year-old dad = no biggie. 40 year-old mom = health risks).

Of course this kind of math and reasoning has its exceptions. But from my perspective, if you really want more businesswomen, support that enthusiastic under-30, “under experienced” aspiring entrepreneur.

This brings me to response three. The hand squeeze. Response three comes from my mentors. They were the complete strangers who replied to my nervous emails; Skyping with me from smokey cafés, village homes, and the back of trucks (thank you VINCENT my mobile modem). They know very little about me, they’ve read a paragraph about my idea, but still they give me advice about registering as a business, or recommended me to friends who could help. They invited me for tea in spite of their overwhelming schedules, and they told me, “go for it KIZ,” we are here for you.

There are also my family, friends, and my partner who knew I wouldn’t be happy thinking about “what could have been,” unless I gave it a try. To my surprise and relief, they continue to give me the hand squeeze. My uncle, the retired beekeeper gave me the hand squeeze when he gifted me all of his old beekeeping gear after I told him I was quitting my job. Strangers, who have become like family, have opened up their homes and their contact books, giving me the hand squeeze as I leave on the midnight bus to my next beekeeper.

I am beyond lucky to have you response number three. You are the reason I am still going, why I believe in my idea, why I able to survive without a steady income or stability, and why I am not giving up just yet.

Even if I fail, I hope in writing this blog post, I can reassure other aspiring young women entrepreneurs to not quit when you meet that man in the nice suit behind the desk (or others who sound like him). Know that unfortunately, not everyone is prepared for the concept that is us. But keep trying, you would be surprised by the unlikely places you just might find response number three.

* Articles on why there aren’t more women entrepreneurs, and similar ideas:

– http://technorati.com/women/article/why-arent-there-more-women-entrepreneurs/.





Posted on September 24, 2011, in Bees Keep People and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Your photos are beautiful, your stories enchanting, your spirit is free and visionary. In short, you have what it takes and you know what you’re doing. So glad you’re committed to staying on track!

  2. When I became pregnant (in the mid 70s) at a very young age I was told I was making a ‘mistake’ and then I followed it up 2 1/2 years later with another ‘mistake’. I am eternally grateful that I had my children so young as I was confused about what I wanted to do with my life nor was I aware of the possibilities available. I have never had to face the dilemma that you do Cat. I was able to start an business when I was 50 (I’m now 52) and have a friend who did not commence her business until she was 64, an age most people are retiring from the workplace. I have also seen women start enterprises while they have children – children and businesses are not mutually exclusive. In my case the years of experience was a blessing for my particular field. We are all different and our ventures are different. In the end, Cat, you do what you truely feel is the best for you right now. You have so much passion and energy for what you believe and I admire that in you.

  3. Claire, you’re right! Starting a business at 50, with years of experience under your belt and still having been able to have kids and a family is awesome. And family and business are absolutely not mutually exclusive. But I can only imagine that balancing a start-up and small kids, would be a challenge (although, as I have only experienced one end of that statement, I actually can’t say for sure). In my post, I wrote, “I am not saying that working mothers cannot establish businesses (the ones who do deserve the world’s respect).” In fact, being a business owner can be great for a mom because we get to determine our own schedules, place of work, and scale.

    However, as I am learning from my own experience in finding support and funding, many grants, at least in this context, look for people who are established. And just as your personal story illustrates, if the world wants more women entrepreneurs, we need to break away from the impression that everyone must follow the conventional timeline of undergrad, 5-10 year of experience, graduate school, and then business. Because in that order, it makes it tough to have both the family and the business life (I write tough, never impossible).

    You mentioned your friend at 64… one of my favorite classmates from college graduated at 65. After putting all five of her children through college, she enrolled in Wellesley, graduated with high honors, and proceeded to pursue a Masters program at Harvard. I will be the first to say that age is irrelevant…except when it comes to women having a family. I have several friends who became moms at 40+ and while also not impossible, we were nervous for their health all along the way. I have seen men become dads at 60+, no questions asked.

    I don’t have the sure-fast solution of how society creates a better environment for women entrepreneurs, and I would never argue that there is “only one way.” But I think a solution starts with breaking away from this notion that in order to launch a business, we must have 10 years of experience and a PhD (as I describe in my recent interaction).

    Thank you for reading and commenting Claire, I love having your feedback and perspective on the site :)! It would also be great to have a guest post from you about starting a business as a mom, if you would be willing! Even better if you can insert some bee wisdom :)! Think about it and let me know!

    • Thanks Cat. I’m thinking about it already. If you would like to email me once you have some time in between your meetings back in the States to let me know a bit more that would be wonderful. I’m pretty sure you have my private email address.
      I will be away spending time with my family and babygrand-daughter over the next several days and my internet life goes on hold for those days.

      Have a great sleep in your own real bed :)

  4. amazing post!!!! Very inspiring ….

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