Starting a Business

We routinely expect successful entrepreneurs to adhere to best practices within their specific field – e-commerce, biotech, even retail – but what are the best practices for women entrepreneurs when it comes to the business of self? Here are 5 tips for thriving in the often turbulent waters of the entrepreneurial oceans and a playlist to inspire you along the way.

1. Expand your entrepreneurial expectations

Many best practices for business growth and development focus on outside influences: access to capital, market dynamic, or industry and sector trends; but in order to be the best of the best, we must start with the “inside job” by reframing our expectations of what is possible for ourselves, our customers and our businesses. Why does this matter so much? If your expectation is to build a $1 million business, your brain will interpret data through the $1M lens. It will let in information that aligns with that reality, interpret input to achieve that outcome, and offer ideas only within that boundary — without you ever knowing it. However, if you believe you are building a $1 billion business, your brain will cooperate just as well. It will interpret your reality to achieve that much bolder aspiration. In order to push the boundaries of success, we must intentionally, routinely and rigorously exercise and expand our entrepreneurial expectations. To think bigger, women entrepreneurs must:

  1. Make “what if” a more common part of your vocabulary.
    Take a breath and ask: does it have to be the way I am doing it now? What else could I accomplish? Ask others to push your thinking about what is possible.
  2. Seek out alternative perspectives.
    Spend time with the naysayers, dreamers and people who have no clue about your business. They open up blind spots for possibilities because they are not confined by your mental models.
  3. Find a “personal possibility trainer” and meet with them routinely.
    Having a person push your boundaries can help expand your capabilities as an entrepreneur. It might not always be fun to have your perspectives exercised by others, but just like getting to the gym, you’ll be glad you did.

Once women entrepreneurs adopt a practice of expanding entrepreneurial expectations to include new possibilities, what usually follows are … new possibilities! So now what?

2. Jump and the net will appear

Jumping into things may sound very dangerous, and it can be, but it can also be a powerful strategy for forward motion. As women, we often prefer not to jump until we are completely sure about what we are doing – waiting until we believe ourselves to be 110% qualified to move forward, while men consider themselves ready to roll much sooner. And roll they do. The result? While we are over-preparing, men are jumping out and taking advantage of opportunities that we are equally qualified to seize.

The paradox here is that in our increasingly complex world, over-preparedness is actually counterproductive. Often there is no way to know exactly what to do next — more research, planning, and analysis will not yield the essential information that leads to preparedness. The best way to get fresh data on what will work or not work is to act. Only through action can we see what happens, then based on that real outcome, take the next step. As women entrepreneurs we must retrain ourselves to jump sooner than later and we must act our way into the unknown. At Babson we call this Entrepreneurial Thought and Action™ or “ET&A”. Here’s how it works:

To begin, all you need is desire, not a master plan, or even a fully baked idea, just the desire to move in a given direction. Then you ask yourself three questions:

  1. What are the means at hand right now?
    Who am I, what do I know, whom do I know? This includes your education, experience, network, values, and any other assets that make you who you are.
  2. What am I willing to invest — and possibly lose?
    This is your ‘affordable loss” and might include time, money, reputation, or opportunity cost — just be clear that you are willing to lose it.
  3. Who can I enroll to support me in this forward motion?
    Share 80% of your idea with someone else who could be a potential ally. Let them give you 20% of their thinking to help the idea move forward.

Once you have the answers to these three questions, you act: take whatever one step is indicated. That singular action leads to learning and, points to your next indicated step — which may be very different from where you thought you were headed. The learning from this small experiment helps you determine if you still have the desire to move forward on your goal. If you do, you start the cycle over again. When mistakes are made — and they will be, the costs are low and the intel is high. ET&A is a simple and powerful way to experiment your way forward. Now that we are acting our way forward, we need all of the assets and energy we can muster.

3. Houseclean your head

Busy entrepreneurs know that it takes every bit of energy we have to be successful. Unfortunately, we expend way too much of our time creating scenarios about what we should have done, kicking ourselves, squandering essential cognitive capacity that we could be using to grow our businesses. Women entrepreneurs need to put that negative anxiety through what researchers call “the clearing process.” The clearing process helps to sort fact from fiction. The next time you are lying in bed at night worrying about something, try this: take each core assumption that is driving your anxiety and ask yourself whether the assumption is true, false, or simply “you don’t know.” You will find that much of what we worry about is either simply not true or unverifiable at this time. The only thing you can do anything about are those items that fall squarely in the “true” column. Instead of worrying about what you should have done, take the truth about each assumption on its face value and clear your anxiety by exposing much of it as fiction.

The clearing process also helps to combat imposter syndrome – that secret dread that you are fooling everyone, not nearly as talented as everyone thinks, and under the right circumstances you will be exposed as a fraud. Imposter syndrome is a widely researched phenomenon suffered by both men and women. It has no correlation to competence and tends to show up with very high achieving people. In order to tame the imposter monster, women entrepreneurs must:

  1. Learn to internalize external validation
    Don’t brush off positive feedback of any kind. Accept it and believe it — even if you have to work hard to do so. And don’t let another woman who you compliment dismiss your positive affirmation either.
  2. Avoid suffering in silence
    Let negativity out by verbalizing your anxiety with trusted friends.
  3. Have a sense of humor
    Don’t take yourself too seriously. On any given day, are you really performing brain surgery or responsible for world peace? Not likely.

4. Find your tribe

We are often told about the importance of networking, and while it remains vital to success, women entrepreneurs also need to create tribes. Tribes are close communities of women and men who look out for your best interest, who understand you and your business. They are people who “get” you. Think of tribes as a personal, rather than professional, board of advisors. The difference between a tribe and a network is that a network is transactional: it is a means to an end. Tribes are transformational: they make us feel great about ourselves. While spending time with your tribe is fun, it is also much more functional than you might realize.

The science behind the importance of finding your tribe comes from a social learning concept called “self-efficacy.” Self-efficacy is the confidence – not the competence – that we have what it takes to be successful. Here are four ways that women entrepreneurs build self-efficacy and what a tribe can do to support this.

  1. Mastery experiences
    Tribes offer a safe space to try on new behaviors and test out new experiences.
  2. Vicarious learning
    Tribes offer us direct access to role models who look like us and sound like us. We think: if she can do it, I can do it.
  3. Anxiety reduction
    Tribes help keep us stay calm by sharing similar experiences to the challenges we face. Trusted members of our tribe demonstrate how they survived and often thrived in tricky situation.
  4. “Champion cheerleading
    Tribes offer us the “atta girls” we need just when we need them. They pick us up when we are down, inspire us to reach high, and applaud us on to the finish line.

Our tribes also help us recognize how incredibly special we are. Which leads us to the final best practice.

5. Celebrate your extraordinary special sauce!

Women entrepreneurs are the key to local, national, and global economic and social prosperity. Because of the companies and organizations you create, the way that you lead and the ripple-effect impact you make, the entire world is a better place. Never forget that your business is as unique as your thumbprint. Only you can bring it to the world through your one-of-a-kind mix of values, education, experiences, social identities, and yes, even your biology. You are extraordinary.

Using these best practices, you will change the world.

Susan Duffy

About the Author


Susan Duffy


Dr. Susan Duffy is the Executive Director of the Babson College Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (CWEL), where she educates, inspires and empowers women to transform their entrepreneurial potential into entrepreneurial impact. CWEL’s latest innovation is the Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab that accelerates women who are ready to think big, be bold, and launch successful companies. Susan earned her Ph.D. from The George Washington University. Susan is an advisor to several early stage companies, an angel investor and sits on Tory Burch Foundation board, the Walmart Foundation International Advisory Committee, and the Boston Small Business and Entrepreneurship Advisory Council.