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What I’ve learned about female entrepreneurship


Insights from Dell


Business Entrepreneurship Perspectives

I co-founded Endeavor as an organization that would identify and support entrepreneurs in some of the world’s most inhospitable markets. When we launched 17 years ago, people doubted that we would be able to find high-impact entrepreneurs in places like Argentina or Morocco, but year over year, we continue to screen candidates whose vision, experience and ideas are transforming the world.

Today, Endeavor operates in 20 countries on five continents, supporting over 900 entrepreneurs from 585 companies. We continue to serve emerging markets but have expanded to growth countries in Southeast Asia, the challenged economies of southern Europe and, more recently, right here at home in selected US cities.

Some of the most inspirational entrepreneurs I’ve encountered with Endeavor have been, of course, women. In emerging markets especially, female entrepreneurs face some incredible odds. As I learned firsthand when I set out on my own journey, it requires a special mix of resourcefulness and willpower to keep going, no matter how many times people tell you you’re crazy. For me and so many other entrepreneurial women, being called “crazy” should really be taken as a compliment.

Entrepreneur inspiration

The story of Josephine Esther Mentzer is one that I love to tell as an example of an entrepreneur whose ‘crazy’ ideas would go on to change the world. Born to Hungarian Jewish immigrants in 1906 in an Italian neighborhood of Queens, “Estelle” (as she was known) coveted luxury beyond her working-class background. Her uncle, a chemist with a line of skin creams he couldn’t sell, gave Estelle the chance to test her determination.

To promote his products, she would stop women on trains, in elevators, at the market and everywhere else and insist that they try jars of the all-purpose wrinkle cream, refusing to take no for an answer. When she eventually became successful enough to open her own business with his creations, she adopted the name “Estée” to better fit the image of luxury she wanted to cultivate. Slowly but surely, Estée Lauder’s perseverance and drive allowed her to build what is now a multi-billion dollar global brand, despite all those who told her that a working-class girl from Queens could not amount to anything more.

Success in Rio

Fast-forward 60 years and we have the story of Leila Velez, an Endeavor entrepreneur I met back in 2005.

Though she grew up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, half a world away and decades after Estée Lauder, Leila’s success story was not all that different. The daughter of a maid and a janitor, Leila was frustrated by how few hair products there were for the hair of Afro-Brazilian women like her.

Working with her sister-in-law, Leila concocted a product to address this need and was eventually able to open a tiny salon. Though their friends thought that they would never be successful, Leila and her team kept going, relying on word-of-mouth and long nights to bring in customers.

Eventually, women all across Rio caught on. Beleza Natural, Leila’s high-impact line of hair products and salons, is now serving 100,000 customers a month, employing 2,300 people, and earning $80 million a year. One of Endeavor’s top success stories and a member of the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network, Leila has inspired generations of future entrepreneurs and demonstrated that, despite all odds, some tenacity and elbow grease can make all the difference.

What I’ve learned from encountering stories like these from women all around the world is that the biggest barriers to success are not necessarily structural or cultural; they are mental and emotional. For women like Estée and Leila, who found opportunity in their circumstances and dared to think big, no amount of rejection or number of naysayers could stand in their way. Their resilience overcame all barriers to success.

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