State College

Cultural series provides community for female entrepreneurs

With her career behind her, Vanessa Wade rediscovered her calling more than 5,400 miles from home. Even in a foreign country, she slipped into a familiar role.

“It reminded me of my assets,” she said. “Before, I just looked at it as part of who I am.”

Wade, a former academic adviser at Penn State, met with high school and college students while in Lagos, Nigeria, giving a series of presentations on finding one’s way during a mercurial time in life. When she returned to the United States, the presentations turned into everyday chats with strangers she met anywhere.

It was as if she had never retired.

“I found myself talking to other people, just servers at restaurants, anybody,” she said, “and I realized, I’m still advising.”

A year later, Wade put her passion into action, founding her own educational consulting service. While the route may differ, more women like her are turning toward entrepreneurship. According to the Census Bureau, women owned more than 9.9 million businesses in 2012, constituting about 36 percent of the nation’s privately owned firms. The number represented a 30 percent increase from 2007.

On Thursday, Wade and about 20 others networked at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, discussing how to start a business as part of the Cultural Empowerment for Women Series, which is a partnership between the American Association of University Women and the Community Diversity Group. The luncheon covered topics such as drawing up a plan, mapping out legal and tax requirements and pinpointing one’s motivation in starting a business.

For Sharon Barney, who started a legal practice in 2014, going solo was a personal endeavor.

“I would not underpay myself, I would not talk down to myself, I would not have to deal with some of those systemic issues that I think a lot of us face on a daily basis,” she said. “That helped drive me.”

Now counsel for a Pittsburgh-based practice, Barney, one of the event’s speakers, said her experience helped her find not only mentors and support, but her own voice. As a minority, hers and those like hers are often under- or misrepresented. In the media, lack of diversity remains a problem. According to the American Society of News Editors’ annual survey figures on newsroom diversity, minorities constituted 17 percent of newsrooms in 2016.

In the advertising world, top positions remain male-dominated. Despite constituting about half of the industry, women only hold about 11 percent of creative director positions, according to a survey from the 3 Percent Conference, which champions women’s leadership at agencies.

“I think that those are some of the issues as to why some of us go into starting our own businesses,” Barney said, “as a means of empowerment and as a means of empowerment for our family.”

While gender and racial pay gaps have narrowed in recent decades, all minority groups, including women, earn less than white men on average, according to the Pew Research Center. Despite graduating college at higher rates than men, female workers made about 80 percent of the hourly wages as their male counterparts in 2015. While there are many confounding variables affecting that number (a more accurate mark is about 92 percent, research says) — including gender employment patterns, industry and occupation, amount of experience and hours worked — about one in five women report having faced gender discrimination at work, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, with 12 percent saying their earnings were less due to gender. It’s not apples to apples, but men, experts say, continue to get a bigger bite.

“It felt great when she mentioned that,” said Jennifer Riden, a business consultant with the Penn State Small Business Development Center and the keynote speaker. “That’s what we’re here for. You have to want to say ‘I don’t want to be paid less because I’m a woman,’ and that’s why groups like this exist and people come together because we all put our heads together and think of different ways to overcome.”

In the business world, the inequities remain steep. Nine out of 10 Fortune 500 CEOs are men, while about 4 percent are women. At the top 100 venture capital firms, only 7 percent of partners are female, according to a TechCrunch report. Silicon Valley, meanwhile, remains predominantly male, with only about a fifth of its software developers being female.

And according to a 2015 Morningstar report, less than 10 percent of American mutual fund managers are women.

But events like Thursday’s, Barney said, help build community, besides present opportunities for more women to get into business.

For Wade, it was another reminder that entrepreneurship is a practice in perseverance. Used to helping others find success, Wade said it took a friend to help her see that she could do the same.

“That was so motivating and affirming to me,” she said. “I told myself to just do it, just get out there and try.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy

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