With her troop behind her and some older Girl Scouts on site to mentor and provide sales tips, a Girl Scout Daisy hands a cookie customer her purchase in White Plains, New York. Girl Scouts participating in the Girl Scout Cookie program learn valuable skills like goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics. (Image courtesy of Girl Scouts of the USA)

Last month, women on college campuses around the world gathered for Women Entrepreneurship Week, an annual event that brings budding female entrepreneurs together with female startup founders through workshops and panel discussions. Last year, it attracted participants from 76 universities in 15 countries. Programs like these promote and support women’s entrepreneurship—and we need more of them to address the inequality that currently exists—but they don’t reach women early enough.

To affect real change, we need to begin to nurture entrepreneurship in girls when they are in elementary school. We must teach them not only the financial and other skills they will need to succeed, but also to see themselves as entrepreneurs and leaders through hands-on experience and interactions with female role models.

According to the American Express 2017 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, in January 2017, women owned an estimated 11.6 million businesses in the United States, employing nearly 9 million people and generating more than $1.7 trillion in revenues. On the surface, those numbers look encouraging, but they tell only half the story. As of 2017, women owned 39 percent of all privately held US firms, but those businesses contributed only 8 percent of total employment and 4.2 percent of revenues. For women, owning a business often means simply working for herself. Bringing employment and revenue in line with the number of women-owned firms would contribute to women’s individual economic independence, create jobs, and grow the economy.

The Female Entrepreneur Gap

Part of the challenge in closing the gap is that women struggle to raise capital. In 2016, women received $1.46 billion in venture capital, representing only 2 percent of total venture funding. The 2017 Harvard Business School working paper, “Diversity in Innovation,” offers one explanation: homophily, meaning that people tend to live and network in homogenous bubbles. So venture capitalists tend to mentor and give money to entrepreneurs who look like them, and since the majority of entrepreneurs are white men, they receive the bulk of the resources—both human and monetary. Homophily also impacts career choices; if girls don’t know or interact with female entrepreneurs, they are less likely to see themselves as one.

As of 2017, women owned 39 percent of all privately held US firms, but those businesses contributed only 8 percent of total employment and 4.2 percent of revenues.

This idea was substantiated by the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Women’s Report, which found that women’s confidence was lower in countries with more developed economies Fewer than 35 percent of women in these economies believe they have the capabilities to start a business based on the opportunities they see. Conversely, more than 67 percent of women in less-developed economies believe the same thing. The authors of the study acknowledged that businesses in developed economies are more complex, but also noted that only 27 percent of American women say they know an entrepreneur personally.

It’s a vicious cycle, and the only way to break it is to get more women, including women of color and diverse heritages, into the entrepreneurial pipeline. In recent years, there has been a greater emphasis on entrepreneurship programs for women on college campuses. While these efforts are important in working to close the gender gap, the programs may not reach the young women who enter college without an overt interest in entrepreneurship. This matters, because the skills and characteristics that make a good entrepreneur—fortitude, financial literacy, and the ability to set and meet goals, and even take some calculated risks—will serve women well regardless of their chosen field. Moreover, college programs will never reach girls who are not encouraged to pursue higher education. I know this because I was one of those girls.

Building Entrepreneurial Skills

Growing up in New Mexico, no one around me went to college, and I certainly didn’t see female entrepreneurs. My own business education began when I joined Girl Scouts and started selling cookies, and my troop leader told me that I couldn’t leave the site of a sale until I heard no three times. That’s an incredibly empowering message for a young girl, and I applied that rule to all aspects of my life. I often think about all the times I heard no as a girl, and what path I might have taken had I not persevered.

The 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Women’s Report found that women’s confidence was lower in countries with more developed economies.

Beyond learning not to take no for an answer and other soft skills—self-confidence, determination, and grit—the program taught me the hard skills fundamental to entrepreneurship, and it was the only financial education I received as a young girl.

Since that time, the Cookie Program has expanded to include an emphasis on teaching five essential entrepreneurial skills: goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills, and business ethics. In 2014, we launched Digital Cookie, a platform that allows girls to create their own personalized cookie site. It offers games and quizzes centered on entrepreneurial skills, as well as a place for girls to set their cookie goals, track their progress, manage orders and inventory, learn Internet safety skills, and, of course, sell cookies. Additionally, cookie sellers can now earn badges in creating business plans, customer service, and marketing. They can also earn financial literacy badges in areas such as budgeting, philanthropy, making smart buying decisions, and financial planning. The Cookie Program and financial literacy badges are part of a larger Financial Empowerment Program, which has age-appropriate lessons and activities centered around financial literacy for girls in grades K through 12.

Getting Financial Literacy into Schools

The need for early financial literacy training cannot be overstated. Girls rarely see money being transacted these days, let alone have decision-making power about how it is spent. A report from the Federal Reserve found that the credit scores of students who received personal finance education were 7 to 29 points higher than those of students who weren’t exposed to the same lessons. Three years after exposure, study subjects had larger increases in credit scores and lower rates of delinquency.

Gold Award Girl Scout Jamielee Bueneman drafted plans and constructed a prototype for a wind turbine made from everyday materials, potentially providing a low-cost source of renewable energy. (Photo courtesy of Girl Scouts of the USA)

Unfortunately, currently only 17 states require high school students to study personal finance, and less than half require them to take an economics course. This gap in financial education in our schools puts all students, but particularly girls, at a disadvantage, and makes entrepreneurship programs aimed at young girls even more vital.

Entrepreneurial Environments That Work for Girls

A number of organizations offer entrepreneurship programs or teaching materials for children and teens. Junior Achievement’s Be Entrepreneurial program and VentureLab each have downloadable curriculums available to educators, for example, and Young Entrepreneurs Academy runs a year-long, after-school program in 168 American communities. But again, while initiatives like these are important and need support, only VentureLab has lessons for students below grade 6, and none of these programs is specifically designed for girls or operates in a single-sex environment.

Research tells us that girls perform better in girl-only environments, so it is imperative that we support smaller organizations and help them develop more entrepreneurship opportunities for young girls. Business leaders can do their part by volunteering with existing girls’ programs or by launching mentoring programs for young girls at their companies. Parents can include their daughters in family decision-making around money, and we can all talk to the girls in our lives about the importance of financial literacy and financial empowerment.

My troop leader told me that I couldn’t leave the site of a sale until I heard no three times. That’s an incredibly empowering message for a young girl.

The young girls of today are preparing for careers in industries that have not yet been invented. We need them to have the courage and the confidence—along with the business acumen and technology skills—to create the solutions that are remaking our world. But that’s just one part of the equation; they also need to know how to sell that solution so that it gets adopted.

Girls need to learn both the hard entrepreneurial skills and those softer leadership skills when they are young so that they can practice them through adolescence and into adulthood. We need to teach them early on that when it comes to their dreams and vision, they should never take no for an answer.

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