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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Women Business Owners: What's Different, What's Not

by Shel Horowitz

How do the challenges facing women family business owners differ from those of their male colleagues? Five female FBC members addressed this question at the Center's June gathering:

  • Cindy Johnson, Fran Johnson Golf and Tennis Headquarters
  • Kate Putnam, Package Machinery
  • Joanne Goding, Moss Nutrition
  • Karen Randall, Randall Farms
  • Kathy Selvia, New England Promotional Marketing

The panel was moderated by Linda Peters, Program Director of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation's entrepreneurship initiative and an instructor in the UMass MBA program.

Women may have a harder time asking for what they need, or settle for less than a man would. Several panelists cited a book called Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. Agreeing with the book's premise, Joanne Goding noted, "I was originally willing to work for $250 a week."

After reading the book, Kate Putnam "asked three friends to give introductions to three major prospects. I got three introductions. And be prepared - one of them had already crawled all over my website and had sharp questions."

To Cindy Johnson, the book "suggests that women are less successful in negotiating for better pay and promotion. It's not an instinct, it's learned. I've gotten better over the years. Ten years ago, I took what was given to me. Guys tend to be better at it, but women are not taught to do that."

But Karen Randall says gender is only one factor in negotiating skill. "Know your worth to the company and be able to articulate it. I learned to negotiate. That's what makes my business run. My sisters are opposites. I have one sister who's going to win a negotiation hands-down. The other has to be prodded to ask pricing. It's gender, but it's personality."

Working in a particularly male-dominated industry, Kate Putnam has one unusual advantage: her height. "At an industry conference, someone asked me whose wife I was. Itˆs the surprise factor; theyˆre not used to dealing with a 6'2" blond woman. I live in the skin Iˆm in, and I go with the advantages I have. Most men have to look up. They canˆt pat me on the head, and that helps."

One clear difference in the panelists' experiences is that the older panelists see the younger generation as having an easier time noticing the opportunities, and being taken seriously. Kate Putnam noted that her "mother was a great role model, but she didn't have a job. My 26-year-old daughter has a different set of role models, and she's light years ahead of where I was. But she does place a high value on the community piece and works very hard to be involved in volunteer situations."

Kathy Selvia agreed. "The younger generation of women are more enlightened. When they get married, they share responsibilities. I came from the old school, and the more I did, the more my husband liked it. He was a bachelor until 31, but all of a sudden he forgot how to operate a dishwasher or a vacuum. The younger women realize they can't do it all, and they take time for themselves - and that's a good thing. If I could do it over again, that's what I'd do."

But for Joanne Goding, role models of active, involved women stretched back generations. " My grandmother graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1918. That's very unusual. The idea of doing something to better oneself impressed me. I got the idea that I'd make something of myself. But to have that realized, I had to have parents who supported the idea."

Karen Randall found the issue was her own self-perception. "I would have grown more aggressively if I'd known that I had the power to do it. I was 32 when my father died at 54. I hadn't aspired to run it, so for 10 years, I ran the status quo. Then I realized I was competent" and took the company through a major expansion. "I didn't set out to be a woman business owner. I set out to be successful. I never think about myself as a woman running a business until someone walks in and asks for Mr. Randall, and I say, 'you're looking at Mr. Randall.'"

Even one of the younger panelists, Cindy Johnson, had to fight to have a major role in the business; her father didn't see her as a successor, and tried to sell the company. But Johnson used her observations of women's tastes to grow a new profit center, a gift department aimed beyond golfers. "If a woman who doesn't play golf comes in, she can be not entirely bored while her husband or father shops."

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