Arkansas should make entrepreneurship for women a priority

by Kim Lane ([email protected]) 2,558 views 

“According to research from Boston Consulting Group, the global economy could experience up to a $5 trillion boost if female entrepreneurs received as much funding as male entrepreneurs.”

So begins the section on entrepreneurship in the “Report of the 2022 Arkansas Women’s Commission: Analyzing the Role of Arkansas Women in the Labor Market and Economy,” issued in December. Unfortunately, as the report continues, Arkansas lags behind most states in entrepreneurship for women.

Arkansas is among the five worst states (47th out of 50) for women-owned businesses, according to Clarify Capital, due in part to higher female unemployment rates and the number of women-owned businesses per 10,000 people. Arkansas performed only a bit better in rankings by AdvisorSmith, placing 45th on the list of best states for female entrepreneurs. For entrepreneurship overall, Bentonville-based think tank Heartland Forward ranked Arkansas 46th in its Entrepreneurial Capacity Index.

Arkansas is missing out on the economic boost that it could receive from increased entrepreneurship by women, even as its overall entrepreneurship performance lags. But the report is not a reason for discouragement. Rather it is a crucial roadmap for progress.

I had the honor of being a member of the Arkansas Women’s Commission, appointed by Governor Asa Hutchinson, and a member of its Subcommittee on Labor Force Participation & Barriers to Entry & Retention, which oversaw consideration of entrepreneurship.

The Commission was chaired by Alison R. Williams, Chief of Staff to former Governor Hutchinson. The Subcommittee was chaired by Dr. Kathy White Loyd, founder of the Women’s Leadership Center at Arkansas State University.

The subcommittee found that key barriers women entrepreneurs face in Arkansas are: gender bias; market misperceptions about female entrepreneurs’ competency and market knowledge; an unlevel playing field in accessing startup and growth capital; a lack of female investors; socio-cultural barriers, including the expectation that women must perform in caregiving and domestic roles in addition to seeking professional advancement; lack of access to business and social networks; lack of access to quality child care; lack of capital for expansion; and, fear of failure.

An entrepreneur myself, I have worked with countless women entrepreneurs – and aspiring ones – throughout Arkansas for over a decade, having previously served as CEO of an Arkansas-based entrepreneurial support organization, having been the Regional Representative for the Kauffman Foundation’s 1 Million Cups program, and in my current capacity as Chief Operating Officer of Right to Start, the national nonprofit championing entrepreneurship as a civic priority. Right to Start now has an initiative to advance entrepreneurship in Northwest Arkansas funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

In my experience, the barriers cited by the Arkansas Women’s Commission are common and widespread. Each one should now be the focus of attention for policymakers in both the public and private sectors.

These barriers are not, of course, the only ones. Sexual harassment, for instance, is another, which is a national problem. And there is even a bias within the state toward central Arkansas. Too often, entrepreneurship training programs in one part of the state do not take into account the child-care and other responsibilities of women entrepreneurs who have to travel from other areas. Women in rural areas are further limited from accessing technical training due to broadband issues.

Engaging in a public discussion of key barriers is a crucial step toward overcoming them, and the Arkansas Women’s Commission has played a vital role in bringing key barriers to broader attention. Confronting and removing those barriers – and others facing all entrepreneurs – should now become a statewide priority.

Raising Arkansas’ standing for entrepreneurship and for women-owned businesses should be a rallying cry for all Arkansans. New and young businesses create virtually all job growth in America. Why should Arkansas be missing out?

Women entrepreneurs can give the Arkansas economy a dramatic boost. Why wouldn’t we want that?

The Arkansas Women’s Commission is pointing the way. It’s time for Arkansans to come together to clear the barriers on the path to greater entrepreneurship and equal opportunity for women.

Editor’s note: Kim Lane, a resident of Conway, is chief operating officer of Right to Start, a national nonprofit dedicated to entrepreneurship regardless of race, place, or background. The opinions expressed are those of the author.