This week we celebrate Women’s Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations, where female entrepreneurs are celebrated and honored at a time when women still face far too many challenges in the workplace.
Paid maternity leave is not guaranteed in America. We now know it will take over 200 years to close the gender pay gap. Only one in five C-suite executives is a woman. Even more staggering, only one in 25 C-suite executives is a woman of color. And only 2% of venture capital goes to women. These are disadvantages placed at the feet of female entrepreneurs that keeps the playing field uneven long after their pitch for that first round of capital is most likely denied. And while these issues must be addressed, we cannot forget the disadvantages so many women face who live realities far from one where pending venture capital is even on the table. To have a complete conversation about supporting women in the workplace, we have to do more than talk about boardrooms and VC funding. We have to talk about all women.
Over 22 million women live in poverty in America today. In New York City alone, 60,000 people sleep in homeless shelters every night; 22,000 of them are children. Finding solutions for the women and mothers in this population will take a completely different approach to how we might address other problems facing women today. I believe the solution is hands-on and personal, which is the inspiration behind the work I do today.
For many of us, a night in a homeless shelter seems like an impossible scenario. But for the women I’ve worked with at New York City’s Women in Need shelter, a transformative event deprived them of their security and could have easily destroyed their lives. By placing computer training programs inside these shelters we have now successfully graduated 100 women. Our goal is to expand the program across twelve shelters which would allow us to greatly multiply our impact. In doing this, we believe we have given more than heartless hand-outs; we believe we’ve provided life changing hand-ups. Don’t think for a moment that these women aren’t also filled with entrepreneurial dreams and endeavors that deserve our attention. At a recent graduation for the program, the women spoke with me about one day wanting to be their own boss: a car repair shop owner, a restaurateur, and a lash extension specialist. If we don’t work to find solutions that will lift them out of their current circumstances, they will never be in a position to pursue these goals, support their families, and change their lives.
Another all too often ignored female population are those recently released from prison. More than 200,000 women in America are incarcerated, and 80% of them are mothers. Perhaps it is that many of us cannot see ourselves in those women, but that is no excuse for leaving not only them, but also their children, without an opportunity for a second chance. Our efforts have created jobs for over 200 formerly incarcerated women. In over six and a half years, the recidivism rate for our participants is zero. Compare that to a wide range of estimates that suggest recidivism rates for the general population to be at 70%.
An essential part of our work is more than just skill-building. We also aim to provide a community where talent is fostered in a meaningful way. This is crucial because talent is within all of us, but opportunity is not. Add to that, sharing our skills with others fulfills a human need inside all of us. This is transformative and life changing. It gives women the self-esteem and the dignity to thrive beyond the conditions of their temporary circumstances. And in that fact alone, we have the power to change the face of poverty. I want to challenge people to expand their thinking to include these women when we think about transforming women’s lives in the workplace.
In proposing solutions to address the inequities women face in America, we must expand our assessment of what it means to be a woman in need. From the women and mothers fighting to break through the standard definition of entrepreneurial glass ceilings to those in our most vulnerable populations in need of a second chance at life, there is talent to be harnessed and opportunity to be created. As we honor and celebrate female entrepreneurs this week, we must also work to create opportunities for the entire female population so their lives might be fortunate enough to one day even have the opportunity for entrepreneurship. Only then will we truly begin to transform the state of work for women in America today.
Francine LeFrak is an award-winning theatrical, television and film producer, a successful entrepreneur and a distinguished philanthropist. She is the President of the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation which believes in a hands-on approach to fighting poverty. Learn more at https://www.falfoundation.org.