Clearing the Hurdles: Women Building High-Growth Businesses

You know their names today, even though they made their mark 100 years ago and more. Cornelius Vanderbilt (railroads), Andrew Carnegie (steel), John D. Rockefeller (oil), Marshall Field (retailing), and Henry Ford (automobiles) left an enduring legacy of innovation, market dominance, and vast fortunes. They are among a handful of extraordinary entrepreneurs who not only achieved great wealth, but also won international celebrity. Whether you think of them as robber barons or heroes, these men who developed railroads, steel, oil, large-scale retailing, and automobiles continue to have a star quality associated with their names more than a century later. The creation of new ventures is deeply embedded in our American heritage. The exciting part is that it is even more vibrant and widespread today than it was in the days of Rockefeller, Field, and Ford. Ever-expanding technology, support from government policy and regulations, and the redefinition of corporate America in the 1980s and 1990s made the United States a hotbed of innovation and new venture creation. Entrepreneurs, armed with promising new business concepts, lured by vast new market opportunities, and convinced of huge financial payoffs, launched millions of new ventures in the past 20 years. That they did so in an environment rich with resources—both public and private—added to the likelihood of their success. Some of the most celebrated contemporary venturers are Steve Jobs (Apple, Pixar), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com), Howard Shultz (Starbucks), and Michael Dell (Dell Computers). In our hearts, we know that the kind of entrepreneurial success these men achieved is reserved for a very few. We sometimes think of them as the lucky ones, but we also recognize their focus, talents, and personal efforts. Looking only at their successes, it is easy to imagine that they hurdled over all obstacles in their race to develop new products and services, and then build new markets and industries. However, that was not really the case. Their successes were built on astute observation, practical application, and hard work. Each drew on personal resources, but when that wasn’t sufficient, enlisted the help of others. Each one confronted failure more than once, but never accepted it as final. Entrepreneurs starting new ventures today aspire to that same rarified air of success, but at the same time they recognize that these cultural icons are nothing short of heroic. The biggest winners among entrepreneurs are celebrities precisely because they are so unique in their accomplishments.

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