In a nutshell: Purpose—not world domination—is what drives successful women founders and CEOs. We can argue that women entrepreneurs are motivated by power, influence, and money, the data says otherwise. Research shows most women go to market because they have a desire to make a positive difference in the lives of others. They’re also highly successful at generating more revenue using less capital, highlighting the cold, hard fact that mentors and investors need to start paying more attention to women-led companies and providing more support for them.
Seven-year-old Sarah Breedlove was no stranger to hard labor. When her former slave parents died, she had nowhere else to turn but the places she knew the most—the cotton plantations of Louisiana, where she worked as a cotton picker under the harsh Southern sun.
Nobody had the slightest inkling that Sarah was going to become one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs and the country’s first documented self-made millionaire. You probably know Sarah Breedlove by her other name: Madam C.J. Walker. Her story is featured in the bright yet poignant Netflix documentary Self-Made.
Who would’ve thought that this uneducated, orphaned girl who went from the cotton farms of the South to the washtubs to wealthy people’s kitchens would go on to become the protagonist in one of the most impressive entrepreneurial success stories in history?
When Madam started suffering from dandruff and other scalp problems, she left the kitchens and signed on to work at Annie Malone’s hair care company, while developing
her own products and building her business on the side.
Madam knew the importance of hitting hard when it comes to marketing, so she stopped working for Malone and went on a journey across the South to sell her products door to door and demonstrate their efficacy in churches and lodges.
At the time of her death in 1919, sales of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was at $500,000, which is equivalent to $8.7 million in 2023 adjusted for inflation.
The business continued to grow even after her death, expanding outside of the US to Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and other countries before closing its doors much later in 1981.
Today, you’ll find the Madam C.J. Walker brand revived as MADAM by Madam C.J. Walker under Unilever’s Sundial Brand.
A New Perspective on Entrepreneurial Motivation
The intrepid young girl Sarah ignored the circumstances she was born into and decided to build a successful business of her own. It’s a path not unlike many entrepreneurs tread with courage and a little bit of that semi-foolishness every successful business owner has.
What compels people like the young girl Sarah to leave behind the comfort of what they know for the uncertainty of entrepreneurship? As it turns out, the dreams that motivated Sarah may not be different from what motivates 21st century women entrepreneurs and founders.
When it comes to business, women are not as different from men as we think they are. But there’s a stark contrast in what drives women to bring their products and services to market. Research shows that while money is one of the primary goals for men, women in business are motivated by a deeper sense of purpose.
A study from Carnegie Mellon University and Columbia Business School shows that the most important motivation for a woman entrepreneur is the potential to make a positive impact through business. In contrast, men are more driven by financial goals.
Research done by Illuminate Ventures further supports this finding. The venture capital firm says only 2% of women entrepreneurs are motivated by financial gain compared to 15% of their men counterparts. According to the study, women go into business because of three things: to introduce their passions to the market, build a lasting and sustainable business, and prove to themselves they can succeed.
Women are Driven by Both Profit and Purpose
Sarah Breedlove retired from the cotton fields to become a laundrywoman, a kitchen helper, and then eventually the founder of one of the world’s most iconic beauty brands as Madam C.J. Walker.
She attributes her rags-to-riches success to conducting “honest business dealings,” tenacity, and faith in oneself and a higher power. Even in the early 1900s, when it was rare to find a woman at the helm of a successful business, she always felt a desire to prove herself. And as she kept herself laser-focused on her vision, she did—as women always do when they are building something they deeply care about.
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations… I have built my own factory on my own ground.” - Madam C.J. Walker
The factory she mentioned was more than just a factory. Madam moved from Louisiana to St. Louis to Pittsburgh before finally settling in Indianapolis. Here, she built a salon, a laboratory, and a training school for the “hair culturists” under her employ.
She didn’t just teach them how to care for people’s hair and sell hair care products. She also showed them how to budget properly, build their own businesses, and become financially independent. Madam wasn’t just in the business of making herself rich. She was also in the business of making others around her, especially women, rich.
Indeed, Madam made it all the way to the headlines when word got around that she donated $1,000, or a little bit more than $17,000 today, to the local YMCA. When she moved to New York City, she became involved in Harlem’s chaotic social situation, donating hard-earned money to protect black Americans against lynching.
Shifting the Conversation to Include More Women
We need to focus more on women in business because when their businesses are flourishing. Modern-day data provides compelling evidence for what plenty of women founders, CEOs, and entrepreneurs and perhaps Madam C.J. Walker always knew—that putting profit and purpose together works. It’s more lucrative in the long run and more beneficial for customers, employees, and all stakeholders.
Research from the Business School of Columbia shows women generate 10% more cumulative revenue over a five-year period. They made $730,000 on average compared to the $662,000 brought in by men-led counterparts, despite the fact that women founders receive less than half in funding compared to men.
Women also use a third less capital. They use resources more creatively and effectively to generate more value per dollar invested in their business. On average, women-led companies yield 78 cents per dollar invested. Meanwhile, men bring in 31 cents per dollar, which is less than half of what women make.
It’s clear that women entrepreneurs and all entrepreneurs who prioritize the good of humanity and the planet are radically changing the face of business. Just as Madam instinctively knew in the early 20th century, many of our most accomplished entrepreneurs today are proof that committing to purpose is crucial for creating financial success and meaningful change.
“My object in life is not simply to make money for myself or to spend it on myself in dressing or running around in an automobile, but I love to use a part of what I make in trying to help others.” - Madam C.J. Walker
It’s Not About Gender
Despite their successes, women entrepreneurs still face challenges rooted in outdated stereotypes and unquestioned assumptions. For instance, women sometimes still have to deal with basic questions about their technical expertise from potential investors because some investors assume that women don’t have the knowledge to succeed in business.
We have made major strides in supporting women entrepreneurs, founders, and business leaders over the last century. And we must keep cultivating a more supportive environment for them. And for any form of positive change to last, we must start at the top.
We work hard to help purpose-driven businesses grow and scale online. Beusail Academy co-founders Natalie Nichols and Tamara Loehr work with entrepreneurs—both men and women—who want to leave a positive impact on people and the planet. In fact, we were able to successfully secure $1.1 million in scholarships for women who want to enroll in our program to empower them to scale their businesses through effective digital marketing.
"This is not about money or gender but values alignment," explains Tamara. "When leaders are intentional, heart-centered, and purpose-driven, consumers, employees, stakeholders, and investors drive the business growth, not sales and marketing alone.”
This is a timeless truth that transcends ages, industries, and geographic boundaries. Business leaders who care about making a difference, whatever their gender is, don’t just survive. They thrive, and they do so in ways that bring a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment to them and everyone around them.