Good for business? Atlanta creates a women-only clubhouse

Want to start your own business? I love the idea.

Just be ready to spend your life savings.

And to work every moment your eyes are open. (The owner of a popular intown Atlanta eatery chain once told me she cut back to working just 95 hours a week. 95!)

Oh, and your business probably is going to fail.

Now, city of Atlanta officials think they can do something to make the gamble a tad less risky. The city plans to spend about $1 million over the next two years on a new program that Mayor Kasim Reed has been talking about for years.

It will provide 15 entrepreneurs with free use of furnished downtown offices for 15 months, plus mentoring and training.

One catch: The startups have to be led by women.

Huh.

A confession is in order: I’m kind of an entrepreneurial groupie. I like that people have the guts to start something from scratch. For a year and a half I wrote the AJC’s former Secrets of Success column about the adventures of inspiring local entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs are our financial daredevils. They open new corners of the economy and create jobs that help the rest of us afford to eat.

Government helps big businesses with tax breaks, so I understand why there would be pressure to do the same for entrepreneurs. And both the government and the private sector have programs that set aside space to nurture startups.

There also are a number of programs underway in Georgia and around the nation to promote entrepreneurship by women, including private non-profit efforts. I get that.

Women only?

But when the road is rough for everyone, regardless of anatomy, should the Atlanta government’s free-rent initiative for entrepreneurs only admit women-led businesses?

I’ve got an uneasy feeling about it.

Mayor Reed, of course, thinks it makes perfect sense. And he rattled off the names of senior local corporate executives who are women and have signed on to help nurture the program, called the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. (The first class of 15 women entrepreneurs for the space already have been selected in a process that began last year, according to Theia Washington Smith, WEI’s executive director.)

The mayor said some women entrepreneurs have safety concerns about running home-based businesses. And, he said, some women business owners are intimidated about signing a commercial lease that includes a personal guarantee.

But who would be comfy signing away their financial lives on a long-term lease for a risky startup operation?

I thought there might be more persuasive arguments than what Reed offered up.

Lisa Calhoun, who recently helped launch Valor Ventures, a new Atlanta-based fund that invests in “gender-diverse” business founders, said Reed has the right instincts.

“Women-led companies have an under-celebrated but proven track record in creating top financial success, top job growth, and stronger communities,” she wrote me in an email.

Women can be hindered, in part because they are less likely to have had past experience running their own business or holding top management jobs, said Alicia Robb, a senior fellow with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which tracks trends in entrepreneurship.

While women make up more than half the U.S. adult population and pool of college graduates, they account for only a third of the nation’s business owners.

A male advantage

As I talked by phone with Robb, I told her about some of my concerns with the program’s sole focus on women-owned ventures. Her immediate response was to ask if I was white.

She suggested that it’s hard for me as a white male, the dominant position in society, to put myself fully in the place of people in different groups.

Maybe.

I was struck by a study Robb cited. Researchers found that venture investors – the vast majority of whom are male – are more likely to favor men, particularly good-looking men, rather than women, even when the content of their pitches is identical.

That’s not good, of course. Which is why I like the idea of private efforts like one Robb has underway specifically to train more women to be angel investors.

Karen Houghton is director of Atlanta Tech Village, a top local spot for tech startups trying to gain their footing. Just 11 percent of the ATV’s current 270 startups have female founders.

“I don’t believe gender dictates success in every way,” but it would be naïve to think the tech world is simply a meritocracy, Houghton emailed me. “The tech world is dominated by men, and that automatically creates unique challenges for women. It can be harder to get meetings and score pitches….”

I’m not convinced the city of Atlanta’s efforts to boost 15 women entrepreneurs every 15 months will make much of a dent in those kind of issues.

We’ll find out eventually. The mayor said the entrepreneurs already selected will be in the new space, in the historic Flatiron Building downtown, within 60 days.

Reed tells me the program could grow: “Signals are very important and you have to start somewhere.”

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Matt Kempner’s email: mkempner@ajc.com Follow him on Twitter: @MattKempner and Facebook: AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner ( https://www.facebook.com/mattkempnercolumnist )

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