On the episode of Bunheads called “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky,” Michelle (Sutton Foster) and her mother-in-law Fanny (Kelly Bishop) co-own a dance studio but have run into money problems. Struggling to brainstorm new ways of generating revenue, Michelle says to Fanny, “It’s like you’re Lucky Luciano, and I’m Bugsy Siegel. We just need a Meyer Lansky!” After meeting with their financial adviser, who presented them with more questions than solutions, Michelle decides that she’ll take some business classes and become their operations wiz. “Stringer Bell did it, right?” she quips, referencing The Wire. However, Michelle discovers that she needs a high- school diploma to enroll in business classes, and she’s short a few credits. She’s neither Meyer Lansky nor Stringer Bell. She’s Michelle Simms, high-school dropout.
Struggling or not, it’s surprising that we currently have so few female entrepreneurs on TV. In real life, women-owned businesses grew by 20 percent from 1997 and 2002. Sadly, the jump in female entrepreneurs hasn’t been reflected on TV, which sends a dangerously inaccurate message to young female viewers. The lack of female entrepreneurs on television now suggests that men, not women, take care of business.
Decades past boasted several strong, female entrepreneurs. In the ’80s, we had Family Ties’s independent architect Elyse Keaton (Meredith Baxter-Birney), Designing Women’s entrepreneur Julia Sugarbaker (Dixie Carter), and Moonlighting’s independent private detective Maddie (Cybill Shepherd). In the ’90s, we had Veronica’s Closet’s lingerie mogul Veronica Chase (Kirstie Alley), Living Single’s magazine publisher Khadijah James (Queen Latifah), and Will & Grace’s independent interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing). Then later came Sex and the City’s PR consultant Samantha (Kim Cattrall) and the independent fashion designers of Project Runway.
We do have a few proprietresses on TV now—Scandal’s crisis-management consultant Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and The Mindy Project’s OB/GYN and medical-practice co-owner Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling). But these outliers don’t reflect the vast scope of women’s recent accomplishments in the business landscape.
Why the recent drop in female business owners on television? One possibility is that, in the last couple of decades, the Internet disrupted our notions of entrepreneurship; as a result, the Internet phenomenon took over the media conversation. I spoke with Nathalie Molina Niño, founder of Therapy For Business Women, who said the following:
Most small businesses are owned by women, period. Most tech businesses are not. There are people starting lots of businesses not just in the tech world. There are women who are not in the Silicon Valley world who don’t get profiled [in the media]. It’s about shifting the focus a bit; Spanx [founded by Sara Blakely] is not the exception to the rule.
So the media overemphasizes the sausage fest of tech entrepreneurship, where “women make up less than 7% of executives at VC-backed companies.”
And when media veers away from the tech entrepreneurship motif, we see less than stellar examples of socialite businesswomen including DASH moguls the Kardashians (Keeping Up With The Kardashians) or Skinnygirl® cocktails creator Bethenny Frankel (Real Housewives of New York City). This model doesn’t work either; tabloid celebrities are not exactly ideal role models for young, female entrepreneurs. And by watching The Apprentice, we’re taught that only M.B.A.s or corporate executives can start their own enterprises—a falsehood that further discourages young, aspiring businesswomen.
So in terms of bolstering young women who want to start new enterprises, Niño said that we need to undo some of this cultural programming. We need to teach girls that they can begin their projects without already being rich like on The Real Housewives of New York City and even without an advanced degree like on The Apprentice. “They get this idea that they have to keep achieving before they have the qualifications,” said Niño. We see this in Bunheads right after Michelle discovers that she never finished high school: “I’m getting dumber,” she says. But Michelle unnecessarily devalues herself; she’s a successful dancer and teacher, and not having her high school diploma is—in this specific context—but a small obstacle.
In order to undo these sexist messages, we can look to womancentric college programs that focus on career development. For instance, Smith College has The Center for Work & Life, and Barnard has The Athena Center for Leadership Studies whose Entrepreneurs in Training program takes place in July.
And for women who are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work, there is Lean Startup Machine, co-founded by Grace Ng and designed to help new entrepreneurs regardless of gender.
Of course, having more women-owned businesses won’t necessarily save the world. But not to fight against inaccurate portrayals of women’s achievements, problematic depictions of female entrepreneurs, and negative cultural messages about our ambitions does ourselves a disservice. More importantly, it does a disservice to the next generation of girls, who would inherit an even smaller space to explore their ideas and their passions.