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4 Women on the Myth of the “Female Entrepreneur”
09.19.17

In partnership with Shinola.

Technically speaking, “female entrepreneurs” are simply women who start businesses. Over the years, though, the term has evolved to represent something much broader and more abstract. At times, that has felt like a powerful and positive shift. After all, navigating the world as a woman is a distinctly different experience from doing so as a man. Other times, the shift has been at risk of coming off patronizing or worse, like a marketing ploy that undermines the movement. After all, women are just people. Their wins are human wins as much as female ones.

As with any movement that “trends” in today’s cultural zeitgeist, there is grounding in real, human stories. In partnership with Shinola and its #RollUpOurSleeves campaign, I tapped four women who are their own bosses to tell me how they feel about the “female entrepreneurship” narrative, what it’s been like to set their own rules and how, exactly, they rolled up their sleeves and went for it. Author and bookstore owner Emma Straub, founder of Slow Factory Céline Semaan and NAME GLO founders Lena Imamura and Sas Simon are a particularly inspiring set, as they’ve each found unique ways to give back to their communities while seeking personal fulfillment. It’s a balance worth celebrating.


Céline Semaan

Founder and CEO of Slow Factory

There’s been a lot of conversation in recent years about what it means to be a “female entrepreneur,” and what it takes to get there. Do you like this narrative? Do you feel like you “fit” it?

The evolution of feminism has opened the door to a more holistic conversation around female entrepreneurs. Growing up, I never had a role model who was, for instance, celebrated for being both a mother and a successful business owner. Women who were successful in business were expected to show a more masculine side. Society seems to be moving away from that.

That said, I never really fit into any of it, even in today’s narrative. I am far from a stay-at-home-mom or a woman who’s career is everything. I make my own space, one initiative at a time. I keep my children close to my work and find a work-life balance by creating fun spaces within my workplace for them to hang out and play. I take what inspires me about the movement and leave out what doesn’t.

What parts of your daily routine have you not always done but now deem critical? What parts have you had to let go of?

Part of my routine that never occurred to me before but I now deem critical is time for self-love. Before, I would work out and all that, but I wouldn’t actively incorporate in my routine time for stepping back and detaching myself completely in order to gain perspective and clarity.

Parts I had to let go off: Self-destructive patterns that would either push me to overwork or overdo certain things. I had to let go of the idea that everything needs to be impeccable and perfect all the time. I learned to embrace serendipity.

How does your work environment affect you and how have you learned to control and manage it?

My work space is my temple; it is where I come to be myself, to be creative and to allow for crazy ideas to happen. I consciously surround myself with people who challenge me, inspire and intrigue me. Otherwise, I’ve let go of trying to control my environment because, as a mother, you quickly realize you can’t control much. I set up my space in a way that fosters creativity and feels calm and nurturing. I throw a lot of dinner parties and regular parties in our space, and love to have people over. My community inspires me!

This story is in partnership with Shinola, whose #RollUpOurSleeves campaign supports women like you who are making a real difference. What did you think of the pieces we shot you with?

My favorite piece was the moon necklace, as it’s a totem that represents the essence of my company: to slow down and look at the big picture. It’s simple and elegant, as are all the NASA images we choose to work with, and it’s a universal symbol that represents space, our relationship with the universe and this romantic feeling we all have when we stare at the moon at night. Whether we are in love or not, we feel this majestic connection with the universe and we can remember we, too, are love.

Did you have a mentor in the classic sense?

I don’t have a classic mentor, but instead, countless role models who have inspired me, whether they were TED talks or women, women of color who have spoken out, who have dared to defy and stand out. They’ve all inspired me to follow my own path.

You find your own way; you have to trust that. Fear is good. Don’t try to silence it, instead, listen to it. You will find your way when you dare to strip yourself of all the conditioning that makes you run your life on autopilot. When you find yourself lost, embrace the solitude. It can guide you and empower you to move forward. The best mentors and guides I have are the lessons I’ve learned from women and men that I have met on my own journey.

So many of us want to give back, but struggle to find ways to do that while staying on top of our own lives. How do you interpret “giving back” and how do you find the energy and time to do it?

First, you have to give yourself the chance to know who you are and what you stand for. I think we need to heal on a personal level before we give back, so first, figure out how to survive, how to thrive and, as you do, create a system that can also help others.

For me, I’ve found that I feel whole when I’m of service to someone or to a cause. When I started Slow Factory, the idea was simple: Can I wrap people with images of our earth and universe on the most sustainable and luxurious silk to help them connect with their existence? While doing that, I wanted to connect people to human rights and environmental causes and create an actual measurable impact. It was a crazy idea that was supposed to be a side project — an art experiment — and that resulted in a company.

To turn this into concrete advice, I would say: Think of the entire ecosystem of the product you are creating. To make an impact, or to “give back,” you need to understand that everything you make returns to the earth as food or as poison. “Giving back” can mean that you find a way to turn waste into energy, or to turn profit into action. Everything counts.

What do you miss about having a boss and what do you not miss?

I miss nothing at all about having a boss. I love my freedom. I love being my own boss. I think that, at first, I missed being told what to do. But once I got over the fear of getting started, and created a productive set of patterns and a creative schedule, I could never go back to a position guided by someone else’s goals.

To people who feel frozen and unsure of their path forward, what’s the most important question they should ask themselves?

Who is feeling frozen? Which part of you? What are you afraid of? List your fears, sit down with them, take them to lunch and listen to them: They are showing you where to heal and grow to move forward. Take time to go within yourself and to listen to your pain. You know where you need to go, you just need to listen to yourself.


Lena Imamura and Sas Simon

Founders of NAME GLO, @nameglo

There’s been a lot of conversation in recent years about what it means to be a “female entrepreneur,” and what it takes to get there. Do you like this narrative? Do you feel like you “fit” it?

We wrestle with this one a bit, because by calling out our gender it feels like we are diminishing what we do. Almost like saying, “Wow, you run a business AND you’re a girl!” It feels degrading. We are entrepreneurs, plain and simple, regardless of the fact that we are women. However, at the same time, we do celebrate that we have entered a male-dominated field and found success. It feels special and celebratory to bring a feminine edge to the world of neon.

Ultimately, what this little seed of an idea has blossomed into so far has nothing to do with us being women who run a business. Then again, it’s nice that the recent attention given to female entrepreneurs has opened up doors and cohorts for us that would have been harder to open three to five years ago.

What parts of your daily routine have you not always done but now deem critical? What parts have you had to let go of?

We’ve both had to step outside our comfort zones several times. Running a small but mighty business means there are a lot of jobs and tasks that need to get done that are outside our world of expertise. We handle everything from client relations to PR to designing to accounting. We wear a gajillion hats a day. We’ve both had to make room for all of this in our schedules. We take calls in the most unlikely of places and work less than ideal hours to fit it all in.

It’s not as glamorous as it might seem. As far as our daily routines go, we’re still workshopping. We’ve created many processes that we’ve scrapped or changed. One thing that comes to mind is we used to text each other all day long and it became hard to keep track of decisions, so we agreed to limit work texts to time-sensitive matters and set up a system in Slack for streamlining communication and ensuring that our phones aren’t constantly blowing up! Little changes like that make a huge difference.

How does your work environment affect you and how have you learned to control and manage it?

It’s safe to say that when work is stressful it bleeds into our non-work lives, so we always wrestle with work-life balance. If anyone has any tips for business owners, send them our way. The one thing that we remind each other of — especially when the other person is super busy or crazed — is that the main goal of our line of work is to light up people’s lives, both literally and figuratively. We try to find moments once in a while to just pat each other on the back and say, “Hey, today was really cool,” rather than always getting caught up in the minutiae of what’s right in front of us. We’ve also incorporated a moment to share celebrations in our weekly meetings which has been really nice. We are all about celebrating here.

This story is in partnership with Shinola, whose #RollUpOurSleeves campaign supports women like you who are making a real difference. What did you think of the pieces we shot you with?

The great thing about the collection in general is, despite our totally different tastes when it comes to jewelry, we both found common ground with it. Perhaps because it feels both timeless and modern. We both particularly loved the silver cuff that Lena wore.

Did you have a mentor in the classic sense?

We don’t have one specific mentor, but rather several people we look to for guidance or inspiration. We both have really strong, supportive partners, which is a nice added bonus. Also we try to be as much of a support system for one another as possible. Since we both do wildly different things within the company, it’s easy to lend an ear or be a pillar for the other person if they are having a hard day or challenging moment.

So many of us want to give back, but struggle to find ways to do that while staying on top of our own lives. How do you interpret “giving back” and how do you find the energy and time to do it?

We give back financially by trying to involve NAME GLO in as many charitable pursuits as we can realistically take on. It’s important to us to make the moment shine for all occasions, and it’s particularly special when we can make an important cause shine. We loved working with Man Repeller on our B(.)(.)BS collaboration for International Women’s Month; all proceeds went toward Planned Parenthood.

In addition to that, we really try to help or mentor other people who want to start their own businesses. We always try to make ourselves available for a call or a coffee if someone needs to chat through an idea with us or wants to pick our brains. We know how helpful those conversations have been and continue to be for us, so we want to pay it forward.

What do you miss about having a boss and what do you not miss?

The biggest challenge about working for ourselves is carving out enough time. We both could do NAME GLO — and NAME GLO only — 24 hours a day, especially because there is so much to be done. When you work for yourself, it’s hard to “leave the office” at 6 p.m. and not take your work home with you. It does help to have a business partner because, in a sense, we each consider the other to be our boss. We keep each other accountable, which is great and something we wouldn’t necessarily do if we were on our own.

On the flip side, it’s really lovely to take on projects and clients that please us. It’s nice being able to control who we work with. Life is short, we’re here to have a good time, and if it feels like a project may not be leaning in that direction we have the power to say, “You know what, this isn’t for us.” That feels pretty powerful.

To people who feel frozen and unsure of their path forward, what’s the most important question they should ask themselves?

The first question that comes to mind is to ask yourself whether you’re passionate about your pursuit, and why? Because if you’re not, you might not have the willpower to push through the tough times. That doesn’t mean you should blindly pursue your passions, either. Our culture often celebrates the unicorns in the world that have risked everything, gone all-in and found financial success. We don’t hear about the hundreds of thousands of people who modeled those risk-takers and now have failed businesses.

The “why” may be the most important question. What makes you fulfilled? What are you willing to do to get it? The answers to these questions are the keys. By thinking about what fulfills you, you aren’t reaching aimlessly for the stars, you’re recognizing what makes you whole. For some people, they want to own a business so that they can make their own schedule and spend more time with their friends. But if spending time with friends is the goal, then you could get a barista job at a cool coffee shop with a flexible schedule and your friends can hang out with you all day long. There’s nothing wrong with that, but starting a business from the ground-up may not fit into that particular driver. If you can get clear and specific about what drives you and then match your pursuit to feed that drive, you’re less likely to give up.

For us and NAME GLO, we recognized that we are service-oriented people-pleasers who love beautiful art and neon. So we are endlessly fulfilled by the delight on people’s faces when they first light-up their neon creation. It never gets old. And we’re willing to work around the clock to make those moments special.


Emma Straub

Author and founder of Books Are Magic

There has been a lot of conversation in recent years about what it means to be a “female entrepreneur” and what it takes to get there. Do you like this narrative? Do you feel like you “fit” it?

I’m all for whatever gets people to do things that excite them. I don’t feel like a traditional entrepreneur because I sort of fell sideways into owning a bookstore, but I do go out of my way to support small (and especially) female-owned businesses. This doesn’t really answer your question, does it? I guess when I think of a female entrepreneur, I think of a bold, confident person, and so, yes, I think I fit the bill.

What parts of your daily routine have you not always done but now deem critical? What parts have you had to let go of?

Well, I keep drastically changing my life: having a baby, having another baby, opening a bookstore. So there are many, many things I’ve had to let go of, such as eating well, exercising, doing my other, main job (writing)…the list goes on and on. My store, Books Are Magic, is only three months old, though, so I think a lot of that (I sure hope) will normalize soon.

This week, I’ve started washing my face again (truly, this is how low I’ve sunk) and now I have the skin of a baby and it’s wonderful. So, you know, one thing at a time. As for what is now critical, I would say that writing things down continues to be the only true way for me to remember anything at all.

How does your work environment affect you and how have you learned to control and manage it?

My work environment used to just be me sitting in a silent room. Now I have two work environments: that room, which is very rarely silent, and the bookstore, which is never silent at all. I actually love having an “office” life. It’s so enriching and inspiring to be around our booksellers and our customers all day long. It can be tiring, but the rewards are immense.

This story is in partnership with Shinola, whose #RollUpOurSleeves campaign supports women like you who are making a real difference. Did you connect with any of the pieces from this shoot?

Now that I’m constantly in motion between my house and the store, with so little time to write, my little Shinola notebook is my most important companion. I need to have a place to actually write things down because, unless it’s on paper, I can’t/won’t remember. I love that the notebooks feel solid and well-made, and that it can stand up to being tossed around in my bag amongst all the crushed up animal crackers and goldfish.

Did you have a mentor in the classic sense?

I have two bookstore mentors: my friend Christine Onorati, who owns WORD bookstores in both Brooklyn and Jersey City, and Ann Patchett, empress and queen, who is of course a best-selling novelist and the co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville. I met Christine many years ago through her store, and my husband and I rely on her hugely for advice on a daily basis, especially when we were figuring out how to open. I met Ann many years ago as well, first by following her around a party, saying hello and then writing her a fan letter. She wrote back. It’s love.

So many of us want to give back, but struggle to find ways to do that while staying on top of our own lives. How do you interpret “giving back” and how do you find the energy and time to do it?

Right now, I feel that the bookstore is how we’re giving back to our community. We’re providing a necessary service, a meeting place, a community gathering space, a place open to everyone, a baby zone, a kid zone, an intellectual zone, etc. My husband and I decided to open the bookstore because our local indie closed, and we knew that the neighborhood needed it. It sounds crazy, maybe, because it’s such an enormous, life-altering endeavor, but we immediately knew that we were the ones to do it.

What do you miss about having a boss and what do you not miss?

I haven’t had a boss in a long time, though I do get paid by my publisher and therefore do think of them as my boss in a certain way. I used to work as a personal assistant, and I miss seeing that boss on a regular basis, just because I love him. I think my husband is my boss, and I’m his. We both tell each other what to do all day long. Owning a bookstore is an immense amount of work, but the reason we’re enjoying it is because we’re good (in very different ways) at the work. My husband is good with organization and detail, I’m good with the customers and the writers and the publicity.

To people who feel frozen and unsure of their path forward, what’s the most important question they should ask themselves?

What do you actually love? I feel really lucky that my husband and I are able to do this thing together — I would ask people what they feel lucky doing. There’s always a way in. Money and time are always difficult to come by, and not everyone has the privilege to make a huge leap, but once you’re enmeshed in a community, the leap doesn’t seem so scary. Move toward things that you find enlivening and soul-expanding. As far as I can tell, it’s the only way.

Photos by Edith Young.

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  • Julie

    Loved this: “Money and time are always difficult to come by, and not everyone has the privilege to make a huge leap, but once you’re enmeshed in a community, the leap doesn’t seem so scary. Move toward things that you find enlivening and soul-expanding.”

    … I’m right at that point in figuring out what I want to do next by simply inching my way into the things that feel right, whether it’s randomly attending a food & wine conference or starting to write again. Sometimes it’s like….why am I doing this?? But if it makes you feel more like yourself, no need to even ask “why”.

    • Totally feel you on that. I’ve never had a clear picture of what I want my life to be nor have I found the one career pursuit or *calling* that feels like it’s meant to be. That wide open expanse of possibility can feel paralyzing sometimes, so lately I’ve been telling myself to simply do something, just one thing every day, that moves me in a direction that feels right.

      Also love how you phrased it at the end, that “if it makes you feel more like yourself, no need to even ask why.”

  • Adrianna

    Emma Straub! I knew I recognized the name “Books are Magic.” I purchased a ticket to Peter Souza’s (sold out!) book event in November

  • K. So… how can I hang out with Emma?

  • Sarah Mårtensson

    Planning to move to another part of the world but I’m soooo scared. This is exactly what I needed to hear (read)

    “What are you afraid of? List your fears, sit down with them, take them to lunch and listen to them: They are showing you where to heal and grow to move forward. Take time to go within yourself and to listen to your pain. You know where you need to go, you just need to listen to yourself.”

  • Chelle

    Ah–I remember Lena and Céline from the MR Girls Night Community Event..thanks for highlighting these badass women again xx