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Outsider Entrepreneurs: Overlooked Lessons on Creating Value for Companies of All Sizes

By Mary Godwyn

In my research, I’ve uncovered something that might sound controversial to some: women, especially minority women, provide examples of better entrepreneurship. That is to say, because of their gender and minority status, they are more likely to be highly innovative and they are more likely to direct their business practices and profits toward social good. Though these findings are based on a small sample size, they are consistent with the opinions of major economists including Lawrence Summers, Joseph Stiglitz, and Amartya Sen, and considerable empirical evidence. (Kristof and WuDunn 2009, Crittenden 2009: 121–129)

The minority women whom I’ve studied are entrepreneurs, not merely business owners. They are also visionaries—resourceful outsiders who have had years of practice and generations of examples of actively creating alternatives to the conventional. To survive in hostile environments, they simply have to think of novel solutions. As Audre Lorde famously asserted, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never allow us to bring about genuine change.” (Lorde 2001:23)

The entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed provide practices and insights that can be central to developing new and better ways of understanding business and entrepreneurship. The global financial crisis exposed the greed and avarice of top-heavy, homogeneous, corporate bureaucracies and has created the necessity for different definitions of successful business. We need new narratives of success and new images of social heroes. Provided below is an example of how minority women entrepreneurs integrate personal and social values into their business practices:

Judi Henderson-Townsend and Mannequin Madness:
“We have the Perfect Body for You to Buy or Rent”

Judi Henderson-Townsend, an African-American woman with dreadlocks and an authoritative presence, is a mannequin liquidator. She recycles mannequins from national retailers, then rents and sells them to customers all over the U.S. and Canada; she describes her innovative enterprise as a “unique business niche.” A green business based in Oakland, California, Mannequin Madness has won numerous awards, including those from the EPA and Intel, and has been featured on CNN and in Fortune Small Business. These endorsements give Mannequin Madness credibility and legitimacy, but Henderson-Townsend explains that she still works hard to compensate for her outsider status:

So few of our customers are African-American. I could probably count on two hands the number I’ve had in the six years I’ve been in business. Think about it. In the course of a day, how many Black-owned businesses do you see? ... You still have a long way to go before an Anglo does business with an African-American. You have to be conscious to make it comfortable for them. There can be no question or doubt about your professionalism. I can’t make a mistake. White men from Texas can make mistakes. ...

I learned I had to watch my language. I used to call my business “wacky.” It has been drilled in my head from an early age that I have to be twice as good as my white counterparts. I had to realize that it’s not wacky for me to be the best at what I’m doing.

The minority women interviewed here walk a fine line. On the one hand, they are outsiders, and that’s good: what they have to offer is an under-represented, and therefore novel, perspective, product or service. On the other hand, in order to make clients and customers feel comfortable, they must present themselves as normative, knowledgeable, confident professionals—as insiders. Their business motives are both traditional—most of them use their businesses to generate profit, and progressive—they generate profit in unique ways that have a positive social effect. During the entrepreneurial process, they remain cognizant of both the social and economic impact of their business decisions. Henderson-Townsend explains:

I didn’t start this business because I am an environmentalist. But I began to understand that there is an important environmental component that needed to be communicated. Many of the mannequins that we have would have been thrown into a landfill because when stores no longer need them, they just want to toss them out. But first of all, it costs stores money to throw them away because they have to have these big dumpsters. Secondly, it’s just not an environmentally sound thing to do, to put something that doesn’t biodegrade in a landfill. So that’s the message I communicate when I make contact with store staff. ... There is an economic benefit and a socially conscious component as well. And I convey that in a way that I am not begging. That they understand, I am not a charity and “poor me” kind of thing. ... Part of the reason we won the Environmental Protection Award was because we were able to quantify how many mannequins we have saved from going into a landfill, what impact that’s having and even to show that people who might never buy a mannequin from us will still benefit from us being in business.

It is common for the minority women interviewed here to be modest about their innovative contributions and also to establish that they are normative business owners, that they are regular people. For instance, Henderson-Townsend rejects the label of environmentalist, but not only is Mannequin Madness a green business; Henderson-Townsend is very innovative in applying green principles to various aspects of her enterprise. Building on the environmental benefit of recycling mannequins, Henderson-Townsend has branched out and also recycles packing material:

We are also a point where people can drop off their Styrofoam peanuts and packing material. We recycle those, too. People drop them off, and we use them to pack our mannequins. Once again, I started that not because I am so noble, but I was trying to cut costs. It costs a lot of money to buy shipping material. But people are willing to bring theirs here at no cost to us. And [customers] are glad they’re doing a good thing.

Here again, Henderson-Townsend attributes her environmentalism to practicality rather than nobility—she wants to cut costs—but what business doesn’t? She implements a socially conscious innovation and, like every entrepreneur in our study, seamlessly and successfully couples economic and social benefit.

But what about when there is a conflict between values and profit? The prospect of alienating a big client can be especially daunting to a small venture—a loss of one or two big clients can mean the loss of the entire business. Henderson-Townsend describes a situation where she had to decide whether to voice her values regarding racial diversity, even if she might offend a client and jeopardize a big sale:

This is something I am very proud of. We had a customer doing a catalog of lingerie, and they wanted eight mannequins. But all the mannequins they selected were Anglo. Well, I knew for a fact—I have a friend who owns a clothing store, and she sold some of their lingerie, and she’s African-American. So I suggested to them, might you want to have one mannequin of color? And they hadn’t even thought about it. And then, once they were aware, they bought several mannequins of color. And this customer ended up being a great client to me, and it really was a conscious effort for me to mention it to them. Before that, my husband said to me, “Look, just take the money. Don’t try to tell them how to do business.” But they need to at least be aware that we, too, want to be seen as objects of desire, to be represented. Here, they’re going to do this whole catalog and not have one face of color? So they ended up buying an Asian mannequin, an African-American, and one that looks Latina. But, I thought, if I hadn’t been there at that moment to say that, they wouldn’t have thought about it. So I’m just doing what I can in my own little corner of the world, whether it’s being the unexpected person showing up at a technology fair—because who thinks an African-American woman with dreadlocks would be there? Or telling people that mannequins come in different colors and sizes.

One reason that Henderson-Townsend made the decision to voice her values and risk the sale was that she did not see it as an either/or choice; she perceived it as a both/and possibility. Her husband’s perception of the situation was that either Henderson-Townsend would prioritize her values or prioritize the money from the sale. His perception is marked by rigid boundaries between two discrepant and discrete outcomes. But Henderson-Townsend thought that she could have both, and that by cultivating a relationship with the client based on her values, she might not only get the money from this particular sale, she might also gain a long-term client—and that’s what happened. Because Henderson-Townsend perceives her business as an extension of herself, imagining that both desired outcomes might be merged together and accomplished was easier for her than for her husband. Additionally, Henderson-Townsend does not make a distinction between herself and her business. It feels natural to her to integrate her personal and social values with her business practices and create an economically thriving culture that reflects who she is. She is her business, and she describes her business as the relationship among her product, her employees, her customers, and her investors. In fact, Henderson-Townsend believes the tie that binds them altogether is the culture she creates through her principles and values:

Sometimes we put a nice little message in the mannequin boxes so when the customer opens them, they read it, and it makes them happy. It’s part of our whole culture. That is part of communicating. You’re always communicating all the time. The more consistent you are, the better it is for everybody. Customers have a better understanding of who you are and what you stand for. When you get to the point when you have investors, they, too, can see what you stand for. And employees—you know they feel like, OK, if I’m working for this company, these are some of the principles they stand for. Everything we do should be consistent in that. And not like a canned kind of mission statement. I’m not looking for that. But really something conveying the message of who you are, what your values are, and what you represent.

Matthew Stewart writes: “Anyone who has studied Aristotle will know that ‘values’ aren’t something you bump into from time to time during the course of a business career. All of business is about values all of the time” (2006). It is only when we pretend we are not connected to other people and that larger social concerns do not affect us as individuals, that we allow business decisions their own autonomous sphere.

References

Crittenden, Ann. 2001. The Price of Motherhood. NY: Metropolitan Books.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press.

Kristof, Nicholas D. and Sheryl WuDunn. 2009. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Stewart, Matthew. 2006. “The Management Myth,” The Atlantic. Accessed on August 3, 2009.