Money and the Meaning of Life is the title of a book Jacob Needleman published in 1994. Needleman’s premise is that our obsession with money and materialism has eroded our aliveness, robbed us of our authenticity, and left us spiritually impoverished. I read this book many years ago, and was reminded of its lessons as I have reflected upon my conversations with women business owners over the past few weeks.
I had been preparing for our Business Matters program on women entrepreneurs . For some time, I have had the sense that there was much to learn from women in business that could change for the better the role that business plays in our world. What I found crystallized my intuition and sparked a passion to learn all I can and tell their stories to both men and women.
One of the most poignant lessons came from understanding the purpose these women had for starting their businesses. In no case did they tell me that they started the business so that they could make a lot of money. Their reasons varied a bit; however, in essence, they are the same. They started the business because they thought they could do something that was valuable. They started the business because they wanted to no longer participate in a system that was focused on money first and people second. They started the business so they could channel their passions into something they loved doing.
There is a sense that with this focus these women-owned businesses would not be successful. If success is only measured in terms of maximizing profits, perhaps that is true. Maximizing profits is a code word for making as much money as possible. These women did derive profits from their businesses. That is vital in a world where we are not self-sufficient and use money to secure the resources we need for a healthy life.
For them, though, success was measured in a broader context. Success came from how well they took care of their customers. Success, for them, is measured in how they felt about themselves at the end of the day. Success, for them, comes from knowing they are doing the right thing for their communities.
These qualities are amplified by one thing many of these women share – they are mothers. As a mother, they took care of a sick child through the night while everyone else slept. As a mother, they juggled the needs of all the members of the family. As a mother, they made things happen no matter what resources they had.
All of these qualities and more are what we say we want in those who lead and work in organizations, yet we don’t place a high value on what women, particularly mothers, bring. These qualities of care, determination and imagination are discounted when a woman applies for a bank loan to start her business. They are told their work experience as a “stay at home” mom isn’t relevant. I have to tell you after talking with these women entrepreneurs that that’s just plain wrong. There is no better experience than for leading a business than mom as ‘CEO’ of the family.
What I found in women led businesses can be a roadmap for how we can move from the devastating impact of consumption at all costs. The women I spoke with show us how collaborative work environments produce better long term results for everyone. It’s time for us men to go back to the drawing board with our beliefs about what business is about and take the lessons these women are clearly showing us.
Let me know your thoughts.