Girlboss. Boss babe. Boss lady. These buzzwords flood our Instagram feeds alongside beautifully branded photos and Pinterest-perfect workspaces. Pop culture hasn’t embraced the working woman like this since World War II when women joined the workforce and got their Rosie the Riveter on. But this time, things are noticeably different – besides the obvious reasons. Things are more polished. More digital. More about optics than getting our hands dirty. The rise of Instagram and branded content have given way to a new type of feminine workforce: the female entrepreneur.
Female entrepreneurs are, undeniably, a hot commodity right now. Venture capitalists, corporations, and media conglomerates all want in: A chance to sell their service, product, or spot to any of the 11.6 million women-owned businesses in the U.S. As millennial women, we know best of all what female entrepreneurship looks like, don’t we? Moon Juice morning smoothies, meetings at coffee shops with Carrara marble countertops, maybe even slipping into a luxurious pair of Lunya pajamas at the end of the night.
But here’s the problem.
Entrepreneurship existed long before Instagram infiltrated our culture and deemed it worthy. And you can bet it looked a lot different than the way it’s portrayed online today. The allure of being your own boss, setting your own hours, and running your own business is an easy sell – especially when it’s depicted as stress-free, fun, and photo-fresh at all times. But this idealized boss babe version of entrepreneurship is a far cry from its much less sexy, grittier roots.
This Instagrammable female entrepreneur culture, at its lowest vibration, can be an incubator for white feminism.
Growing up in the Washington D.C. area, I experienced entrepreneurship through the lens of an immigrant’s daughter. Back then, D.C. was not the hip city that it is today. The surrounding suburbs were home to a number of ethnic communities that, for the most part, remained pretty insular until the early 2000s. My high school was predominantly white, with a small mix of first-generation American students of color like myself. Due to our proximity to the nation’s capital, most of the white parents had prestigious, high-ranking government positions, while many of the brown, black, and Asian parents ran mom-and-pop shops, family-owned restaurants, dry cleaners, and gas stations. Moving to a foreign country, setting up shop, making sure your kids catch the bus to school every morning, followed by long days on your feet that often went deep into the night? That was entrepreneurship as I first saw it.
White women didn’t discover female entrepreneurship any more than Columbus discovered America. They merely gave it some beach waves and a Glossier finish.
Of course, immigrants are only one of several types of entrepreneur. There are countless paths, each with their own struggles, each with their own victories to celebrate. Entrepreneurship of any kind is a risky endeavor, whether you’re bankrolled by Google or live and work out of your mom’s garage until you hit the jackpot on Shark Tank. Yet female entrepreneurship as we know it paints a very different picture. It excludes women who don’t live and look like Gwyneth, and more often than not, women of color. But white women didn’t discover female entrepreneurship any more than Columbus discovered America. They merely gave it some beach waves and a Glossier finish.
Even with the best intentions and attempts at all-inclusive messaging, diversity and representation continue to be major blindspots for many female entrepreneur communities. It’s why the crowd was so homogenous at the beautifully branded networking event you attended, and why the last speaker panel you went to featuring successful female entrepreneurs only featured white women. It’s why this Instagrammable female entrepreneur culture, at its lowest vibration, can be an incubator for white feminism.
I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the major role Instagram has played in making female entrepreneurship accessible in recent years. Thanks to social media, we all have the same set of tools to self-educate, self-promote, and share information. And despite the much-discussed pitfalls like depression and low self-esteem from playing the comparison game, Instagram and Facebook are lifelines for thousands of female entrepreneurs, connecting them with communities of other women business owners and freelancers, and offering support and camaraderie in what can otherwise be a lonely pursuit. Social media gives us all the opportunity to put our best foot forward, for our Instagram feeds to serve as personal and professional highlight reels. We can showcase the best of our daily lives, brands, and visual stories. But with that comes a delicate responsibility: Knowing when being “on-brand” goes too far and actually becomes a source of exclusion. The boss babe culture in and of itself is exclusionary. By subscribing to this ideal, we’re perpetuating an unattainable level of perfectionism consisting of mid-century modern home offices, a leisurely morning ritual over $18 adaptogenic super smoothies, and a working woman’s wardrobe that transitions seamlessly from day to night. Gwyneth herself could never sustain that lifestyle, let alone a woman of color with a mortgage, student loan debt, and now the launch her own business.
By acknowledging that privilege – and any other privilege unique to our own lives – we open our eyes to the ways that female entrepreneurship elevates and speaks only to wealthy, white women.
White female entrepreneurship is long overdue for a rebrand. And cultural shifts don’t happen overnight. There is no quick way to dismantle the boss babe ideal and ensure its next evolution is more inclusionary, but we can start by opening ourselves up to its blind spots. We can remind ourselves that entrepreneurship is a creative endeavor, and its pursuit is a privilege. By acknowledging that privilege – and any other privilege unique to our own lives – we open our eyes to the ways that female entrepreneurship elevates and speaks only to wealthy, white women.
Then the real work begins, offline. For female entrepreneurship to become more inclusive, it means doing a lot more than posting an occasional photo of black women on Instagram, or sitting next to the one woman of color at your event for the photo op. It starts at home: You might not notice if all of your friends are white, but women of color do. You might not notice that you stick to predominantly white neighborhoods like Brentwood and Manhattan Beach, but women of color do. The same is true for all white women on your speaker panel, white boss ladies featured on your Instagram feed, and guests on your podcast. Women of color notice, and my hope is that now you will start noticing too.