Nurture people, not products

The facts:

  • 97% of sewn products businesses are started by women.

  • 98% of sewn products businesses end up being owned by men.

What happened? Why does this happen?

This is one of those idle philosophical topics I discuss with other (female) designers and business owners. My pet theory is that women are too emotionally invested in their products; they see them as children, literally. Women literally interpret “birthing a business” in a biological context. Men are different. They’ll try anything within reason to see what sticks. If a product fails, they’re less likely to see product death akin to death of a child. Women will go to inordinate lengths to ensure the viability of their progeny; investing in a stillborn child that should have miscarried in the first trimester. Products are not children! Time and time again I’ve seen women make foolish choices. They’ll waste boatloads of money to produce an item in quantity in advance of orders because their idea is perfect. The reality is, many products have a face that only a mother could love; the rest of us think it is beyond dog ugly and just as worthless. Why must your image of yourself as the mother of your products be the summation of your worth? No self respecting woman would admit she lives through her children so why must so many women live through their products?

When I first came up with “nurture people, not products”, it was in response to internal moral outrage with a potential client. This man had decided to produce a line of products inspired by his muse which just happened to be the speed boat he’d just bought. No lie, his boat. I couldn’t believe that he thought his boat -a manufactured product– was worthy of worship to the extent that it became his muse and by extension, everyone else should worship the boat too. It’s one thing to make accessories for products but quite another to do what he was doing. I thought him morally bankrupt. He was the original inspiration for the quote.

Since then though, the quotation has greater implication than the initial context in which it was conceived. For me, it’s come to explain this whole biological relationship that women have to the expression of their ideas and that paradoxically, it is the greater nurturing characteristic of women that can be their downfall. While women can be better employers with regard to the welfare of their employees, this is a double edged sword. Your products need to sink or swim, these are not children. If the product dies, your child was not stillborn. You only had your period, not a full term birth. At worst it was a disappointing and depressing first trimester miscarriage worth mourning but for the sake of your other progeny, you have to move on rather than dwelling on your loss. Alternatively, imagine that every single one of your child/ideas survived. Do you have the emotional, physical and psychic energy to nurture every idea you’ve ever conceived -lifelong? There is a limit to how many children or ideas one can sustain and nurture. Men have no problem spilling their seed on infertile ground.

I understand why women do it. Most women start these businesses through passion. What is a consequence of passion? In a biological relationship, passion is (usually) consummated with progeny; a sum to the equation. Likewise, when women love, they can feel vulnerable. In a business, vulnerability is expressed by the insecurity or worry that others won’t buy their products. Women are exposed, unprotected, and left with justifying their passions to a cold heartless market. What if someone else doesn’t love the fruits of their passion? You have to realize that not everyone is going to like you or your child; that’s life, it doesn’t mean that your idea isn’t worth anything just because it doesn’t become the next biggest thing. If it doesn’t stick, let it die, grieve and move on.

Then, there’s the issue of raising the progeny. Women have the tendency to be protective and insular, their way is best. Most women do not identify with their technical and mechanical side and thus fail to see it but regardless, you’ll need to respect and value the need of things you do not understand well. Men are more likely to figure out a need and deal with it by hiring somebody with a needed skill set and having the company learn internally than a woman. Women tend to feel they own the process -they started it- that they know it best (how to sew something correctly for example) than they are to admit they need to hire someone (or buy a book from someone) who’s already figured it out. Women see that as threatening and if they need sewing or pattern help it must mean they’re not any good at being a designer. Somehow it should be like intuition or it’s not natural. Or, because it’s easy enough to be something they can do (an inwardly directed insult), it shouldn’t cost much to learn; the investment should be minimal. That is just pure silliness. Men have fewer problems paying for these things because they don’t equate their lack of knowledge akin to personal failure; they don’t equate this particular skill set as a measure of their intrinsic worth.

Then, there are other women who are self identified infovores who have to know everything before they can ever get under way but that is a trap too. If you had to know everything about being a mother before you ever became one, you’d never do it. You learn as you go, manufacturing is a process toward incremental goals but it’s not a destination unto itself -just like mothering. You can’t look too far in the future, comparing yourself with others who are a lot further down the road than you are. You will make mistakes. You must make mistakes. Mistakes mean progress. Everybody says they know this is true but they never believe it applies to them; they are the one exception to the rule. They more than anyone else can be certain. Somehow, they should be perfect enough, informed and educated enough, that failure won’t happen to them. One of the reasons men are more successful in business is because they fail more often. They try more often. They start something, it flops but they dust themselves off and try something else, learning lessons they’d never get otherwise. As I said before, men have no problem spilling their seed on infertile ground. You have to sow to reap. Men sow a lot more. With practical experience rather than research, they learn to find fertile ground.

Women can get into trouble when it comes to their muses too. Regardless of the boat example, I think men are less likely to attach to a muse. Personally, I think the latter is healthier. Women, particularly those with childrenswear lines, can over identify with their own children and the whole analogy just becomes too literal. I’ve known far too many women who were so inspired by their love for their children, that they tied up too much into the child’s involvement with the company. The biggest faux pas was making the child the fit model and as the child grew, having their stock size change to reflect the growth of their child. A line like this will never get off the ground with endless fit and sizing pattern iterations. The costs alone could be devastating.

I don’t believe we need to make trade offs in the goal of nurturing people vs products. In spite of their successes, I think men have also mis prioritized, mostly to the detriment of women, children, families and communities. I believe women can do a better job, it just boils down to priorities. Are you nurturing your products at the expense of people? If you won’t let an idea die that needed to go a long time ago, you’re guilty. If you don’t listen to people who are trying to help you, you’re guilty. If it’s advice you don’t like so you don’t listen, you’re guilty. It’s easy to make excuses and blame patriarchy for the turn of affairs but I don’t think it’s fair or true. Saying that the lack of women is due to discrimination, less opportunity or differing life choices just doesn’t cut it for me. If there were limited opportunities for women in this business, then how could so many be starting companies? Why aren’t women keeping and growing their companies? If women have always been the innovators, risk takers and entrepreneurs in this business, why do they bail?

In the end, the facts say it all. What say you? Why do men end up with our businesses?

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