Why We Give Our Girls Legos (You Have the Right to Build Something Big)

A conversation between Laura Close (Women’s Intelligence Project) and Jennifer Barcelos, co-founder of Namastream.

Laura: There came a point in the past year when I realized that most of my four-year-old daughter’s same age boy friends had legos. The real ones — small and complex. We had none. Around that time, I also heard a great podcast describing the importance of free lego play and the development of the creative brain. The ah-ha moment had me reaching for my phone and furiously 1-clicking Legos on Amazon as though my child’s future college degree hung in the balance.

We do our best to encourage our girls to stay connected to all types of building, experimenting, and problem solving because we know it results in great self-esteem as they age into confident adult women.

Growing girls into adult women who innovate requires early confidence building because so many complicated forces (that comprise structural sexism) pull us away from generating important solutions and building the container to launch those solutions.

As adults, we see that when women lead and found businesses, when women take their products and projects to market, a whole new set of social barriers arise, not unrelated to the ones we face as girls.

Jennifer: Yes, as the female founder of a software startup, I built a platform that allows wellness entrepreneurs, many of whom are also women, to build and scale their practices online. In the process of taking my product to market and seeking to scale my own business, I’ve been routinely warned by established, traditional investors that my company looks dangerously like a “lifestyle business” (a term that generally means you’re playing too small and therefore unworthy of investment).

Being a “lifestyle business” is code among traditional, established investors — it communicates that you are interested in generating wealth for yourself first and foremost and that the business isn’t set up to scale. I’ve been warned to take calculated actions to avoid the appearance of a lifestyle business because the traditional, established networks of investors have one goal: to scale your company in a way that maximizes profit for them.

Fair enough.

But like many entrepreneurs, I am building something that I believe needs to exist in the world. My clients and customers have validated that this product needs to exist. Unlike many companies in the startup ecosystem, our customers actually pay us a monthly subscription fee to use our software. In the absurd landscape of the startup world, this is often considered a liability.

We are focused on acquiring paying customers (and serving those customers well in order to keep them around), rather than paying to onboard as many free users as possible in some attempt at a market land grab. The insane, yet conventional, ethos is grow NOW. Faster. FASTER! Figure out how to make money later. If you can…

I want to build a business on my own terms and on my own timeline that demonstrates its value from the start. I want to create something with a legacy.

What we often forget about the gold rush is, that while a small number of 49ers struck it rich, most left the Sierra foothills empty-handed. The real, lasting wealth was built by the entrepreneurs who sold dry goods and tools to the miners. Want proof? Just research the history of those Levi’s you’re wearing.

Laura: The funny thing is that I hold you in such high esteem, the way you graduated from law school and went on to have your first child while teaching yourself the software and startup scene, designing and launching a successful company with a global client base.

It really upset me to have your successful, smart business devalued so quickly by the traditional, established networks because a) I knew if it was happening to you, it could happen to anyone, and b) it seemed like so much help — mentoring, resources, access — was on the other side of those potential investment agreements.

So, if everyone knows that we have a big leadership gap in the numbers of women successfully scaling their businesses, female founders and women who take on other high-level decision making roles, then why are women-led companies being excessively, pejoratively labeled with the term “lifestyle business” by the traditional, established investor networks?

Jennifer: Well, the way we build our businesses doesn’t always look good to them, but here’s the logical fallacy of the traditional, established investor argument against us:

Almost always, we are building something that will outlast an angel- or venture-backed startup in the marketplace. We are more likely to survive because the market dictates our offerings. If people (or other businesses) weren’t willing to pay actual money for our goods and services, we wouldn’t be able to exist.

Building a business, creating a product that includes a loyal customer base of working people, does not mean that I am being short-sighted or that I am in any way refusing to go big and make good on my ambition. In fact, it decreases the risk of losing the investors’ money. Sure, they could invest in other, perhaps even less risky projects. Real estate. Mutual funds. But investing in women-led companies also brings in a broader social impact. Make money and change the world. It baffles me that so many investors have this binary approach: unicorn vs. nothing. 1,0.

Laura: That’s such a punishing message for investors and mentors to communicate to you.

Jennifer: Well, it actually feels more insane to me than punishing. I’m building something so much bigger that I could ever do on my own. I never built a lifestyle business. I run an actual corporation. We employ people. We onboard new customers. We pay taxes. There are thousands of people on our platform buying access to digital content from hundreds of countries. Sure, we’re small, but we’re mighty. And we’re growing. And by growing, I mean that we make more actual money this month than the previous month.

My business looks like a lot like the face of female entrepreneurship. The fact that I serve small businesses shouldn’t be seen as a mark against my viability (“They’re more like consumers than businesses aren’t they?” I was asked). Or that I’m married (common advice: Don’t wear the ring when you pitch). Or that I have a 3-year-old (amazing how many times that comes up within moments of meeting an investor).

In order to grow my business to its logical next level, I don’t need pressure to abandon my client base or overhaul my personality (actual feedback: Learn to be more confident. Speak louder. Be careful not to come across as so feminine). I like my personality. My leadership style is quieter. I also deeply value humility.

Like the majority of female founders, I need people who want to partner with me, be interested in how I’ve already come this far, and collaborate with me to resource the growth of my vision.

In this journey, I have found a handful of these kinds of people. Maybe even close to a dozen so far. Mentors. Investors. Allies. They’re out there and they’re amazing and we need to grow their ranks into an army. Because, as female founders, we have to wade through a shit storm of narcissistic people to find the true mentors and allies. Frankly, my own stories pale in comparison to some of the whispered stories other female founders have confided in me.

Laura: So here’s the thing about structural sexism — a lot of people don’t believe it exists. Or that it’s over, a relic of the 1950s. But it turns out that the closer you get to big power (cash allocation, decision-making, gatekeepers), the faster and harder it shows back up. The onslaught of structural oppression can knock you off your game, it inflames the early (unasked for) lessons that girls learn through active and passive social cues — that girls are less worthy, less intelligent, less admired, less powerful when it comes to thinking and leading...

You know what? A few nights ago we gave my daughter a fun challenge. We wanted to let her little four-year-old self know that she can take up as much space as she wants with her creations. She had out her big wooden blocks and we said, can you build a structure taller than yourself? It took her a few tries and we helped her along the way.

When she was done she was in love with what she had built. She had never previously imagined building something so big, she didn’t want to go to bed, she just wanted to hang out with her creation — modify it, play with it, decorate it (we let her stay up past bedtime).

There is a path forward, but it requires us to be intentional. About the messages we that send to our daughters and the messages that we send to ourselves. You don’t have to wait to be chosen. Choose yourself. Support one another. Dream bigger.


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