Reprinted from Leaders on 01/28/2011. Click here to see original piece.

"Leading Every Day: Women Entrepreneurs Take the Helm"

In the wake of the global recession, renewing business growth is an urgent imperative. Now is the best time to take a fresh look at women-owned businesses. Far from being a niche market, they can be the tipping point for a global economic comeback. A study by the Center for Women's Business Research shows that the eight million women-owned enterprises in the U.S. have an annual economic impact of nearly $3 trillion dollars. They create or maintain more than 23 million jobs – 16 percent of all U.S. employment. Worldwide, women own or operate 25 percent to 33 percent of all private businesses, according to the World Bank. Women-owned enterprises grow faster than those owned by men and faster than businesses overall.

Still, hampered by economic, legal, and cultural obstacles, many women fail to increase the scale of their enterprises enough to trigger significant economic renewal. Role models, access to influential networks and capital, mentoring, confidence building – these are the concerns women repeatedly raise when they talk about growing their businesses. With the right support, they can address these concerns and be notably successful. "We seek to increase the number of market-leading companies run by women," says Maria Pinelli, Americas Director for Strategic Growth Markets at Ernst & Young. "We're committed to using Ernst & Young's vast network and depth of resources as the leading advisor to high-growth companies to jump-start the growth and success of these women-founded companies."

With that goal in mind, Ernst & Young's Entrepreneurial Winning Women® program provides outstanding women entrepreneurs with the opportunity to accelerate the growth of their businesses and realize the potential they envision for their companies. This annual competition and executive leadership program identifies a select group of high-potential female entrepreneurs and provides them with personalized one-on-one business insights, mentoring and insider access to strategic networks of established entrepreneurs, executives, advisors, and investors. Developed in the U.S. in 2008, Entrepreneurial Winning Women was launched in Indonesia in 2010 and is expected to launch in Australia, Brazil, Turkey, and several other countries in 2011 and 2012.

Shabnam Rezaei

"It is critical to help women entrepreneurs based on the sheer statistics and history of gender issues," says Shabnam Rezaei, one of the nine Entrepreneurial Winning Women selected in 2009 and the Co-Founder of Big Bad Boo Studios, a company that creates and distributes culturally diverse entertainment for children. Begun in 2007 with offices in New York and Vancouver, Big Bad Boo aired its first animated TV series, Mixed Nutz, on PBS and many other stations in 2010. Its new property, 1001 Nights, features a TV series, comic books, and multimedia products that will launch on Disney, Al Jazeera Children’s, and other channels. The company also produces DVDs, cartoons and related merchandizing, and has launched, a platform for distributing multilingual and multicultural products for children.

Rezaei believes that perhaps the biggest benefit of the Winning Women program was that it motivated her to scale up her company. "We have been encouraged to think bigger than ever, and I apply that mentality to the business every day now," she says. "We think about how can be extended to larger and different media. We think about our impact on children and how to extend our product line and services."

Rezaei started out as an entrepreneur by working nights and weekends while hanging on to her day job as head of professional services for the treasury and capital markets division at financial software solutions provider Misys. "I feel anyone can be an entrepreneur as long as they are willing to work hard for it and have the passion for their business," she says. "Without that, you are certain to fail. But you don’t need to be an all out risk-taker either. You can carefully plan and surround yourself with a good support system and slowly build up."

Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women program has given her a tremendous amount of support, Rezaei says. Describing her experience with the program as "transformational and inspiring," she credits it with having given her "incredible access to an amazing network of business minds, a large support and mentorship system, and substantial media and PR opportunities. I have had the chance to meet some of the world’s most renowned entrepreneurs and business leaders and learn from them. Among the Winning Women, I have made some great friends who are strong leaders in their industries, and together we now have a very supportive system." In the next few years, she hopes to launch at least two more shows and gain a large community of customers from different age groups who use for language, culture, and entertainment.

To entrepreneurs who are just starting out, Rezaei offers some valuable tips:

  • Hang on to your vision. "You certainly need to be persistent and completely convinced that your idea/product is the best thing since sliced bread," she says. "But you also need to vet that with the outside world, so you need to be realistic and, most important, have the ability to execute on the vision."
  • Take it easy. Rezaei points out that you don’t have to go all out right from the start: "Don't be afraid to tread lightly and test ideas out in smaller arenas. Rely on family, friends, and colleagues for advice, support, surveying, and testing."
  • Be open to change. Don't be afraid to think and experiment beyond your initial concept, Rezaei says. "Your business plan is never done. It keeps growing. You need to be flexible and adaptable and grow along with it to stay relevant."