If you’re a woman and you’re thinking about starting a business venture, you need to do whatever it takes to become tech-savvy first. And you need to go it alone, because business partnerships, like marriages, far too often end in acrimonious divorce.
That’s the advice of Frances Kweller, a successful entrepreneur who founded Kweller Prep, a test preparation and tutoring services provider in Forest Hills, N.Y. No doubt, Kweller has seen her fair share of partnerships that don’t work. In addition to operating her educational services business, Kweller has her own practice as a matrimony and divorce law attorney.
In an interview last week, I asked Kweller how important is it for women to be tech-savvy when they’re starting a business, and to what extent female entrepreneurs are handicapped by the fact that women in general don’t focus on technology in their educations to the extent their male counterparts do. Kweller said on a scale of 1 to 10, being tech-savvy is a solid 10:
As a woman, if you fail to take courses in technology or computer science, you must take something—you must learn how to successfully operate different devices before you start a business. It’s a critical component to your business. It’s also a very huge turn-off for prospective customers if they see that you’re not tech-savvy. So it’s very, very important that you have a technology background.
That being the case, I wanted to get a sense of how that meshes with Kweller’s strong feelings about how important it is to stay away from business partners. If a woman lacks technology expertise, is it not worth considering the option of having a business partner who is very tech-savvy in order to increase the odds of success? Kweller said absolutely not:
I think it’s much better for a woman to invest, borrow a couple of hundred dollars, and hire a tutor or someone who can train her in the areas where she’s lacking in technology. This way you can pay and go away. Having a business partner when you have a deficiency sounds like a good idea, but it is far from it. The worst thing that can happen, especially for a woman, is to have a partner who is tech-savvy, and she is in la-la land.
I asked Kweller if she was speaking from experience with regard to business partnerships. She said she was speaking from collective experience:
I have many friends who have opened their own businesses over the years. The ones who entered into partnerships spent more time dissolving the partnerships, losing money, taking one another to court, than they did focusing on and growing their business. I have many examples that come to mind of partnerships that started with good intentions, but went sour. Just as the divorce rate is at 50 percent, I would say so are successful partnership rates. It’s very rare that you see long-term, successful partnerships. A startup involves a lot of time, emotion, and heartache, so I would not look for a business partner because you’re lacking in one or two areas. Hire someone and learn it yourself.
Assuming there are exceptions to every rule, I asked Kweller if there are any cases at all in which she would advise a woman to have a business partner. She minced no words in her response:
In the early years of a business venture, the answer is undoubtedly no, absolutely not. You need to learn from your mistakes. You need to learn how to run your own business. The most successful people I know, know every single aspect of their business in and out. That’s why their business is successful.
Kweller advises women to “learn not to be soft, and get to the point to get what you want,” so I asked her how she would advise women to go about learning how not to be soft. She responded by explaining that there’s a problem with how women speak:
When women present, they can say the same thing that a man says, but for some reason a woman will say it softly; a man will say it firmly. I would say that’s one of the reasons why men get paid more than women for the same work. Women have to train themselves to speak in a more assertive way. They have to practice—really practice. Colleges and schools offer public speaking courses. Learn how to present—you have to know how to present yourself. A woman who gives a very soft handshake, or who doesn’t stand when someone new comes into the room, is a huge turn-off, immediately. Women, more than men, experience this. A man will just know to shake someone’s hand properly; a woman won’t.
Finally, I asked Kweller what gender-specific attributes women tend to have that make them especially well-positioned to be successful entrepreneurs. Her response:
Women have the gift of being able to multitask, and they can make it look so easy. They can juggle, and they can wear so many different hats. A woman, intuitively, is very nurturing, very caring, very loving. Customers feel that. Customers know when you genuinely care about them, and about their best interests. This is the gift that a woman possesses, and she should use that gift in the business world. Instead of hiding from it, she should embrace that nurturing aspect. She should nurture her business, and nurture her customer base. A woman, especially in the early years in business, should do follow-ups, she should listen to the concerns of her customers. Women have that gift of patience and listening. Any person, but especially a woman, has to remember that the early years of the business are the make-or-break. Those are the critical years. That’s when she has to really treat every customer, whether it’s a large-ticket or small-ticket customer, as if he or she is the top customer.