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Susan Defife

President of Womenconnect.com, Mclean, Virginia

Susan Defife heads up the leading source of news and community on women in business — Womenconnect.com. The site offers a variety of features catered to women business owners, including an updated news service, a directory of community leaders, and vibrant discussion groups.

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How did you know how to start a business? Who taught you how to do that?

To be honest, I always say this is sort of in my genes. Both of my grandfathers were entrepreneurs. My father is an entrepreneur. I knew nothing about how to run a business. But at the same time it was all I ever knew. I grew up with people who had their own businesses. Investors hate to hear this, but sometimes it’s just really instinct. I know the market. I know what the market needs. And everything I’ve done to run the business is around how do I meet those needs, because ultimately that’s how we’re going to make money — really being in tune with the market.

Some people have said have said that in the future technology will be the great equalizer. Do you agree with that?

It is already, from a couple of perspectives. The first being that if you are a business owner, for example, you can compete with anybody because you can do business worldwide, reach a very large audience, conduct e-commerce for very little money. So as a business owner it really allows you to compete on all levels. For somebody who is looking for a career in technology, there is a severe workforce shortage and we have to use the best minds we can. It doesn’t matter whether that mind belongs to a man or a woman, or a Martian quite frankly. It is really who can do the job and get it done. So from that standpoint, technology is an incredible equalizer.

Do you consider yourself a pioneer in business today?

I think we really were. It’s funny, I’m not sure that we really knew how much of a pioneer we were. But when I realized later that we really pre-dated the browser I started to really realize how early on we were out there. When I started talking to people about what it was we were going to be doing in 1994, they looked at me like I was nuts and had no idea really what it was we were trying to accomplish. And four or five years later, people are coming to me and saying, “Wow! This was really visionary. It took me awhile but I’m now ready to do this.” Part of the problem is that you have to be able to hold on until it catches on.

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How important is networking generally, and how important is it for you and your career?

Networking generally for our audience, for example, is extraordinarily important. Women are doing business by building relationships and the networking allows them to build the relationships and to build their businesses. There are so many connections. The old girls network, or the new girls network is incredibly powerful. It really allows you to refer one another to different business opportunities and I’ve really seen that in the last five years strengthen.

From my standpoint, I find it very, very effective. I network a little differently than I used to, it’s not strictly through women’s organizations, it’s really through a technology and media community, and again building the relationships and really looking at things from a standpoint of what do you need. “Here’s what I need and let’s figure out how we can get there together,” rather than, “Well what do I need and how can I give up as little as possible to get what I need?”

If a woman starting out today were going to be doing the same thing that you did, what would be easier and what would be harder for her?

Well the easiest thing is that a lot of us have made the mistakes already. It’s very easy to start looking at maybe a little more of a case study that says this path did not work for some of the others companies. But this path is working. It took us a little longer, all of us out there doing this, because we had to get through and make those mistakes. The other side of that, however, is that if you’re starting now you’re not a market leader. Because the others have already been there. So you can probably get there faster but you’re not a market leader.

Does the glass ceiling still exist? How are isms today? Are they gone, are they getting better, are they getting worse?

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In some industries the glass ceiling is very very strong. I think that’s why you see so many new women-owned businesses because women have decided that’s their best way around the glass ceiling. In other industries I think it’s really starting to fall away. In the new technology industry I don’t see a glass ceiling. But in some of the older entrenched industries it’s still very much there. As result there’s a real need for a lot of kinds of things that we do.

What about getting financial support for a start ups? Do women face excessive road blocks?

It’s interesting when we look at the statistics on women-owned business and how many there are and how many people they employ and how successful they are. Yet less than two percent of the venture capital money in this country goes to women owned business. That’s not a discrimination issue. That is a pipeline issue and an education issue. How did the investors know that the deals were there. How did the women owned business reach the investors — that’s where networking is incredibly important to getting to investors and to increase and the access to capital, and it’s also an education issue.

Women are not taught to talk about money and when you go talk to an investor, it’s about money. It’s not about the mission of the company, it’s about how are you going to make me money and what’s my return on this investment going to be, what’s my exit strategy? Those are things that we haven’t been taught to talk about and for the companies that get funded like us, we’re doing a lot of talking to women-owned businesses about here’s what you need to know in getting access to capitol, and I’m hoping that we’re going to be opening those doors for other women. There is a lot of money out there looking for good deals, and we really just need to increase the communication and open up that pipeline.

Another traditionally woman-centered question or problem has been balancing career and personal life. How have you struggled with that?

I’ve struggled with that a great deal and I don’t know that I’ve really won that battle because there are times when life is really out of balance and the business just consumes you. I think what I’ve come down to is that the bed isn’t always going to get made. In fact, it might never get made. The dishes might still be in the sink, but my children are only going to be around for a certain period of time. At some point there won’t be dishes in the sink to clean up. And while they are around, those things don’t matter. What matters is that the primary focus when I’m not doing business is them. And I try to set aside special days and special time when nothing else will interfere. There are plenty of times when it does, so I think that by not worrying about what doesn’t get done, and instead focussing on the things that are the most important, I’m most comfortable with where we are. I don’t feel that it’s completely in balance, but I’m comfortable with where we are.

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Have you ever felt like you had to choose between those two things?

The interesting thing is that I had my children in my early 20s, then started doing the career. If it were the other way around, I can tell you that it would be extremely difficult to have young children and do what I’m doing. My children are teenagers now, so there’s a little more independence on their end. I don’t know that it’s something you could do with very young children. Women do, and they do it successfully. I’m not sure that I could do it. I have to tell you that having a family while you are doing this is an incredibly good positive anchor because there is always something there to remind you what’s really important in the end. When somebody says to me, “What’s your greatest accomplishment in life?” I always say its how extraordinarily proud I am of the people my children have become. Nothing else will ever top that.

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