The march of female entrepreneurs can reshape the world.
Twenty years ago, Volvo asked an all-female group to design a car. The result was dubbed Your Concept Car, or YCC: a gull-wing hybrid coupe that comprised several ingenious innovations. The designers observed that the only time they ever lifted the hood of a car was to replace the wiper fluid, a needless hassle – so on the YCC, the fluid was filled next to the fuel. Both inputs used a ball valve, removing the need for caps – which the designers, to a woman, considered an annoyance.
The team made more changes to traditional car design. They observed that, on many journeys, cars’ rear seats went unused. They redesigned them as cinema-style flip seats, which could be lowered when required, creating a large rear storage space that the driver could access easily from the gull-wing door, without opening the tailgate.
The gearshift was located on the steering column and the parking brake electronically integrated into the control panel, thus freeing up space for a notebook computer, phone and – yes – a handbag, next to the driving seat. Seat pads, carpets and detailing came in eight colorways and could be swapped at will when dirty, or simply for a change. The exterior was finished in a Teflon-style coating, which repelled dirt and cleaned effortlessly. The YCC was fitted with run-flat tires, thus avoiding the need to jack up the car on the highway to fix a puncture. On a key press, the nearest door or tailgate opened, so the car could be entered while the driver was carrying things.
The changes to convention were, like all great innovations, obvious once someone had suggested them. Yet it took a deliberately-convened group of women to do it. “The hallmark of a good idea is that people ask why this hasn’t been done before,” Tatiana Butovitsch Temm, YCC communications manager, remarked at the time.
Imagine what the world might look like if more businesses were launched, and led, by women. Indeed, we might find out in a few years. In 2022, almost half (47%) of US entrepreneurs starting businesses were women, according to HR platform Gusto, compared with just 29% before the pandemic, a huge shift. In the UK, in the same year, women created a record number of new companies.
The numbers are inspiring. Women are renowned for creating products or services that meet specific or unmet needs in their community. As the YCC shows, they bring different perspectives, leadership styles and experiences that can drive innovation and growth in a range of industries.
When Volvo polled its customers on the YCC innovations, it found them popular with women – and men. “If you meet the expectations of women, you exceed the expectations of men,” Marti Barletta, a US expert on female consumers, said at the outset of the project. Diversity in design – as in so many other strands of business – is a passport to commercial success and customer value.
There is work still to be done to dismantle the barriers facing women entrepreneurs, from accessing funding to overcoming gender bias. Yet their rise is an exciting trend that has the potential to reshape the world around us; not only because they will make different design choices, but because as more women choose entrepreneurship, even more will be inspired to follow in their footsteps.
There are many solutions out there waiting to be found. Just as a team of women reshaped the car, a new generation of female entrepreneurs can reimagine myriad other products for better living.
Sharmla Chetty is chief executive of Duke Corporate Education.