This past September, something important and truly amazing actually happened in Washington, DC.

Back in March, the first-ever bipartisan Entrepreneurship Caucus was established in the U.S. Senate.  The new Caucus is co-chaired by Minnesota Senator and presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar (D) and South Carolina Senator Tim Scott (R), with fourteen other Senators participating.  A caucus is an important part of the policymaking machinery in Washington, bringing structure, coherence, and consensus to a multi-faceted topic like entrepreneurship, whose many relevant issues are scattered across Congress’ byzantine committee structure.

As its first formal exercise since its establishment, on September 24th the Caucus – in collaboration with the Center for American Entrepreneurship (CAE), a nonpartisan policy and advocacy organization – convened a special roundtable discussion of the issues, challenges, and barriers that confront women entrepreneurs in America.  Caucus co-chairs Klobuchar and Scott hosted the roundtable, with Wendy Guillies, president and CEO of the Ewing Marion Kaufmann Foundation, moderating.

Recent research has demonstrated that new businesses – “startups” – are disproportionately responsible for the innovations that drive economic growth, and account for virtually all net new job creation.  Alarmingly, recent research has also demonstrated that rates of entrepreneurship in America have fallen near a 40-year low, and that this decline is occurring in all 50 states, in all but a handful of 360 metro areas examined, and across a broad range of industry sectors.  Given the importance of thriving entrepreneurship to innovation, economic growth, and job creation, such circumstances amount to nothing less than a national emergency.

At present, entrepreneurship in America is predominately male, with women founders representing less than a fifth of new startups.  And yet, some research suggests that in recent years women may be launching new businesses at higher rates than men, even as they confront unique challenges as entrepreneurs, particularly with regard to securing financing and managing family responsibilities.

Meanwhile, other research and evidence collected by CAE by way of roundtables suggests that women entrepreneurs differ from their male counterparts in significant ways.  For example, women appear to start businesses for different reasons than men; run their businesses differently; have different objectives and goals for their businesses; grow their business more slowly than men, but have higher rates of success; and, take a different approach to financing their new businesses.

Thriving entrepreneurship is the essential pathway back to the robust and inclusive economy the American people need and deserve – and reversing the four-decade decline in entrepreneurship requires closing the gap between male and female entrepreneurship.

Twenty-two remarkable women founders traveled to Washington at CAE’s invitation to participate in the roundtable – five of whom were generously sponsored by Intuit.  They brought their ideas, experiences, and insights and were eager to share them with the Senators.

Over the course of the two-hour discussion, a wide range of issues were raised:

  • difficulties securing the capital needed to fuel their new businesses;
  • startups’ limited ability to deal with regulatory burden, complexity, and uncertainty;
  • limited access to incubators and entrepreneurship training;
  • a scarcity of successful female entrepreneurs who can serve as mentors;
  • record levels of student debt and its restricting effect on entrepreneurs and startup talent;
  • barriers startups confront in bidding for government procurement;
  • difficulties in getting health care for themselves or to provide it to employees;
  • the inability to secure retirement planning for themselves or their employees; and,
  • the scarcity of quality, affordable child care services.

The roundtable showcased the depth and range of America’s remarkable women entrepreneurs and the innovative businesses they launch and grow – but also their needs and vulnerabilities.

The obstacles and barriers identified during the discussion – and potential solutions offered by the entrepreneurs – will serve as the initial agenda of the new Senate Entrepreneurship Caucus in coming months.