By Patricia Sellers
June 11, 2010

Startup fever is in the air.

Well, it was this morning, at least, when too many people packed too small a room in Manhattan’s Soho to hear women entrepreneurs and other experts talk about launching businesses.

Most at the breakfast were young (Next to me: a poised twentysomething who told me, first thing, that she works for a big health care company and “I want to quit my job.”)

The best advice came from a panelist who has been around the startup track many times: Esther Dyson. “Never take a job for which you’re qualified,” the renowned angel investor and tech sage said. “If you do, you’ll never learn.”

Dyson, by the way, practices what she preaches. She recently trained to be anĀ astronaut — and wrote about it in Fortune.

The conversation included women-bashing — by the women themselves, who tend to be, admittedly, more conservative than men. “When a man wants a new career, he gets a new job. When a woman wants a new career, she takes a course,” Dyson remarked, urging the young people in the audience to take risks and go ahead, make mistakes!

Studies prove that women typically are more cautious than men in starting businesses–and that can be a good thing. When Michelle Madhok, who once worked at CBS and AOL , started an online shopping company, SheFinds, out of her apartment in 2004, she sought “slow and steady growth.” She struggled to raise venture funding because, she said, “I wasn’t asking for enough. I wanted $1.5 million, and they don’t want to talk to you if you’re not asking for $5 to $10 million.”

Madhok stuck to her guns, rejecting the notion of ceding control to a major investor. (All her funding prospects were men.). Then, lo and behold, a business magazine article about her prompted a cold call from an investor in Canada. He put 1.3 million into SheFinds for a minority stake.

Today, Madhok, 39, has a profitable company, with six full-time employees in a real New York City office — and plenty of capital, she says.

Know what you’re good at, Madhok adds. And whatever you lack, find it in someone else. After four years of building SheFinds, Madhok recruited her husband, Michael Palka to do what she — like so many ambitious women, frankly — is lousy at: negotiating. “My husband is the best negotiator,” she says. Officially, he is SheFinds’ COO and president. She adds, “We call him the chief arguer.”

P.S. For more on women entrepreneurs, check out a February 2010 study by angel investor Cindy Padnos of Illuminate Ventures. It is, um, enlightening.

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