Firms owned by women of color are growing at about five times the rate of all U.S. firms and represent nearly 40 percent of all companies owned by people of color, according to a 2006 study by the Center for Women's Business Research underwritten by Bank of America. Last year, an estimated 2.4 million privately held firms were majority-owned by women of color, employing nearly 1.6 million people and generating 230 billion in annual sales.

"It's fantastic," says Sharon Hadary, executive director of the Center for Women's Business Research in Washington, DC. "Entrepreneurship is an opportunity that knows no race or ethnicity."

And the trend is growing: Between 1997 and 2006, black women-owned businesses grew by 147 percent and Hispanic women-owned businesses grew by nearly 121 percent. The top three sectors among minority owned women's businesses in 2007 are services and retail, followed by real estate rental and leasing.

There are many reasons for the growth in minority owned women's businesses. The women's movement of the '60s had a lasting impact on minority women, as did the corporate downsizings of the late '80s and early '90s that changed the fundamental contract between employee and employer. Gone was a job for life; here to stay was something much less certain. If things were going to be uncertain, women started to ask, why not take the ultimate risk of running my own company?

Add to this the pressure on women to add to the family income and the rise of the internet, which makes it easier to start and run a business. For women of color with an entrepreneurial streak, "there's more acceptance socially and culturally," says Sharon Freeman, president of The All American Small Business Exporters Association, a Washington, DC, group that researches issues affecting minority, immigrant and women-owned firms in the global marketplace. "You're not an outlier now if you're a woman who owns her own firm," says Freeman.

Adrienne Lumpkin, 50, agrees: She believes entrepreneurship is a natural extension of the lives black women have led for generations. The Harvard MBA is president of Alternate Access, a 14-year-old Raleigh, North Carolina, technology firm with 16 employees and annual sales of more than $1 million. "Historically, black women in this country have worked," says Lumpkin, who owns 51 percent of her business (her husband, Kelly, 54, owns the other 49 percent). "Hard work and having to do what you've got to do to make ends meet--that's part of our culture."

Opportunities and Challenges
Only 15 years ago, banks weren't very focused on women entrepreneurs, but now they see a growing opportunity in catering to women and, specifically, minority-owned women's businesses. Wells Fargo, for example, created a 10-year, $3 billion lending commitment to Asian-American owned businesses in 1997. In 2002, Hispanic women-owned businesses were offered a 13-year, $5 billion commitment, while a 12-year, $1 billion lending commitment became available to black women-owned businesses. "It's a huge growth opportunity we want to support," says Rebecca Macieira-Kaufmann, San Francisco-based executive vice president and small business segment manager at Wells Fargo.

Though the money is there, minority women still see barriers to capitalization. When Wells Fargo asked minority women business owners in a 2003 survey if they've encountered obstacles in financing their businesses, 47 percent of African American women said yes, as did 27 percent of Hispanic women. When asked if they had access to bank credit, only 39 percent of African-American women businesses owners, 46 percent of Asians and 47 percent of Hispanic women did, compared to 60 percent of Caucasian women business owners.

"The rates are good right now. The problem is trying to get the loans," says Leticia Luna, 53, a San Francisco entrepreneur and former restaurant and nightclub owner. Ten years ago, she applied for a $750,000 SBA loan to update a restaurant, fronting $250,000 in savings to secure the loan. She paid it off four years ago, but was left frustrated by the experience. "It was so hard to get the loan and it took at least six months," she says. "Never did I think it was going to be this difficult."

Getting enough business, securing contracts and customers, and gaining access to capital for cash flow tend to be the main concerns of minority women business owners, says Macieira-Kaufmann. And as any small-business owner knows, there's a direct link between networking and revenue generation. For many minority women entrepreneurs, success in business is no longer just about joining a network; it's about getting access to influential networks that'll increase knowledge, spur deal making, provide mentoring and propel growth.

More minority women entrepreneurs are joining professional groups such as the National Association of Women Business Owners, but Macieira-Kaufman says, "Each group networks slightly differently." She says black women entrepreneurs often network within faith-based organizations--such as meeting at church to talk about financial planning--while Hispanic women business owners are more inclined to subscribe to trade magazines or attend events sponsored by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Lumpkin encourages black entrepreneurs to leave their comfort zones when networking. But she understands their apprehension, recalling her days at Harvard Business School, where many of her classmates were third- and fourth-generation scions of Fortune 500 CEOs, while her father was a Harlem police officer and her mother a teacher. "There's a legacy of exclusion of African Americans. There was a time when we couldn't vote, when we couldn't ride the bus, when we couldn't go to the same schools," she says. "For the person who's networking, it relates directly to that. You have to get in the club to be in the club."

Rise of the Immigrant Woman Entrepreneur
Minority women business owners also include first-generation immigrants--a group that continues to grow. The number of immigrant women business owners has increased almost 190 percent since 1990 and 468 percent since 1980, according to recent research by the Immigration Policy Center, a Washington, DC, group that analyzes U.S. immigration law and policy.

These women have to establish credit histories to access loans, however, and they still fight old stereotypes along the way. But they have a distinct appreciation for what's possible. "As an immigrant, you don't take anything for granted," says Sheela Murthy, 45, who came to the United States from India in 1986 to attend Harvard Law School. By the late 1990s, she was running her own Owings Mills, Maryland, law firm with a focus on immigration issues, helping employers recruit temporary workers from India.

Today, Murthy has a staff of 60. The firm opened a satellite office in 2005 in India with seven employees. Annual sales are about $7 million. "Immigrants believe in working hard," Murthy says. "This is one of the few countries in the world where the color of your skin isn't necessarily critical to [success]."

Minority women still face an uphill climb in building their businesses, but they're making steady progress. "Challenge," says Murthy, "is another word for opportunity." And opportunity, as they say, seems to be knocking at the door.