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Small Ideas

Why is it that some women never look beyond the term "small-business owner"?
September 1, 2001
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/43300

If you had asked a class full of children 20 or 30 years ago what they wanted to be when they grew up, boys would probably have yelled "President!" while girls might have quietly said "A teacher." While the answers today might be different, a look at women entrepreneurs makes you wonder if the mentality has changed. Do women business owners limit themselves by not thinking big enough?

Business consultant Aileen Gorman says that, with only a few exceptions, women entrepreneurs do not envision their companies as huge corporations. Executive director of the Boston, Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Institute, which helps women grow their businesses, Gorman attributes this lack of vision to a lack of good advisors. Consulting outsiders, Gorman says, often helps a woman recognize her firm's potential.

Robert L. Wallace agrees that women rarely picture themselves running major operations. "People believe what they see," says Wallace, a business consultant and founder of Bith Technologies Inc., an information systems services company in Columbia, Maryland. "If you only see women running certain [types of businesses], at a certain style or level, that becomes your belief." Wallace feels society also subtly influences women to limit their vision by displaying skepticism or paternalistic concern when they attempt the nontraditional.

Is your vision too narrow? Ask yourself a few questions, says Gorman: Where do you want to be in five years? Will you be looking for outside funding? Will you take the company public? Answering those questions in terms of what is expected of companies growing in that direction helps you visualize how big your business should be and the steps needed to get there.

Wallace offers a more folksy blueprint: "My granddaddy always said, 'Go where we ain't.' You can't operate in a vacuum. Go where they're doing the deals. Immerse yourself in the environment and be a player there."

Gorman and Wallace agree that thinking bigger often requires help-a mentor who prods you to think in new directions and slaps a reality check on you when needed. A good mentor helps you strike a balance by making sure your dream is neither too limited nor too grandiose, says Wallace: "You can have a lofty vision, but build it in increments, not one fell swoop."

"How I did it"
Think big? These women entrepreneurs wouldn't even know how to stay small.

Rebecca Matthias founded upscale maternity wear retailer Mother's Work Inc. 12 years ago with $10,000. Today the publicly traded company has $400 million in revenues, and Matthias' goal is to hit $1 billion in the next five years. The Philadelphia entrepreneur credits her husband for helping focus her vision, and lots of personal sacrifice for achieving it: "For many years, I had my business and my family and didn't do anything else. My business was my life. It was difficult and took an enormous amount of self-discipline, but I was doing something I wanted to do."

Janet Gurwitch Bristow, CEO and co-founder (with makeup artist Laura Mercier) of Laura Mercier Cosmetics, always knew she would operate a big company because of the industry she was in. "You cannot successfully compete with the major cosmetics companies if you don't reach a [certain] sales volume," explains Gurwitch Bristow, adding that her big ideas were fueled by a combination of an aggressive approach and a touch of naiveté.

Cathy Hughes, the first African American woman to take a company public, says passion is key. "My passion and emotion got me where I needed to go," says the founder of Lahem, Maryland-based Radio One. "Every time I got turned down on a loan application, I took it personally and became more determined."