Quick Guide For Women Entrepreneurs

By Debra Phillips, Cynthia E. Griffin, Heather Page and Melissa Campanelli
11 min read

This story appears in the January 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

With women launching businesses at nearly twice the national average, it's clear there's plenty of reason to be impressed with the entrepreneurial drive of what was once dismissed as the weaker sex. Yet now that the novelty has worn off-what, we wonder, could be more natural than a woman at the helm of her own enterprise?-it's almost easy to gloss over the significance of some 8.5 million woman-owned companies in the United States.

We said almost. We're not prepared to shrug in the face of accomplishment, however. Women entrepreneurs are a force to be reckoned with, now more than ever. Don't let the apparent quiet on the affirmative-action front fool you: News flourishes in the community that is women's small business. This particular brand of news, though, is of the personal, day-to-day variety. You know-the kind of story that's your own.

"That first year [in business], I'd have nights where I'd [think], 'What have I done? I'm going to lose my house; I'm going to lose everything,' " says Laurie Kahn, 44, reflecting on her initial fears about the launch of Chicago-based Media Staffing Network in 1993. "But it's been a wonderful experience."

"I never thought I'd have anything to do with business," echoes Heather Howitt, 30, who founded Oregon Chai Inc., a Portland-based chai tea company, five years ago. "But I'm so glad I'm doing this now because I can make a difference."

Strength In Numbers

Since 1982, the sales generated by women-owned businesses have increased nearly 638 percent.*

1982 - $240.8 billion

1987 - $681.4 billion

1992 - $1.6 trillion

1997 - $3.1 trillion

  • adjusted for inflation

Source: SBA Office of Advocacy

A Matter of Style

Making a difference is what women entrepreneurs are indeed doing in today's workplace. As chronicled by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners, flexible scheduling, employee autonomy and treating workers as part of the family are all innovations championed by women.

"We share the same vision," says Michelle Lemmons Poscente, 36, explaining the rationale behind her titles-free, open-book management style at Dallas-based International Speakers Bureau Inc. Just how effective is this more democratic approach? Poscente's company, which books celebrities as stellar as former president Jimmy Carter and comedian Jay Leno, recorded sales of $6 million last year.

Others make a difference by committing to socially responsible business practices (as is the case with Howitt's multimillion-dollar Oregon Chai) and simply forming strong connections with fellow women entrepreneurs. Connecting, in fact, seems especially important for women entrepreneurs. "I think we have a kindred spirit," says Kahn, who belongs to various support and networking groups.

Agrees Lemmons, "There is a need for women to share with their peers."

Doing It All

So does all this sisterhood suggest women entrepreneurs still feel there are barriers left to overcome? As we examine women entrepreneurs in this special section of Entrepreneur, are we celebrating-or commiserating?

Well, perhaps both. "I think it's more difficult for a woman to start a business and run it successfully than it is for a man," says Lemmons. "But I also believe it's [an individual] mind-set. If you're going to allow it to deter you, it will."

If there's one issue of paramount importance to women entrepreneurs in 1999, however, it could very well be this: the unquestionable quandary of balancing business demands with personal ones. "It gets frustrating," acknowledges Kahn. "You're trying to keep up your friendships, you're traveling, and you're trying to make sure you have clean clothes. Sometimes it's really crazy."

"I dream about chai," laughs Howitt. "I never leave it at the office-but I don't want to, either. I love it. [My business] is on my mind 24 hours a day." As passion goes, we'd say that's pretty amazing.

Dream Builder

I like to say I got into this line of work by default," laughs Phyllis A. Adams, founder of Phylway Construction Inc. in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Adams got her fateful start in construction at the age of 17, when she went to work at her father's general contracting business as a temporary receptionist. Three months later, she applied for a full-time job. "[My father] gave me a hard time," she remembers, "but he finally gave me the job."

A diligent employee who worked hard to gain the respect of others, Adams moved up through the company ranks during the 16 years she worked for her father. In 1992, with a keen understanding of the technical and operational aspects of the business under her belt, she started her own highway and heavy construction company.

It's perhaps an unlikely beginning for the company we've named the No. 1 woman-owned business of the year. But for a woman who started with just $10,000 in savings and an old dump truck, Adams has succeeded in building the business of her dreams. "We improve the living conditions of a community by connecting roads and highways or improving drainage," enthuses Adams, 39. It's so wonderful to see the positive impact of our work."

It was an unexpected turn of events that brought work Adams' way when she was just getting started in 1992: Hurricane Andrew. Called in to aid in the storm cleanup, she increased the size of her crew, brought in extra equipment and worked around the clock to get the job done.

From there, the business took off-1998 sales are expected to hit $14 million-thanks to its well-earned reputation and Adams' infectious positive attitude and team-player mentality. "As a company, we've worked on building open communication and trust," she says. With those attributes on her side, we trust that whatever Adams builds, success will come.

Get With The Programs

Even the most successful entrepreneurs need a little help now and then. If you're seeking capital, looking to improve your business skills or still attempting to get your company off the ground, investigate the following programs. They offer not only great information to help you run your business but also a venue to meet other women entrepreneurs with whom you can network, discuss ideas and build solid business relationships.

SBA Stories

The SBA's Office of Women's Business Ownership (WBO) is co-sponsoring a number of new initiatives.

On April 8, the WBO will join forces with Victoria magazine to host a day-long seminar at the New York City Marriott in the World Trade Center. Among the activities planned are discussions on defining a market niche and exploring its business potential, the challenges of creating a company, financing, technology, and sales and marketing. The cost to attend is $189, and reservations must be made in advance by calling (201) 681-7800.

Edward Jones, a full-service financial firm, and the WBO continue to jointly sponsor satellite conferences to provide women entrepreneurs with the skills they need to run their businesses. For details on the next broadcast, contact one of Edward Jones' 4,000 offices nationwide.

Certified Success

In 1997, the Women Business Owners Corp. (WBOC) launched the National Certification Program for women entrepreneurs to help them compete for corporate and government contracts.

This national program eliminates the need for multiple certifications. To qualify for certification, companies must be at least 51 percent owned and operated by a woman.

For information, call WBOC at (561) 848-5066 or fax a certification application request to (561) 881-7364. The process takes one to three months and includes a site visit and an evaluation by private and public-sector firms, an accountant, an attorney and a woman entrepreneur.

High-Tech Help

The Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE) promotes entrepreneurship for women in technology and the life sciences by providing education, access to resources, and networking opportunities for women starting or growing their companies.

The organization has about 450 members and focuses on helping women in the San Francisco area. The FWE Entrepreneur Match.com, for example, is a networking session held quarterly that features an informal business-plan contest. There is also the FWE eSeries program, a block of eight seminars that provides assistance to 20 women in the early stages of developing their companies. Only the CEO, president or founder is eligible to participate in the program, which goes beyond the basics of growing a business. Two new eSeries begin in May; the deadline to apply is April 15. The cost is $150 per person; participants are also expected to join FWE ($125 a year). To register, call (650) 470-0938.

A Day In The Life

Recognizing that entrepreneurs don't always have time to attend seminars to help them grow their businesses, the American Woman's Economic Development Corp. has created one-day workshops, called "Access to Capital," that combine information on marketing, finance, sales and other skills into a day-long program.

The next workshop, in January or March, will target women in Westchester, New York, but is open to all women in the tri-state area. The workshop costs $65. Advanced registration is recommended; call (212) 692-9100.

Final Frontier

Is the technology industry the one place you'll still find blatant gender discrimination in the business world? To hear many women tell it, the answer is yes. While many women entrepreneurs are starting tech businesses for obvious reasons-it's the hot industry with seemingly limitless opportunity for those with the right skills and innovative ideas-others are doing so to break away from companies that aren't listening to what they have to say.

According to a 1997 study of more than 100 women high-tech employees by Women In Technology International (WITI), a professional organization in Sherman Oaks, California, many women middle managers believe science and technology companies operate like old boys' clubs. Survey respondents said their ideas had been repeatedly stolen by male co-workers and they were often excluded from key meetings and brainstorming sessions. Also, few had role models at work with whom to discuss their concerns.

A high percentage of the survey respondents had left large high-tech entities to start their own companies, in part because of their frustrations. But the study also showed that in many cases, high-tech women entrepreneurs founded companies simply because they had what they believed was a novel entrepreneurial idea, and they wanted to put the idea into motion.

Unfortunately, however, many women in the study haven't gone out on their own. Perhaps the main reason is they're having trouble finding backers. VentureOne, a San Francisco company that tracks venture capital investments in the high-tech industry, recently found that less than 10 percent of all high-tech venture capital goes to women entrepreneurs.

Will venture capitalists begin taking women-owned high-tech businesses seriously? The recently formed Viridian Capital in San Francisco was created specifically to fund women-owned tech and health-care companies. That's good news for women-as long as the market can support it. Without financing companies like this and other advocates, women-owned tech businesses may feel the strain. At this point, however, only time will tell.

Leading The Pack

Who said being a woman in a male-dominated industry is a drawback? As more women are becoming tech entrepreneurs, they're finding the qualities that make them strong business owners are helping them succeed despite the odds.

Renee Courington knows what it's like to be a woman in the male-dominated technology industry. She spent many years developing software at several high-tech firms before founding All Bases Covered, a Redwood City, California, computer support services company, with her husband in October 1997.

As a business owner, Courington's gender works to her advantage. "I believe part of my success has come from being a woman," says Courington. "[I] help customers solve their problems rather than talk techno-babble about the latest product." Customers obviously appreciate her strategy: Her company saw 1998 sales of $5 million.

Being a woman tech entrepreneur may help Courington's business, but it can also be isolating. That's why she joined the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, a regional group of women CEOs and business owners in high tech. The group offers her an outlet to discuss issues she faces as a woman business owner; she also has the chance to speak to women having problems starting their own high-tech businesses.

Her advice to them? "Understand it's going to take 10 times the amount of money to start a business as you think, and 10 times as much time as you think to start to see a revenue stream coming in," she says. "And you have to be prepared for that."

Dun & Bradstreet and Entrepreneur's Women Entrepreneurs Of The Year

Dun & Bradstreet (D&B), with the world's largest business information database, tracks 49 million companies worldwide, 11 million in the United States alone. Businesses use D&B's services to find new customers and evaluate their credit-worthiness, identify potential suppliers, and collect overdue receivables.

For more information about D&B, call (800) 234-3867 or visit the D&B Web site at http://www.dnb.com

Find out the Top 10 Women who D&B and Entrepreneur consider to be Women Entrepreneurs of the Year.

Contact Sources

All Bases Covered, (650) 654-1980, (949) 474-4190

Media Staffing Network, (312) 944-9194, laurie@mediastaffingnetwork.com

Oregon Chai Inc., (888) 874-2424, ext. 28, http://www.oregonchai.com

Phylway Construction Inc., (504) 446-9644, phylway@phylway.com

VentureOne, (415) 357-2100, http://www.ventureone.com

Research by Victoria Neal and Meredith Russell


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