Growth of Women-Owned Businesses

What's going on out West? Women-owned businesses are growing out of control.
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This story appears in the July 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

What do you think the fastest-growing states in terms of women-owned businesses are? Would you be surprised to find out that Idaho and Wyoming are tied for first place?

In a report from the Center for Women's Business Research ranking women business's growth from 1997 to 2002 based on number of firms, sales and employment, Idaho and Wyoming topped the list. The rest of the top 10 states are also in the West: 3) Utah, 4) Nevada, 5) Arizona, 6) South Dakota, 7) New Mexico, 8) Montana and Oregon (tie) and 10) Alaska.

Why are Western states experiencing this high growth? States that start with fewer women-owned businesses have more room to grow, and both Idaho and Wyoming fit that description, says Stephanie Peacock at the Center for Women's Business Research. She also says the growth could be due to the "pioneering spirit" of the West.

Elaine J. Martin thinks there's some truth to that. She started her Nampa, Idaho-based highway construction project company, MarCon Inc., in 1986. At the time, her mother had to put up a $25,000 CD as collateral so Martin could get a $25,000 loan. Today, the 55-year-old entrepreneur runs a $6 million business in an industry dominated by men and major corporations. It's a far cry from her struggle to win her first job, something that didn't happen until bids from women and minorities became mandated.

"Once people get to know me and see how willing I am to work with them, there are no barriers."

Martin started her entrepreneurial endeavors building highway fences when her family faced losing its farm. "I thought about going back to work as a teacher, but one salary wouldn't [have made] a difference," explains Martin. "We needed work for every member of our family." Even her teenage sons worked summers and weekends in the early days.

When asked why Western states might rank so highly in growth of women-owned businesses, Martin echoes Peacock's assessment, citing "the pioneering nature of the women who helped settle America's last frontier." She adds, "The women in my family have been great female role models." Both her grandmothers were hard-working farm women who moved to Idaho to start new lives and passed on their work ethic to their children.

Colleen Haass, 46, president of $1.75 million general contracting firm Haass Construction Co. Inc. in Casper, Wyoming, believes "there is great opportunity to be self-employed in Wyoming." While Haass describes the construction industry in Wyoming as "very competitive" and most of her industry is male-dominated, she says she doesn't feel isolated. "There are times when some men are unwilling to deal with me, but they are usually the older ones who have been working [only] around men all their lives. Fortunately, this is changing."

Haass, who launched her company in 1979, has experienced little difficulty as a woman business owner in Wyoming. "Once people get to know me and see how willing I am to work with them, there are no barriers."

Last year, the Small Business Survival Committee ranked Wyoming as the fourth best state in the nation for entrepreneurs, due to such factors as the absence of corporate income tax. Diane Wolverton, state director of the Wyoming Small Business Development Center in Laramie, says Wyoming also boasts a high quality of life-low crime, low noise and air pollution, and virtually no traffic.

What makes Wyoming a good place for women entrepreneurs? "Wyoming's state motto is 'The Equality State,' " says Wolverton. "Today, Wyoming's women are claiming that promise and carving out their opportunity for economic equality through small-business ownership."

Aliza Pilar Sherman is an Internet pioneer, netpreneur, speaker and author of the book PowerTools for Women in Business: 10 Ways to Succeed in Life and Work.

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