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30 Years of Female Entrepreneurship: From Anomalies To Assets How did the growth of women as business leaders come about, and where are we now?

By Debrah Lee Charatan Edited by Frances Dodds

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Over the last several decades, successful female leaders have transitioned from cultural outliers to pioneers of a wildly successful entrepreneurial force. As women increasingly lead U.S. companies with stellar results, their economic contribution is as critical as it is valuable.

Today, powerful and driven female business leaders have begun to shatter the glass ceiling, paving the way for future CEOs and founders from all walks of life. Unfortunately, women still have to tiptoe around the shards, meaning there's still room for growth.

How did the growth of women as business leaders come about, and where are we now? Here's a look at how female entrepreneurship has changed over the last 30 years.

1980s: Doors opened, deals closed

Prior to the 1980s, the job market was less than receptive to sole female providers looking for work, especially post-divorce. So many women turned to entrepreneurship -- these efforts began to pay off when several women were recognized for building sustainable businesses that contributed competitively to the economy. For example, Barbara Bradley and Patricia Miller launched feminine luggage company Vera Bradley in 1982; by 1987, it had grown from a $500 investment into a fully-operating business on the verge of multi-channel distribution.

Related: 5 Powerful Rules for Women Entrepreneurs to Live By

Before long, female entrepreneurs owned 25 percent of all U.S. firms; soon after, federal programs were launched to provide the resources that would help assist female entrepreneurs. Notably, the formation of the Women's Business Development Center came to fruition in 1986; shortly after, Count Me In was founded. Both programs helped curate educational seminars, assist with government programs, and provide training opportunities.

When Congress passed The Women's Business Ownership Act in 1988, it legally ended discrimination in financial lending and eliminated state laws that required married women to have a husband co-sign for all loans.The Act also gave women-owned businesses a chance to acquire bigger government contracts. The very next year, President George H. W. Bush appointed the first woman to head the Small Business Administration, Susan Engeleiter.

1990s: First some pain, then more gains

After the recession in the late 80s and early 90s, many educated women were laid off. As a result, many turned to entrepreneurship out of necessity -- to feed their families, pay mortgages and bills. Whatever the reason, it led to a surge in innovation. Female-led startups blossomed at two to four times the general startup rate.

By the mid "90s, the landscape had changed dramatically. Wells Fargo Bank launched a $1 billion loan fund for women entrepreneurs in 1995 and raised it to $10 billion the next year. Following that, Key Bank, Goldman Sachs and other institutions increasingly launched financing initiatives to help aspiring women entrepreneurs. The 90s also saw the rise of entrepreneurial celebrities including lifestyle powerhouse Martha Stewart. In the span of one decade, Stewart published her first issue of Martha Stewart Living, began a TV show, and formed Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, making her a billionaire on paper by 1999.

Related: 4 Inspiring Stories of Women Entrepreneurs From Around the World

The dawn of computers and the Internet was another aspect that worked to women's advantage this decade, amplifying their efforts and providing new opportunities for growth and marketing.

2000 - 2013: Breaking barriers, not the bank

Technological innovation enabled female entrepreneurs to grow their businesses faster in exponentially growing industries. With the advent of innovations like wireless internet, cloud technologies, and intelligent mobile devices, entrepreneurs could work flexibly and collaborate seamlessly.

Business models began to adjust. The ability to grow a business online and market products or services on digital platforms amounted to female-led ventures like Birchbox (Katia Beauchamp) and Flickr (Caterina Fake).

Even a cursory glance at statistics is proof of a boom in female entrepreneurship. For example, an American Express study found that, from "1997 to 2013, the number of women-owned companies increased by 59 percent, while revenues from those companies grew by 63 percent." And that's not all -- around the globe, they lead one in five startups around the globe.

Related: 12 Female Entrepreneurs Reflect Upon What They Learned in 2015

Small businesses were also able to generate greater production and reach wider audiences in ways that weren't available before. This is partially thanks to legislation like the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010 and the Women's Equity in Contracting Act, which helped businesses headed by women earn more government contracts.

Female entrepreneurship today

Today, companies across the world are seeing the benefits of gender diversity in the workplace and female business leaders have proven that through the massive growth of top tier corporations. The growth of a once sidelined audience has led to both individual business success and collective industry advances as a whole.

Experts predict that by 2018, female-owned businesses will create over half of the new small business jobs and overall, one-third of the nation's total new jobs. Research also suggests that the U.S, is the best place to be a female entrepreneur, followed by Canada and Sweden.

Women hold nearly a three-to-two majority in undergraduate and graduate education, and it's beginning to show outside academia: over the past 30 years we've seen women in business evolve from having limited corporate rights to operating 22 leading S&P 500 companies at CEO positions.

From inspirational leaders like Susan Wojcicki and Sheryl Sandberg to media giants like Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey, the landscape for female entrepreneurship is more promising than ever.

Of course, many challenges remain: Women still struggle more than men to raise capital, and in spite of educational prowess, are less likely to be promoted to positions of leadership. Women-run businesses also earn just 25 cents for every dollar of a man-owned counterpart; in Silicon Valley, only 10 percent of entrepreneurs are women -- a sad statistic compared to the general figure.

As always, change comes with time, and with the economic and social value of female entrepreneurs becoming clearer every day, the tides are already turning fast. Here's to hoping for even more shattered ceilings in the future, and some sweeping beneath for a less hazardous climb.

Debrah Lee Charatan

Real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist

Debrah Lee Charatan is a real estate veteran and philanthropist with nearly 40 years of industry experience. Charatan is the president of BCB Property Management Inc., a full-service multifamily and mixed-use real estate firm in New York City. 


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