Women Entrepreneurs Mean Business
Between 2002 and 2012, the number of majority women-owned firms with $10 million or more in revenues rose from 8,110 to 12,700—a 56.6 percent increase.
"I wanted to be happy with what I was doing for a living,” says Delia Bonfilio in discussing why she started her own business in 1998. “I worked in a small design studio, learned how that company operated and then went out on my own.”
Bonfilio Design, whose clients range from Avon and the Animal Rights Coalition to the City of New York, is one of more than eight million women-owned businesses in the United States. These firms are a rapidly expanding slice of the American economy that has grown some 54 percent in the past 15 years according to a March 2012 study, the State of Women-Owned Businesses Report published by American Express OPEN, which examined U.S. Census Bureau data.
“We are not talking about women making clothes in their spare bedroom,” says Marsha Firestone, founder and president of the Women Presidents’ Organization, whose members run multimillion-dollar companies. “Women own about 30 percent of all the private-held companies in the country, and as of the end of 2011, they generated $1.3 trillion in revenues and employed more than 7.7 million people,” she adds.
Women’s success benefits everyone, including men, Firestone emphasizes.
“Economic security is the keystone of a stable society,” she says. “If we want to grow employment and the overall tax base, we need to take advantage of every possible opportunity. If you shut out half of your population, you are leaving out a great resource.”
The idea that women cannot run big companies is debunked by the American Express OPEN study.
Among the key findings: Between 2002 and 2012, the number of majority women-owned firms with $10 million or more in revenues rose from 8,110 to 12,700—a 56.6 percent increase. During the same time period, the number of women-owned firms with $1 million or more in revenues grew from 116,985 to 152,900—a 30.7 percent increase. What’s more, the $10 million and up companies were concentrated in industries not usually considered as “feminine”—20 percent were in wholesale trade, 12 percent in finance and insurance, 11 percent in transportation and warehousing, and 10 percent in arts, entertainment and recreation.
Successful women entrepreneurs share a number of traits, says Diane Tomb, president and CEO of the National Association of Women Business Owners, which has chapters in 60 countries. “They have passion for an idea, a vision to succeed long-term after the business is launched, and a willingness and attitude to fail before you succeed and to take risks.”
Women who start their own business find ways to overcome challenges, says Anie Borja, executive director of the National Women’s Business Council, a federal agency that provides advice to the U.S. President, Congress and the Small Business Administration on economic issues of importance to women business owners.
“Women can do more with less,” Borja says. “They are very resourceful, and they tend to be more cautious and risk-averse. Studies show that they are less likely than men to think they need startup capital.”
Networking groups and mentors can be of great benefit to women entrepreneurs, says Stuti Jalan, who was selected for the Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership program (http://goo.gl/QBdlS) in 2011 and also participated in the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network sponsored by the computer manufacturer.
“Interacting with other entrepreneurs gave me more perspective,” says Jalan, founder of Crosshairs Communication, a public relations and brand consultancy with offices in New Delhi and Mumbai. “I was pretty content with the way my business was growing until 2011 and then I was told that I could really scale up my business, which gave me the belief that I could grow my company internationally.”
Women entrepreneurs are optimistic about others following in their footsteps.
“There’s more boldness in women,” says Borja of the National Women’s Business Council. “We’ve learned that you don’t just have to play it safe and that calculated risk is good. We’ve learned that it’s O.K. to shoot for the stars.”
Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.
Connecting Women Around the World
Although they might not realize it, women in developing countries who wonder if they can advance themselves by starting their own businesses have a strong ally working on their behalf.
The Council on Women’s Leadership at Meridian, based at Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C., connects and educates leaders from diverse fields and disciplines who share an interest in impacting women’s empowerment and leadership opportunities. Founded in 2010, the council works to strengthen international understanding of the political, economic and social factors that accelerate the empowerment of women in their local communities, nationally and globally.
Michele Manatt, chair and co-founder of the council, believes women are natural entrepreneurs.
“Women can do many things at the same time—they don’t have just one occupation,” Manatt says in an interview. “Their ability to conceptualize a business and try out ideas does not come at the exclusion of other duties such as taking care of their households, their children, their parents.”
The council’s many events and programs bring together women from developing countries who exchange ideas and experiences with leading figures in a variety of fields from the United States and elsewhere. Hundreds of women from India, Pakistan, Egypt, Colombia, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean have participated in the council’s programs.
“The overriding purpose of our networking is to break down the walls that women live with in their worlds so they understand that women across many disciplines share similar values and objectives,” Manatt says.
In her address marking the annual celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, Manatt noted that women’s issues are a global priority for the United States.
“Today, we can all be encouraged that the issues of the advancement of women and girls are more central to how U.S. policymakers and opinion leaders analyze and respond to foreign policy challenges,” she said.
The council’s work will bear fruit for many years to come, Manatt believes.
“We have developed a network of very promising future leaders, in the political, cultural, economic and education areas, who have come to us through programs we organize and execute,” Manatt says. “We believe we plant seeds in them that will sprout and flourish when they get back home.” —S.F.