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Making Change: Doing it her way: Women Entrepreneurs

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The facts do seem gloomy these days-a weak economy, high unemployment rates and few new jobs available. But that's only looking at half the picture. Over the past 30 years, a new wave of entrepreneurs is finally surfacing with enough influence to boost an otherwise slumping economy. As part of Making Change: Reinventing our Economy, ideastream's Shula Neuman reports.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003 at 2:10 pm

For Kelly Ferrell, it was about freedom. She had worked as a graphic designer for someone else. But she looked around and saw how most people struggled to balance life and work. Ferrell decided she could make more money on her own AND maintain some freedom.

KELLY FERRELL: It was just to see if I could do it, I guess. I wanted to freedom to live, whatever that meant. I just saw people that were working and trying to raise a family and it just seemed insane to me and I was only like 25. So I thought I would try it when I was young. I didn't have anything to lose.

Ferrell is among 10 million women nationwide that own their own business. In 2002 those women-owned businesses generated more than 2-TRILLION dollars in sales nation-wide. According to the Center for Women's Business Research, in Northeast Ohio nearly 69-thousand people work in women-owned businesses.

That's a force to be reckoned with says Jeanne Coughlin, author of The Rise of Women Entrepreneurs. She's also chairman-elect of the Council of Smaller Enterprises. Coughlin says it's time that the region's business leaders saw the potential influence women entrepreneurs wield, even though their businesses don't look like traditional corporations.

JEANNE COUGHLIN: They're less hierarchical, they tend to ask more people their opinions before making their decisions and again, those soft skill of human resources and communication.

Coughlin says Northeast Ohio's power brokers need to recognize that leadership doesn't mean what it used to.

JEANNE COUGHLIN: I think in this region there is a perception that the best leaders come from big companies, from those people who have risen through the ranks. And I think if you look at the qualities that go with entrepreneurship, we need to tap into that and have people with that perspective and those strengths engaged.

Civic involvement isn't a one-way street either, says Marlene Herman, owner of two Aamco Transmission shops in the Cleveland area. Through her involvement with organizations like COSE and the National Association of Women Business Owners, Herman made business connections that helped her overcome one of the hardest hurdles she's faces in owning a male-dominated business.

MARLENE HERMAN: So you have to go in and see those people and again it comes back to credibility. You have to sell yourself and your company and men usually only have to sell the company because it's just easier, there's assumed knowledge. But with us you have to sell both and then you have to prove yourself.

Diana Bilimoria (bili-MORE-ia), an associate professor at the Case Weatherhead School of Management, says part of what women have to prove is that their businesses have staying power.

DIANA BILIMORIA: The distinctive factor between women and men owned business is not are they more profitable, but will they survive. In fact, women owned businesses are likely to survive even more.

And they're growing. The Center For Women's Business Research says over the last five years, the number of women-owned firms grew by more than double the national average. Explaining their success, Bilimoria says: a.)women intentionally keep their businesses small and grow them slowly; b.)they frequently provide more perks to balance work-life concerns, and c.) they show more concern for the environment. But there is a downside, Bilimoria says. Investors still operate under an outdated paradigm: that success in business means fast growth and an aggressive business plan. Women entrepreneurs don't necessarily fit that mold, so they don't attract the amount of venture capital that helps generate a healthy economy.

DB: So venture capitalists need education, they need incentives and they need to be able to understand that women owned businesses are successful, that they are contributing to the economy and they are helpful to regional development...

For Northeast Ohio, that return was 8.3 million dollars in sales in 2002. For the women who run the businesses, the best returns aren't necessarily the financial kind. After 16 years in business, Kelly Ferrell's communications firm-Design Room Creative-does give her the freedom she sought. She pretty much picks the clients she wants to work with. She works four days a week-and is the sole supporter of her three children and husband--a choice she and her husband made three years ago.

KF: he said, if you want to build the business, I'll leave the job and you can focus and grow. And so we bit the bullet and he did and so far so good. He's been home and when he is here on Fridays I'm at home with the kids or vice-versa.

One last stat about women entrepreneurs and their impact on the economy. The census bureau predicted that by 2025, women will own 55 percent of all businesses in the country. Which means we could see a lot more soccer dads behind the wheels of those mini-vans.

In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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