Women Business Owners: Optimistic and Outpacing Others

By Vitiello Communications Group

Just before the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO) released its annual Economic Impact Study on September 19, I had the chance to interview WPO founder and president, Marsha Firestone, Ph.D. WPO is a leading peer advisory group whose members are women who own multi-million dollar companies. A renowned advocate for women in business, Marsha shared insights about what drives women entrepreneurs and how their success affects society. Following are excerpts from our conversation:

Jill: What trends are driving women business owners right now? What is keeping them up at night?
Marsha: We just completed our Economic Impact Study, sponsored by Wells Fargo, and I will tell you that the four issues most difficult for our members right now are: economic conditions; finding, hiring, training and retaining the best employees; hanging on to customers; and government regulations – which is probably number one because it will inhibit the growth of our companies.
Small businesses produce the most jobs and I believe when you regulate them and impose on them requirements that are not only expensive, but also hard to implement – such as taxes, such as the new healthcare laws – it can have the unforeseen impact of eliminating jobs.
Jill: It will be interesting to see how it plays out in November and beyond. In general, what kind of impact do women-owned companies have on the economy?

Marsha: Significant! According to the second annual State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express OPEN, there are over 8.3 million women-owned businesses in the United States, generating nearly $1.3 trillion in revenues and employing 7.7 million people.

Jill: The OPEN study found that women-owned businesses grew by 54% compared to other businesses at 37% during the 15 years from 1997 – 2012. That outpaced the growth rates of all but the largest, publicly traded companies. What factors were at play?

Marsha: First of all, there were more women in the workforce. They gained confidence from their experience in the work place and realized: “I can do this – and I can do it on my own. I can do it better. And I can make more money. I can have more power and influence.” A lot of women saw business ownership as a way to work and still be a responsible mother. They might work in the middle of the night, and do whatever they have to do to keep the business running, and also take care of their children’s needs during the daytime.

Another factor is that it’s still very hard for women to become senior executives in corporations. So they go off and run their own business. Those who are succeeding ultimately are more satisfied than if they had stayed within the corporation.

Jill: The OPEN study notes that small businesses tend to stall at the $250,000 – $499,999 revenue mark. Susan Sobbott, president of American Express OPEN, called for new management tools to help entrepreneurs grow. How does WPO address that call to action?

Marsha: We use a peer-to-peer model. Adult learners do best when they define what they want to learn, as well as when and how they want to learn. In chapters of about 20 women in non-competing businesses, the members share experiences, expertise, and business education, collaborating in a confidential environment. They make a commitment to support each other so when they have business issues to address, they can bring it to the meeting and the group can analyze the problem and offer input and recommend solutions. The members make their own decisions – their peers give them options. That’s how we deliver our program. Our tag line is: “Reaching farther. Together.” With the help of our peers in WPO chapters, women are achieving more.
Jill: What advice would you offer women entrepreneurs who aspire to join WPO?

Marsha: The most important advice is this: if you really want to grow a business, you have to be willing to keep pushing ahead even when times are difficult. We know that starting and growing a business is not easy and that it’s going to be demanding.
The characteristic that distinguishes WPO members is their ability – even on dark days and in a down economy – to keep going and to keep the fire in their heart burning. Some people are not cut out to be entrepreneurs because they can’t keep the fire going. When the going gets tough, they get depressed and quit. Women who are able to keep going, and who are very driven, and are willing to maintain that commitment to their goal – they succeed.
Jill: An optimistic spirit seems to distinguish WPO members. According to the WPO Economic Impact Study, 71 percent of members were optimistic about their companies’ financial performance in 2012 relative to 2011.
Marsha: That’s true – and it may be because women business owners are doing well. According to the Study, 59 percent of respondents experienced growth and 29 percent remained stable.

Jill: Those are impressive statistics – especially now. Where are women business owners headed in the future?

Marsha: You will see more women entrepreneurs and you will see more women-owned businesses grow larger. They will be so mainstream that they won’t require organizations that focus on introducing them to Fortune 1,000 companies.
Until then, however, WPO is focused on growth to support women business owners. At our annual conference in April, we announced our 100th chapter. By the end of this year, we will reach between 105 and 110 chapters. We just added one in the UK and we will add chapters in Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa. We’ve reached a tipping point in the organization where women in the international sector now qualify for membership and recognize us as a great resource.
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