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Women take risks to start ventures, find process rewarding

Rochester Business Journal
March 21, 2014

When Donna Shultz founded her company two decades ago, she was one of a handful of female business leaders in her industry and was determined to level the playing field.

“There were a lot of challenges, but honestly one of my goals when starting this business was to make sure I could eliminate those challenges,” says Shultz, president and CEO of Mirror Show Management Inc., a trade show design company based in Webster.

Shultz wanted to create an environment of gender equality, one in which success would be based solely on her merit and reputation. She found that like any other business owner, to be taken seriously and grow her fledgling company, she had to outperform others in her field.

There are some 8.6 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., according to data from “The 2013 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report,” commissioned by American Express Open, a small-business arm of the company. Women-owned businesses generate more than $1.3 trillion in revenue annually and employ nearly 7.8 million people. The number of women-owned businesses has grown 59 percent since 1997. New York State ranks third in the number of women-owned firms behind California and Texas, according to the report.

Nationally, the industries with the highest concentration of women-owned firms are health care and social assistance, educational services and administrative support. Fifty-three percent of firms in the health care sector are women-owned, while 45 percent of educational services companies are owned by women.

Locally, women business owners agree that while they may have experienced some gender-related challenges when they started their companies, taking the risk was worth it. Becoming certified as women-owned businesses aided them initially, but more importantly, they say, self-confidence and communication skills have helped them break through any barriers they faced as female business leaders.

Still, the perception that female entrepreneurs are treated differently or that there exists an old boys’ network that keeps women-owned businesses from reaching their full potential may be alive and well, and it could be keeping aspiring female entrepreneurs from entering traditionally male fields.

The American Express report notes that the industries with the lowest concentration of women-owned firms are construction, transportation and warehousing, and finance and insurance.

Just 7 percent of construction firms in the U.S. are owned by women, while 11 percent of transportation companies and 20 percent of all finance and insurance firms are led by women.

The National Women’s Business Council also notes that mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction, as well as agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, are industries with lower percentages of female owners.

“Women may think more in terms of lifestyle businesses than other types of businesses that they could do equally well in,” says dt ogilvie, dean of Rochester Institute of Technology’s Saunders College of Business. “We want women to feel they have the ability to run different types of businesses.”

Despite the low number of women starting businesses in industries traditionally occupied by men, local entrepreneurs and experts agree that the view that female entrepreneurs are treated differently is, in reality, a misconception.

“When I started the business, I don’t believe I was treated differently,” Shultz says. “I think companies were excited to engage with us. I think they saw a difference in what we brought to the table.”

Embracing differences

Indeed, many women business owners agree that while they were not treated differently by their peers when they started their companies, they had different communication styles or approaches to running a business compared with their male counterparts.

Those differences can be positive or negative, some say.

“Women have that challenge of a dual career,” says Claire Fisher, CEO of the engineering firm Fisher Associates P.E. L.S. L.A. P.C. “The dual career is what you’re doing to earn a living and then the second career is your family.”

In many cases women start their own companies so they can be self-employed and spend more time with their families, Fisher says.

“I don’t know how typical that is, but I do believe that’s the experience many new women-owned businesses have,” she says. “They want to be able to work at home, spend time with their families and juggle as best they can.”

RIT’s ogilvie agrees, adding that women go into entrepreneurship for a variety of reasons, including plateauing in their careers, needing to spend more time with children and desiring the flexibility of being their own bosses. That can be a problem, because research shows that many female entrepreneurs do not think about the end game, she says.

“For instance, they don’t think about how much the business will make, how much they would like to sell it for, how big a business they want,” ogilvie explains. “We find that when women do think about these things, they tend to have outcomes similar to men.”

Additionally, Fisher says, many women start a business as the sole employee.

“If you don’t have employees, you can’t grow. In fact, you’re probably going to fail,” Fisher says. “Because you can’t increase your revenue.”

Multitasking at home does not necessarily translate well to a new business.

“If you’re doing the work and you’re keeping your books and you’re doing your tax returns, you really don’t have a lot of time or money to get out there and sell your business,” Fisher says. “When you’re on your own, you have to be able to hire good people and engage them to help you do the work and therefore grow your business.”

Many women fail to see the importance of that when they go into business for themselves, she notes, and it is one of the reasons women-owned businesses fail to reach their full potential.

Sometimes women’s behavior can work against them in an entrepreneurial setting, ogilvie says.

“They don’t appear to have the level of confidence that people might want or expect,” she explains. “Men are much more assertive and forceful. They don’t feel they have to know everything before they can take a stand. Women tend to want to be 100 percent certain that they can do something and have the background and skills before they will assert that they can do something.”

Women tend to pepper their conversations with more qualifiers than men, ogilvie notes. Rather than make statements, women often phrase their thoughts like questions. Those behaviors and communication patterns can have a negative effect, especially in arenas where self-confidence is crucial, such as raising funds or making real estate deals.

Research shows that women tend to be relationship builders, and that can be advantageous when starting a business, experts say. But relying solely on past relationships can work against a new business owner, says Christine Vargas, president of Vargas Associates, a facilities project management company.

“The reality is things don’t always unfold as you foresee,” Vargas says, adding that in her case she had built relationships with peers, some of which did not continue when she founded her own company. “For somebody starting out brand-new, I really think they need to double down on their prospective opportunities because they need to plan for those that don’t pan out.”

Seeking help
Vargas reached out to the Small Business Development Center of SUNY College at Brockport for assistance when she started her business 10 years ago. The organization helped her in the process of becoming a designated women’s business enterprise.

“Being certified would be beneficial for a business because they are placed on a state list, where those entities that would get incentives for working with minorities or women-owned businesses can look at that list and see the businesses they would have to choose from,” explains Carla Vazquez, certified business adviser for the SBDC.

WBE certification also means that women-owned businesses can be chosen as subcontractors on jobs that require the participation of a certain percentage of women or minority businesses.

“So if one of my clients did not get awarded a bid as a prime contractor, they would be able to get information for the person who did get the award and possibly work with them as a subcontractor in order to fill the requirement for the agency,” Vazquez explains.

Being certified also enables business owners to access information about grants and other contract opportunities open to women-owned enterprises. Certification requires that 51 percent or more of the business be owned by a woman and that the firm have been in business at least one year.

Though WBE certification can be helpful to women when they start their businesses, Vargas, Fisher and Shultz agree that entrepreneurs should not rely on the certification as the key to success.

WBE certification is more of a springboard or a means by which new business owners can get their foot in the door.

“For us, it hasn’t been as key as going out and doing great work and gaining respect,” Vargas says.

Fisher suggests that female entrepreneurs join a professional organization or society for their industry.

“That will consist of your competitors,” she says. “Your competitors are also peers, and they’re also joint venture opportunities and partnering opportunities. They provide educational opportunities.”

Fisher also encourages others to seek out the help of the U.S. Small Business Administration, as well as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, each of which offers seminars, helps with business plans and myriad additional resources for entrepreneurs.

In addition, RIT’s ogilvie says, women should look into organizations such as the National Association of Women Business Owners and the American Business Women’s Association. Mirror Show Management’s Shultz adds the Women Presidents Organization to the list of resources available to female entrepreneurs.

“The women in my group are my mentors and my sounding board,” she says. “They’ve become my best friends. It’s helped me get to where I am today.”

Ogilvie’s advice to aspiring women business owners is to do their homework.

“Think about your business and where you want it to go. Think about what you want your end game to be,” she says.

Training also is a major component of success, as well as putting together a good leadership team.

“Get some good people to work either with you or for you that can help you in areas you’re not as skilled at,” ogilvie says. “Use the support systems that are out there. You don’t have to do this alone. There are resources out there and plenty of people willing to help.”

Ogilvie says Rochester is open and welcoming to women business owners and has a good mix of successful female entrepreneurs.

“A woman has to show she has a good business model. She has to have confidence in what she’s doing,” she says.

Vargas agrees, noting that in some cases, how conducive the region is to female entrepreneurs is dependent on the industry.

“We’re in a heavily male-dominated field, so I really feel like getting opportunities is much like any industry in that you have to work hard and gain respect,” she explains. “As different entities see what you’re capable of, see what you can do, I really think doors start to open for you.

“I don’t feel it’s a lot different being a woman,” Vargas adds. “If we allow ourselves to feel that way, it can detract from what we’re trying to accomplish.”

3/21/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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