Women-owned firms lag in workers, revenue

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In the universe of American business, women-owned companies are still a small galaxy made up of tiny stars.

While women-owned businesses account for 29 percent of all businesses, they employ just 6 percent of the workforce and take in just 4 percent of the nation's business revenues, according to a study commissioned by American Express OPEN.

"Women are afraid to hire," said Rebecca Harris, the director of the Center for Women's Entrepreneurship at Chatham University. "That is the primary problem."

When women don't hire, she said, their companies can't grow because they don't have enough people to handle more business.

Suzan Lami, the majority owner of Lami Grubb Architects in Edgewood, said her epiphany on hiring occurred when she met with a panel of business experts who convinced that the extra work in managing employees would be more than offset by the help they would give her.

Ms. Lami started her own firm in 1993, working on building designs after her children had gone to sleep and storing the drawing board and plans under her bed at night.

As the company grew, she moved into an office with other architects but still was handling so many aspects of the operation that she was constantly running. She was afraid, she said, that if her staff grew to perhaps a dozen people, she would be handling all of the logistics for all of those people.

The truth was, that by hiring more people, she could bring on people who played to her deficits, allowing her to focus on her strengths.

Lami Grubb now employs 38 people, and while Ms. Lami enjoys being a manager, she still meets with clients and contractors.

Based on her interactions with some other women business owners, Ms. Lami said she thinks she knows why even as the number of women-owned companies have grown, their percentages of sales have remained flat.

Ms. Lami said many women start a business not to make a killing but to be able to fit work around their families. Her office, for instance, was a block and a half from her children's elementary school, so she could drop them off, pick them up and even have lunch with them.

Later, when she was in a meeting of women who owned businesses, one woman chimed in that she didn't open a business to make $1 million. Ms. Lami reflected on that and asked, "How many men would say that?"

For women-owned businesses the numbers don't look strong.

According to the American Express report, which used statistics gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of women-owned businesses has grown from 26 percent of all firms in 1997 to an estimated 29.2 percent in 2012.

But that is down from 1987, when women-owned companies accounted for 30 percent of all companies, and 1992, when they were 33.2 percent of all companies.

Comparing these numbers, however, is like shooting at a moving target because in 1987 and 1992 companies were included that had $500 in revenues; in 1997 it was increased to $1,000. And in 1992 only publicly-owned companies were included. In 2002 the ownership was determined by asking the gender of the top three owners, diminishing the number of firms owned equally by women and men.

Susan Catalano, a scientist who owns Cognition Therapeutics on the South Side, said comparisons within changing data sets are tough to make.

Ms. Catalano's own firm doesn't have any revenue and thus would not be counted.

Cognition Therapeutics survives on grants and money from venture capitalists as it works to develop drugs to slow, stop and possibly reverse the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

Still, with a potentially lucrative future, Ms. Catalano now has six full-time employees and three part-time employees.

The American Express report compared Pittsburgh to 24 other large metropolitan areas and found that the number of women-owned firms has grown by 16.9 percent over the last 10 years in the city, behind 22 of the 25 cities surveyed. Pittsburgh also ranked 23rd for growth in women-owned firms revenue and 18th for the growth in the number of employees, which decreased by 0.7 percent.

Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699. First Published March 25, 2012 4:00 AM


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