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Women building better businesses

Two women business owners in impromptu meeting

For women, the business world looked a lot different in 1975. Women couldn't take out loans without a male co-signer, and they couldn't join most professional or networking organizations except as guests of their spouses. Women who wanted to start or grow businesses struggled to get the capital and connections they needed.

So a group of women came together in Washington, D.C., to pave a path for women starting out in business. They founded the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) Today, NAWBO serves as the voice for more than 10.1 million women-owned businesses across the United States.

"A lot of women go into business because they see a gap in the marketplace and they solve a problem. A lot don't have a business background - they're learning it as they go," says Crystal Arredondo, MBA, 2015-16 board chair for NAWBO. NAWBO helps build their business education, bringing women together to share experiences and learn from each other in community chapters and at a national conference. The organization also has launched the NAWBO Institute for Entrepreneurial Development, a digital platform where women can access training and resources anytime that works for them.

Arredondo says that supporting women in business makes economic sense. In 2015, women-owned businesses provided jobs for nearly 7.9 million people and rang up $1.5 trillion in sales. "Women tend to pay higher wages, seek benefits, volunteer, serve on boards and donate. They want to open doors for young women because things didn't come easily for them," Arredondo says.

Accelerating growth

Having achieved a level of success in the startup phase, the priorities of women entrepreneurs typically shifts from survival mode to the challenges inherent in scaling their companies. Dr. Marsha Firestone, president and founder of New York City-based Women Presidents' Organization (WPO), recognized a need to support these women-owned and -led companies. At their second stage of growth, women entrepreneurs play an important role in economic prosperity. Firestone launched WPO in 1997 to help provide a supportive resource for female business founders looking to accelerate the growth of their companies. WPO brings together female business leaders from companies in noncompetitive industries that gross at least $1 to $2 million a year. Each chapter has about 20 members who meet monthly to tackle a multitude of strategic and operational issues and serve as an informal board of directors for each other. There are currently 137 chapters around the world, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Peru, Mexico, Turkey, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.

"The whole principle behind WPO is for members to take part in a professionally facilitated peer learning group, in which they share their expertise and experience with other leaders representing diverse businesses," Firestone says. "It is as much about giving as it is getting."

"We bring the genius that already exists out of the group, so they are able to take home ideas and concepts that help them not only to grow but to accelerate that growth," Firestone says. "Women-led businesses are the great equalizer. They are the place where women can earn the most, have the most power, and have the most influence and control. Women control the decision-making and who's going to benefit from that decision-making."

Each year, WPO conducts a search for the 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Owned/Led companies, which is sponsored by American Express Global Commercial Payments. "The women who qualify and are added to this list are not to be believed. They are so incredible," she says. One woman has a $2 billion company - and four children under age 10.

Identifying opportunities

Entrepreneur Cindy Monroe started her business, Thirty-One Gifts, in 2003 because she wanted to help women reach their potential. With Thirty-One Gifts, women could start their own businesses selling gift items at a fun evening event. Monroe saw that for young families, whether women worked full-time or stayed home, the family income was never quite enough. She also noticed that a lot of boutiques offering unique products closed at 6 p.m. "I was a working mom - there was no way I was going to get there," she says.

Columbus, Ohio-based Thirty-One Gifts blossomed over the years, at times reaching 300 percent growth and $760 million in sales.

Monroe advises other women entrepreneurs to join organizations like NAWBO and WPO. "I didn't join either early on, and I feel like I missed out," she says. "I could have learned some things and avoided some mistakes."

UPS sponsors the annual conferences for both NAWBO and WPO and has supported many women-owned businesses from their beginnings. "UPS was there for us from day one," Monroe says. "In the early days, we were asking them to hang on for two more orders. Now they're helping us with advice around fulfillment and the supply chain network. It's a phenomenal relationship."

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