Women put zip into Maine economy

Women put zip into Maine economy

Maine is a state of entrepreneurs.

Statistics show that about 80 percent of the economy here is based on small businesses.

And one of the most crucial driving forces behind that, according to experts: Enterprising women striking out on their own.

In the last 10 years, Maine has seen a “massive growth in women-owned businesses,” said Elizabeth Stefanski, executive director of the Portland-based Maine Women’s Fund, a public foundation that offers grants and assistance programs for women and girls.

What’s more, she says, “Women are starting businesses twice as often as their male counterparts.”

Based on data from the Virginia-based Center for Women’s Business Research, about half of all businesses in Maine are female-owned. However, there’s a slight catch to that: Firms headed by women are typically much smaller than those led by men.

But women hold their own elsewhere, as well. The research organization reports that female-owned businesses account for 40 percent of all privately held firms across the country, and that, as of 2008, businesses owned by women employed more than 13 million people and generated $1.9 trillion in sales.

Continued growth of female entrepreneurship, according to Stefanski, is “one of the most exciting things happening both nationally and in our economy here in Maine.”

Locally, there are a few main reasons for the burgeoning population, according to Stefanski: high unemployment rates forcing some women to be self-supportive; or “lifestyle businesses” stemming from a need to escape the corporate world or be at home with kids or aging parents. Others, meanwhile, putting on their entrepreneur caps, simply see market opportunity.

As for the companies they launch and run, they typically cross all sectors, with no particular dominance or sparsity in one or another, according to Eloise Vitelli, director of program and policy development for Maine Centers for Women, Work and Community.

She noted women-owned businesses around eco-tourism (including inns or dog-sled guides); services (from child care to hairdressing to accounting); the creative industry (artists, jewelers, web and graphic designers); and the trades (construction or engineering). Similarly, 37 percent of all farm operators in Maine are women, according to federal data.

Still, not surprisingly, there are some pretty significant differences between male and female-owned enterprises.

According to Stefanski, the biggest is that those helmed by women are often under-financed, which she and others attribute to the male-dominated field of investing.

“People tend to invest in people who look like them,” said Stefanski.

However, there is a plus in that, as it often makes women-run companies more “capital efficient,” she said, and also results in lower failure rates.

But even if the financial backing isn’t always easy to find, general support is.

Vitelli pointed to several small business development centers scattered across the state, along with programs at the University of Southern Maine, as well as entities like the Small Business Administration, and Coastal Enterprises Inc. in Wiscasset.

Most of these offer free services, Vitelli said, but charge fees for more intensive workshops.

Maine Centers for Women Work and Community, for their part, offer some micro-loans and grants, and also lead women through extensive programs, starting with the germ of the idea to, finally, shopping a business plan around to investors, according to Stefanski. The centers serve about 700 people a year, Vitelli noted – including men, who account for somewhere between 13 and 18 percent of clients.

Ultimately, experts urged women to take full advantage of such programs.

“Don’t try to do it alone,” said Vitelli.

Also, she advised, research the market locally and broadly, and determine what it will support. And “talk to other people in business, find out what their issues are.”

Stefanski agreed, noting that sponsors and advocates in the community are a key component to becoming successful.

“Coaching is so important,” she said.

But on the other hand, don’t dodge the finances. Uncomfortable as it may be at first, women should force themselves to talk about the money side of it, she said.

And, most importantly, they should believe in the potential of their business, and its ability to grow beyond an initial need to make money, she said.

“Go big,” said Stefanski, rallying female entrepreneurs to “transform the nature of our business economy.”

A CLOSER LOOK

For more information on programs for women entrepreneurs, visit http://womenworkandcommunity.org, or www.mainewomensfund.org.

Maine Women are the brains and brawn behind many of the businesses that help power the state’s economy.

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