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Surprise! Women started more firms than men.

Before the recession, women were starting twice as many firms as men. Now, they may do even better.

By Elizabeth FullerCorrespondent / December 27, 2010

Kathy Doherty (l.) and her tennis and business partner, Ruth Marvin Webster, started a small business after Ms. Webster was laid off. Net Wit markets tennis shirts with clever sayings on them.

Fred Greaves/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Ruth Marvin Webster and her tennis partner, Kathy Doherty, spent years making puns at their racquet club: "Love all," "Get a grip," "Tightly strung," "Yours!" They'd even joked about turning their witticisms into a T-shirt business. So after Ms. Webster was laid off in 2008 from her job as a features writer for a San Diego daily, the pair took the plunge and started Net Wit, a business so new that its website only went up in mid-November.

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"The economy is the reason we started the company, absolutely," Webster says. Of course, the sour economy hasn't helped the bottom line. "It's harder to make a sale because it's frivolous," she says. "You can live without a tennis shirt. Maybe not as happily, but you can live."

If opening a business demands courage, opening one in the aftermath of the worst economic downturn since the Depression demands a special steeliness, especially for female entrepreneurs. Because women-owned businesses are concentrated in retail and service industries – think Estée Lauder, Coco Chanel, Mrs. Fields Cookies, even Zipcar – they were among the first to feel the downturn. Now, in a fragile recovery, the business climate requires other qualities, like resourcefulness and patience.

"They're rediscovering the art of 'bootstrapping' and keeping your overhead low and keeping your operating costs low so you can adjust to these economic shocks and keep adjusting," says Jeffrey Cornwall, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. "It doesn't mean they're not growing their business or not starting their business, it means they're finding another way to get there."

Take Mary Frankie Forte, owner of the It's a Grind coffee shop in downtown Oakland, Calif. "Customers are definitely cutting back," she says. Some have downgraded from lattes to drip coffee, which costs half as much; others may get a muffin only twice a week instead of daily. "I'm just trying to make do with what I have…. Loans to pay back, I don't need."

This tendency of women entrepreneurs to take out fewer loans and grow more slowly is well known. "Women tend to be ... more conservative and careful in their financial-management practices," says Susan Coleman, professor of economics at Hartford University in Connecticut. That may be the right strategy for this era, says Dr. Cornwall. "Those businesses that right now are taking on less debt are going to be those that are much stronger coming out of the recession."

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