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A jobless boom for female firms

Women are creating new businesses faster than the national average, but they're hiring far fewer workers. One solution: better networks for women.

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"It's a problem," says Ms. Thiers, who took Sittercity through two rounds of venture funding but encountered virtually no women in the process.

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In the four years since starting Caskata, a high-end paper and tableware business, Shawn Laughlin has grown sales more than 10-fold, gotten her products featured in leading home magazines, and hired three employees. But access to capital has been "by far the most difficult challenge," she says.

Several groups are trying to help women overcome networking and funding challenges. The Kauffman Foundation expanded its FastTrac program, which offers hands-on training to entrepreneurs, to offer courses for women. Ernst & Young debuted Winning Women in 2008, a national competition that offers support to female businesses with high growth potential. Other support groups include Make Mine a Million $ Business, Women 2.0, and Astia, a nonprofit based in Silicon Valley that focuses on helping women-led companies gain access to growth capital.

Not all women are able to commit the time it takes to start a high-growth, high-employment business. Ms. Laughlin works seven days a week, rising to go to the gym at 6 a.m. and working until midnight. "That's what it takes to start a business," she says. She stepped away from her previous career as a film producer to stay at home with her three children and waited until they were older to start Caskata.

The work-family balance "is a challenge," says Thiers, who recently had twins. "But to me there is a simple answer: intense organizational skills."

One area where women are making strides is science and technology, often stereotyped as men's fields and the foundation for firms that tend to add employees and profits quickly. Last year, the National Science Foundation reported that women earned about 60 percent of bachelor's degrees in the biological sciences. Women have been named the heads of engineering at Harvard, Yale, and Purdue, and lead tech companies Oracle and DuPont.

"Women are making progress," especially in education and established businesses, says Ms. Robb. "That's not transmitting over into entrepreneurship as much as we'd like."

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