THE figures speak for themselves. The fastest-growing segment of the United States economy is women-owned businesses. Women entrepreneurs are setting up shop at twice the rate of men and currently own just under a third of all businesses. By the year 2000 that number could rise to half, if the pace does not slacken.
The gathering momentum has left government, financial institutions, academia, and business itself scrambling to adjust and offer support.
In the 1990s, the convergence of economic restructuring, better business experience among women, and economic necessity has turned the trickle of women entrepreneurs into a flood:
* Women are building their own businesses for the same reasons men historically have, says Lynda Moore, a professor of management at Simmons College in Boston and a management consultant. Like men, lifestyle issues are a key factor: the desire for more autonomy, control, and especially in the case of women, flexibility to work around family schedules.
* As a group, women are better educated in business than ever before. Over the past 20 years women have gained more broad-based skills as they moved out of traditional female professions and into the business environment. In doing so, they are acquiring the professional experience, business confidence, and capital to go it alone.
* As major companies pare down and re-engineer themselves for leaner times, the small-business sector is witnessing unparalleled growth. "More and more the economy is being driven by smaller, more flexible, more fleet-footed units," says Sharon Hadary, executive director of the Washington-based National Foundation of Women Business Owners (NFWBO).
* And despite all the gains made over the past decades, the persistence of the glass ceiling - making the next step visible but blocking its attainment - has been an incentive for many women to start their own business. In structuring companies, women business owners are also less likely to recreate the barriers to promotion that they themselves experienced.
Although Ms. Moore says more than 50 percent of women business owners cite stalled careers as a factor, not everyone who sets up in business is a "corporate dropout."
At Simmons, the country's only business school exclusively for women, Moore has seen a steady rise over the past 10 years in the number of students whose career goals include starting a business. She terms it a "social revolution," and attributes the shift in part to more female role models. Women are growing up in a generation where they learn that running a business is practical, profitable, and within their reach.
Unlike their predecessors in the late '70s and '80s who tried to live up to the superwoman image of a highflying executive and attentive mother blazing trails through tradition-bound corporate culture, the new generation is not prepared to make the same sacrifices. "They look at the dues the older generation have paid and they say it isn't worth it," Moore says.
Younger women are building their own business ventures in pursuit of greater freedom and flexibility. And making money is no small part of the motivation.
Women have had businesses for years, Dr. Hadary says, but often they were part-time and classified as a hobby. More and more women are turning these "hobbies" into full-time, profitable business ventures.
And these new ventures touch the furthest reaches of the business arena - mining, manufacturing, construction. The numbers are still small in areas such as manufacturing, where women-owned businesses total just over 94,000, according to the Census Bureau's 1987 Economic Census (the 1992 Census figures are not yet available). Of the 5.4 million women-owned businesses, more than 55 percent are in services. But non-durable manufacturing and construction are the fastest-growing fields for women entrepreneurs , the NFWBO reports. Opening up contracts
Even the federal government may soon be cracking open its doors to women. A bill introduced last month by Rep. John LaFalce (D) of New York proposes establishing quotas and "affirmative outreach" to solicit offers from women-owned firms. Only 1.3 percent of federal contracting dollars were awarded to women-owned businesses in 1990, despite their representing about one-third of the nation's businesses.
To support this surge of business interest among women, new services offering financial advice, mentors, technical assistance, and training programs have expanded exponentially in the last five years. Universities are starting special programs for women business owners; Seton Hill College in Greensburg, Pa., opened its government-funded National Center for the Education of Women in Business in May with a mandate to do much-needed research into this burgeoning field. The Small Business Administration is f unding a series of demonstration projects across the country offering training for women starting or growing a business. The nonprofit American Woman's Economic Development Corporation runs training programs in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles targeting minority women. The list of other programs is long.
In addition, women's magazines that traditionally catered to executives are beginning to tailor themselves to entrepreneurs. Working Woman Magazine - not long ago tightly geared to corporate women's agendas - now devotes half its pages to women launching enterprises. The National Association for Female Executives even has a loan fund for women starting up businesses. Capital can be scarce
Across the board, however, drumming up enough capital to float a venture is still the biggest hurdle, women entrepreneurs say. Banks discriminate by such practices as requiring a man to co-sign a business loan. Women's often weak collateral position and poor financial planning also hinder their cause.
Start-up capital is hard to come by for men as well as women, but since women are predominantly in service-type businesses, the difficulty is compounded. Banks are reluctant to make loans without assets, and service industries have few hard assets to offer.
But like slumbering giants, banks are gradually waking up to the new demands and some are actively seeking out businesswomen through advertising. It is too big a part of the market to miss. A Clinton initiative in May to have the regulatory agencies allow banks to make more "character" loans also may help ease the credit crunch. These loans would be based more on a creditor's history and reliability than detailed financial statements.
Surprisingly, the bigger challenge for women is in obtaining what Hadary calls "mezzanine financing" - loans from $50,000 to $400,000 to expand a business with an established track record.
What women may lose in access to capital they gain in leaner businesses with more competitive pricing, Hadary says.