TEN years ago, Kavelle Bajaj was an Avon lady with a bright idea. Convinced that personal computer networks would be the office tools of the future, this suburban Maryland housewife borrowed $5,000 from her husband and founded I-Net Inc.
Today, I-Net employs 2,700 people and posts annual revenues of $230 million.
But for Mrs. Bajaj, along with millions of other women who own and manage successful businesses, the climb to the top can be especially difficult. The biggest challenge, they say, is being taken seriously by banks and lending institutions more accustomed to dealing with dark suits than dresses.
Yet new evidence, released this week, suggests that women-owned businesses are not only just as credit worthy as firms owned by men, but also constitute one of the most vital and rapidly expanding sectors of the economy.
The study, prepared by the National Foundation of Women Business Owners (NFWBO) and Dun & Bradstreet Corporation, a business information firm, estimates that there are 7.7 million women-owned firms nationwide, and that this number is growing by 18 percent every year. These firms employ 15.5 million people, generate nearly $1.4 trillion in annual sales, and are just as likely to pay their bills on time as other firms. American women business owners employ more people than the entire Fortune 500 worldwide.
Yet there are still plenty of obstacles. A NFWBO study released last year found that over one-third of women business owners indicate having problems working with banks, and that women are three times more likely than men to use their credit cards for short-term loans.
''We hope [this report] will change some stereotypes and create more opportunity for women in business,'' says Laura Henderson, chairwoman of NFWBO.
In some industries, the study suggests, women-owned businesses outperform the pack. Not only do these companies hire people at double the rate of other firms, the data suggest that they also tend to stay in business longer: Only 24 percent of women-owned businesses identified in the survey were less than 4 years old, compared with 39 percent of all firms.
And these are not just beauty parlors. While 7 out of 10 women-owned businesses are in the personal services and retail trades, the highest growth rates in female ownership are in the male-dominated construction and manufacturing industries.
According to Marilyn Librenz-Himes, associate professor of business administration at George Washington University in Washington, this apparent explosion of female enterprise is a result of talented women growing frustrated with the glass ceiling and striking out on their own. Many businesswomen, she says, have quit their first jobs, some to have children, and are starting companies on their own.
In addition, Professor Librenz-Himes says, computers have acted as a great leveler, providing women with little business experience help with everything from accounting to taxes.
Another advantage, Ms. Henderson says, is that since many women are not schooled in the traditional ways of doing business, they are more apt to innovate. Research shows that women tend to develop management structures that are less rigid.
But as far as women-owned businesses have come, the American business world is still largely a man's domain. Only 1 percent of US firms with more than 100 employees are owned by women. This fact is quite apparent to Bajaj, whose company is the 23rd largest woman-owned company in the nation. Even after 10 booming years, she still has trouble with credibility.
''These days, it's ok for women to be in business, but you're really not supposed to be successful. If you are, people always think there's somebody else doing the work.''
Pointing to a survey showing that two-thirds of women business owners are married and half still have children living at home, Bajaj says that women are simply adding business to the long list of priorities that women balance.
''For generations and centuries, women have had to be creative, to juggle priorities in the home and use resources wisely. Underlying all good business decisions are strong common sense and a good gut feeling, and if you have that, there's no limit to what you can achieve.''
''Women need to hang in there,'' she adds. ''The world is going to catch up and soon, women in business won't have to put up with so much nonsense.''