Getting Beyond Glass Ceilings

As women entrepreneurs surpass men, management style is seen as key

Lisa Noble recently gave up her high-powered job as vice president for marketing with the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce to launch her own home-based public relations firm.

"I looked around at some of the bigger companies that I would consider working for, and they were downsizing or the politics were just too great for me," she says. "This [new job] is ideal."

The decision of women like Ms. Noble to strike out on their own has become the latest trend in business. As much of the corporate world struggles with downsizing and diversifying the ranks of management, many women have just decided to stop waiting. The number of women-owned firms nationwide has increased 79 percent since the mid-1980s.

Women own 36 percent of all US businesses, provide employment for 1 of every 4 US workers, and generate 16 percent of nation's business sales.

Here in Phoenix, they are doing well. A recent study found that women-owned businesses in Phoenix are outselling their male counterparts for the first time. It is a trend that is showing up around the country, according to Julie Weeks, research director of the National Foundation for Women Business Owners. As a group, firms run by women are leading the way in growth of sales.

Some researchers say the key to success may have to do with a markedly feminine management style, one that emphasizes communication, cooperation, and broader input in decision-making.

Arizona's reputation for being friendly to business may be driving some of the growth of women-owned firms here, says Jan Vacek, director of women- and minority-owned business enterprise at the state Department of Commerce. While giants such as Motorola Inc. and the Dial Corp. dot the corporate landscape, more than 90 percent of the state's firms are small businesses that hire 100 or fewer employees, well above the national average of about 70 percent.

Phoenix ranks near the top of American cities in terms of accessibility to business information, low start-up costs, and an abundance of free start-up and support services.

While some banks lag in providing the same treatment to female entrepreneurs as to men, a growing number of women are nonetheless striking out on their own. Many launch companies in the service sector, which accounts for about half of all new businesses begun by women nationally. Minimal regulations in Arizona make it easy to set up and run a range of home-based businesses, including word processing, housecleaning, and public relations.

Arizona's women entrepreneurs exhibit a different style right from the moment they form a business, says Ms. Vacek. Women who come into her office to register tend to be more deliberative, taking as much as six months before actually opening their doors for business.

Men, she notes, often want to go into business right away, sometimes without going through the steps for registration and licensing.

Noble noticed the differences firsthand from research in launching her own business.

"I went to the people who were business owners and asked them every question I could think of. My very first question was: 'Where is your business plan, and are you following it?' " she said.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people I happened to talk to were men, and 99 percent of them did not have a business plan," she added. "I always thought that that was a really important first step in getting something like [a business] started."

Ms. Weeks, meanwhile, says women are more likely than men to have an intuitive style of thinking and of management, which translates into flatter organizations.

They are also more likely than men to seek outside opinions when making business decisions.

"Whether [it is] a technology purchase or a new business opportunity, they are more likely to take more time to figure out options and ask employees and fellow business owners," Weeks added.

Women also are more inclined to put credit to different use than are men. Weeks says research showed women use credit to expand their businesses, while men use it to consolidate debt and "even out the peaks and valleys in cash flows."

And women, she said, are less likely than men to seek capital. When they do obtain it, they seek it in lower amounts.

Suzanne de Berge, president of Phoenix-based Behavior Research Inc., which conducted the survey, says it's too early to tell whether Arizona's female-run small business will continue to dominate the field. But the trend has been evolving for the past six years.

The trend may also highlight a regional uniqueness, she adds, the "frontier spirit" that brought men and women to settle in the West. In the mid-1800s, women settlers to Arizona who survived the westward trek realized that nothing could stop them from doing "men's work." Some even ran cattle ranches.

"Maybe some of the myths about the Old West are not complete myths after all," says de Berge. "That tradition [of female self-reliance] persists in Arizona, perhaps a little more than in the East and South."

Noble, meanwhile, says women must simply trust their intuition. "Their decision-making capabilities are very good, and they just need to trust their instincts, like men do."

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