Women business founders rising, but slowly

The Center for Women's Business Research plans to release research next month about larger firms. It includes focus groups with successful business owners and finds that more young women than young men have recently founded companies that grew to $1 million in revenue. When asked about their business goals, more young women than young men are citing raw growth, says research director Gwen Martin.

For example, Susan Rice launched Black Diamond French Truffles with plans to become North America's largest orchard of truffles, an edible fungi that can sell for more than $1,000 a pound. She says she has no curbs on growth. "The sky's the limit."

Sharon DiMinico founded $100 million toy franchiser Learning Express, which has been so successful that she hired her husband Lou away from his real estate developing career to lead franchise development. That goes against custom, although it is not unique. Twenty-nine years, ago, Pam Lopker founded software firm QAD after figuring out a software system to efficiently manage her then-boyfriend's rubber sandal business. QAD is at $236 million and growing. Lopker is chairman and president, and the boyfriend, Karl Lopker, is her husband and company CEO.

On the home front

Women who have built big companies don't know why they remain so rare, but explanations fall largely into two camps: discrimination and nature. They say men have easier access to money from bankers and venture capitalists, the lifeblood of growth. Women also are often more devoted to family, and even those who out-earn their husbands often remain responsible for children and households.

That makes them more likely to launch "lifestyle businesses" so they can get to pediatricians and PTA meetings, says Stephanie DiMarco, co-founder of Advent Software in 1983, who bought out her programmer/partner Steve Strand in 1993.

DiMarco said she was the principal founder and could have done it alone except that she was 25 and naive enough to think she needed a male partner to be taken seriously. She stepped down as CEO in 1999 at age 41, but remained chairman and was brought back as CEO to restructure the company in 2003. Since then, Advent Software has quadrupled its market cap to more than $1 billion. She says it is very difficult building a company and raising children, and she could not have done it without a supportive husband.

"Maybe size is not what drives a female entrepreneur but relative profitability, impact on society, company culture, employee satisfaction and other values," says Maxine Clark, who founded Build-A-Bear Workshop in 1997 and remains CEO of the company that grew from $362 million to $474 million in revenue from 2005 to 2007.

Golden West Financial, co-founded in 1963 by the Sandlers, was a regular in the Fortune 500 before it was sold in 2006 to Wachovia Bank for $24 billion. Marion Sandler says that among the rich couples she knows, it's still the man who chooses charities and political organizations to contribute to. She says she often finds herself seated at dinner parties next to a man who assumes she has nothing interesting to contribute to a conversation. But Sandler also says women are more often content to run small bookstores and dress shops. Not her.

She grew up with four older brothers, and "wired" with ambition and on the path to success before getting married, she says.

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