Women business founders rising, but slowly

Successful sisters can have different opinions when asked to explain the dearth of women-founded large corporations. Claire's Stores is a costume jewelry boutique with 3,000 locations. It was founded by Roland Schaefer, and his daughters Bonnie and Marla took over when he had a stroke in 2002.

The family owned 36% of the voting shares, and Bonnie and Marla both worked for the company, but the Claire's board of directors passed them over to begin a search for an outside CEO.

"We had to get tough," Marla says, and the board agreed to make them acting CEOs. Over five years, company revenue increased 36% to $1.5 billion before they led the sale of the company to a private-equity firm last year for $3.1 billion. Marla says women can get more done in the same amount of time as a man, but they have different priorities. "I have a husband and kids, and they want a piece of me," she says.

Bonnie says gender discrimination is more rampant today than any other form of discrimination. DiMarco says discrimination persists, but it's manageable, and there are no barriers that can't be overcome by a woman with focus. "Everything's equal, but it's not. Particularly if there are children involved," says Nemeth, who raised one child with the help of a supportive husband and her own "absurd amount of energy."

But there's a cost to growing a giant company. Most of her successful female colleagues are divorced, Nemeth says.

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