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MARCH 20, 2003

By Karen E. Klein

Making It in a Man's World

Female entrepreneurs still face obstacles that males don't -- and those are magnified when women look to go into areas that are traditionally male-dominated

Q: I'm thinking about starting a business in an area that isn't traditional for females, such as interstate trucking or road repair. What are the biggest challenges facing a female entrepreneur today?
-- D.M., Indianapolis
Anyone new to the world of business ownership -- whether female or male -- should expect to run up against extraordinary challenges as they attempt to start a company, particularly in this uncertain financial climate.

Women, however, still face issues that men don't -- issues rooted in the defensiveness of a group in power that may feel its protected livelihood being challenged, says Phil Borden, a Los Angeles-based small-business consultant who specializes in women-owned businesses. "Women also may experience a loss of opportunities given to those who already formally or informally associate with people 'in the know' and in power," he says. "They'll have to work harder to succeed in areas where contracts are awarded to friends and those with proven reputations."

TRANSPARENT BIDDING.  The best opportunities for women in business may be in arenas where barriers are removed or lowered artificially, such as government contracts, contracts in regulated industries like banking, or semiregulated areas like utilities, Borden says. "Whether or not companies in those industries have some form of affirmative action, they all need to publicly advertise opportunities and often to maintain transparent bidding policies and decision processes," he says. "Women in such professions also may find special opportunity beginning as subcontractors or in seeking one of the many gender-based forms of certification."

Check out the Web site of the U.S. Small Business Administration for information on programs and aid targeted specifically at female entrepreneurs.

Although most startup businesses struggle with financing, this is another area where women-owned companies often have extra difficulty. Despite the fact that female entrepreneurs have become more common over the years, you may run into lenders who have little experience dealing with women-owned businesses in your industry. People tend to like to do business with others like themselves, Borden points out. Women may fall outside the realm of these bankers' experience, or good data may not be available for a financial institution to assess risk when evaluating you for financing.

In the specific industries you mention, you'll need to consider additional issues. A typical barrier to entry in the contracting and trucking fields is the high cost of purchasing or leasing heavy equipment and getting the appropriate bonding or insurance for jobs. To be a successful road-repair contractor or subcontractor, the startup operator may need to have enough equipment and insurance to run two jobs at once. The capital equipment and licensing requirements for a trucking company are less stringent, but still formidable.

NOVELTY FACTOR.  With the current economic downturn, you may also find that your timing is poor. When home or commercial or infrastructure construction is expanding, new products always find room, and women are welcomed, Borden notes. But in tough times, women-owned companies tend to be the first ones dropped from a project, either because they were the last in, are less financially stable, have less experience, or just due to gender discrimination. No matter what the cause, it makes women's startup businesses more brittle.

On the plus side, as a female entrepreneur in a traditionally male-dominated industry, you have the power of novelty on your side. You may be able to garner some publicity or provide good public-relations copy as an unusual bank customer, supplier, or contractor. "Nearly every disadvantage can be converted into an advantage by a clever and determined entrepreneur," Borden says. Another plus is that women in male-dominated professions have developed a number of associations that enable them to band together and get information and leads on contracts and joint ventures. If you plug into one of these networks, you should get substantial help for your startup.

Contact the Center for Women's Business Research for more information on women's business groups.

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Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in covering covered entrepreneurship and small-business issue

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