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Programs that help women business owners expand their opportunities

Martin Desmarais | 9/30/2015, 4:17 p.m.
Satara Wilson (standing) pitches a business plan during the Center for Women in Enterprise “Community Classroom Business Planning: Creative Economy” class held at the Dorchester Arts Collaborative. Photo courtesy of Center for Women in Enterprise

Women-owned businesses are on the rise — most accounts find they make up about 30 percent of all privately held firms in the U.S. — but there is concern that many of these business top out early. Helping women entrepreneurs grow their businesses to the next level has become a big emphasis and, in the Boston region, there are a number of organizations that are working on innovative solutions to move women-owned businesses to the next level.

According to data collected by the National Association of Women Business Owners, in 2014 more than 9.1 million firms in the U.S. were majority owned by women, employing nearly 7.9 million people and generating $1.4 trillion in sales. But those figures account for just 14 percent of the employment and a meager 11 percent of the revenue.

Women have no problem starting companies, the trouble is growing them. Just 4.2 percent of all women-owned firms have revenues of more than $1 million. Ernst & Young has studied this issue in recent years and concludes that companies owned by men are almost four times as likely to hit the million-dollar mark compared to those owned by women. In 2008, the accounting giant launched its Entrepreneurial Winning Women program to address the problem and provide mentorship and coaching to women entrepreneurs.

Women in Workplace Panel held during a May GBCC Women’s Network breakfast, left to right: Victoria Budson, Executive Director, Women and Public Policy Program, Harvard KSG; Megan Costello, Executive Director, Office of Women’s Advancement, City of Boston; Cathy Minehan, Dean, Simmons School of Management; Evelyn Murphy, President, The WAGE Project, Inc.; Beth Williams, President & CEO, Roxbury Technology, LLC

Women in Workplace Panel held during a May GBCC Women’s Network breakfast, left to right: Victoria Budson, Executive Director, Women and Public Policy Program, Harvard KSG; Megan Costello, Executive Director, Office of Women’s Advancement, City of Boston; Cathy Minehan, Dean, Simmons School of Management; Evelyn Murphy, President, The WAGE Project, Inc.; Beth Williams, President & CEO, Roxbury Technology, LLC

Locally, organizations have been supporting women-owned businesses for decades, with the goal of increasing the area network of women entrepreneurs and business owners. The lack of strong business networks is often cited as one reason that women-owned businesses falter beyond the initial stages. A 2013 AMEX Open Report suggests that networks of women entrepreneurs and business owners are generally smaller and less diverse than those of their male counterparts, and women tend to draw more on their personal relationships, particularly family, than on other sources — conditions that are associated with lower innovation and lower growth expectations.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce has been working to expand Boston’s businesswomen network in the 20 years since it first created its Women’s Network. The most consistent Women’s Network programming over the years has been its networking breakfasts, which bring together women of all career levels and offer speakers, roundtables and panels.

Katy O’Neil, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce executive vice president, said the breakfasts allow women to share different voices and perspectives and begin to build a more diverse network that can stimulate professional growth.

“We are providing cross-sector relationship building,” she said. “You are really exposing these women to all industries across Greater Boston.”

The network breakfasts are held every month, except in July and August and in January when the chamber holds its other big women’s event, The Pinnacle Awards. The awards event honors women who have demonstrated excellence in entrepreneurship, management and lifetime achievement and typically draws 1,000 attendees.

In February, the breakfast featured a “Leading Female Entrepreneurs” panel with Suzanne Bates, CEO of Bates Communications; Andrea Cohen, co-founder of HouseWorks; Diane Hessan, CEO of the Startup Institute; and Sandy Lish, principal and founder of the Castle Group. A May panel, “Women in the Workplace: Issues that Impact Us All,” featured Harvard Kennedy School Executive Director Victoria Budson and Boston’s Office of Women’s Advancement Executive Director Megan Costello. Individual speakers at breakfasts this year included Joanne Chang, owner of Flour Bakery & Café; and Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross.