Georgia second in nation in number of women-owned businesses started

Yetunde Jude launched her hair products business in 2016, testing, mixing and packaging her merchandise at her kitchen table.

A divorced mother of two, Jude juggles her full-time internet marketing job, her parenting responsibilities and her business, with her work day usually stretching beyond 12 hours. For right now, she said, that’s what it takes to make sure her children are cared for while she keeps alive her dream of being her own boss.

All across Georgia, women entrepreneurs are engaged in similar balancing acts as they struggle to start and grow small businesses while often functioning as the primary caretaker for their children. And, for many, it seems to be working. Last year, 522,200 women-owned businesses were started here, second only to Florida, according to a recent American Express study.

Still, there were challenges.

Only 1.7 percent of all women-owned businesses reached revenues above $1 million, according to the State of Women-owned Businesses Report. While the number of women-owned businesses nationwide grew 11 percent from 2016 to 2017, revenue within that period grew by only 0.3 percent while those businesses only grew jobs by 2 percent.

“There is a comfort level that we have to help women-owned businesses to aspire to and get to, where they are able to bring on employees and then transition to leadership roles,” said Terri Denison, director at the Georgia Small Business Administration.

Women also should not shy away from venturing into spaces predominantly occupied by men, said Andrea Hershatter, senior associate dean at Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

“So many highly successful businesses — you know the billion-dollar businesses — are very tech-reliant,” said Hershatter. But “tech remains a male-dominated field.”

The introduction of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) programs to females from early learning through high school will give more women headway into previously male-dominated fields, said Hershatter.

She sees STEM courses helping women expand their businesses beyond traditional fields. Health care, social services, accommodations, food services and administrative support now represent 49 percent of all women-owned businesses.

After spending years in corporate America, Melanie Rhodes launched her software businesses, Diversity Spend Solutions.

She ran it from her home for five years. Confronted with networking challenges, Rhodes applied to take part in the city of Atlanta’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative in 2015. She joined 14 other businesswomen for a 15-month program, getting access to funding options, mentors, leadership training and free office space from which to run her operations.

“They put us in front of potential investors interested in women-owned businesses,” she said.

Rhodes, who is African American, said the program gave her opportunities women and minorities like herself often don’t get. With the contacts and knowledge gained, Rhodes broke into the software business, demystifying the presumed “male-dominated space” and is growing her business to greater profitability.

“I went from a home business to CEO. … My confidence level was high. My business grew, and my customer base also grew,” she said.

Theia Smith, director of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI), said supporting early stage entrepreneurs like Rhodes helps them move past funding, network, training and space barriers that prevent most women from growing their businesses.

Moving those businesses from kitchen tables to an actual professional space also helps them view their business seriously.

For Rhodes, not worrying about the rent enabled her to hire an intern and focus on growing her software. She now has a staff of six.

“We know that, when entrepreneurs go from being a one-person show to actually creating a job opportunity, their capacity to stay in business and sustain that business growth triples,” said Smith.

To date, the businesses nurtured by the program provide 200 jobs in Atlanta, according to WEI.

Geri Stengel, the research adviser for American Express, said the study by the company provides the patterns of growth for women-owned firms over the years and helps governments, organizations and individuals formulate ways to increase entrepreneurship opportunities for women.

“What gets measured, gets managed,” said Stengel

Atlanta’s program made a huge difference for Rhodes.

“I did something that I was good at. That provided me autonomy, creativity and provided financial independence!” she said.

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