Growth of women-owned St. Louis businesses lags rest of nation [St. Louis Post-Dispatch]
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 14--Nearly every list of St. Louis-area businesses owned by women begins with Maxine Clark, the founder and president of Build-a-Bear Workshop, and continues through Jennifer Williams, who holds the same distinction and title with the St. Louis Closet Company.
The tally reaches 65,000 by the time the list is filled.
Sounds good on paper.
But a closer look reveals that women in St. Louis lag behind the rest of the nation when it comes to business creation.
In fact, a recent analysis of U.S. Census data by American Express OPEN placed St. Louis dead last among the nation's 25 largest metropolitan areas in the growth of female-owned businesses over the last 15 years.
Nationally, the State of Women-Owned Business Report found capital enterprises created by women increased 29 percent between 2002 and 2012. The growth of female-owned businesses in St. Louis, meanwhile, stalled at 8 percent.
Missouri as a whole, with 16 percent growth in the last decade, performed better than St. Louis but lagged behind most states.
"I think St. Louis is simply a couple of years behind in recognizing the innovations of women entrepreneurs and their impact on the community," said Jennifer Ehlen, a vice president at Thompson Street Capital Partners and the former director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at St. Louis University.
American Express researcher Julie Weeks said growth in the women's business sector closely tracked the population and socioeconomic census data. Regions with population losses and a disproportionate number of residents living below the poverty line -- such as St. Louis -- didn't fare as well as more affluent communities.
"When a population of a state is growing, it means more people moving in, and therefore more customers if you are starting a business," said Weeks. "It feeds on itself. Business just can't be as good when the population flattens out."
Inadequate support from state and local economic development agencies also stymied growth in women-owned businesses, Weeks said. An official with the St. Louis Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners concurs with that assessment.
Dorothy Lockard, the public policy co-chair, believes the failure of Missouri lawmakers to finance a long-delayed "disparity study" may have played a significant role in St. Louis and Missouri falling at or near the bottom of the survey. Lockard is the president of the Dietrich Lockard Group, a telecommunications firm.
The disparity study would help minority and women-owned businesses assess their ability to land state contracts, while pinpointing ways to expand their standing in the broader economic community.
"What the American Express study is saying is what we've been feeling on the ground and unable to prove," said Lockard.
NOWBO, she added, is in the midst of a fundraising campaign which, if successful, will match the state expenditure to launch the disparity study.
Michelle Nelson has a unique perspective to what ails female business people in St. Louis.
Back2Basics, the Midtown marketing firm Nelson opened five years ago, has a satellite office in Denver -- a city she says is more open to females in business.
She explained that Denver, unlike St. Louis, is populated by a greater percentage of transplants who've moved to Colorado from other points around the country.
A transplanted St. Louisan herself, Nelson believes a transient client and business network is easier to penetrate -- particularly if you are a woman -- than a network entrenched in the quintessential St. Louis question.
When asked where she went to high school, Nelson responds, "I didn't, can you point me toward one?"
To some extent, Nelson also believes the growth of female-owned businesses has been slowed in part by a business community slow to move away from decades of male dominance.
She says chauvinism isn't rampant. But it's definitely present.
"There are still vestiges of chauvinism," she said. "But I've chosen to work it to my advantage. You can't be bitter about it, you just have to be tough."
Lockard agrees that a slight trace of chauvinism, albeit mostly unintentional, may be one reason women in St. Louis hasn't stayed apace of entrepreneurial gains in other pockets of the country.
"I don't think people mean to shut out women's businesses," she said. "They are just more comfortable doing business with an established (company)."
St. Louis should follow the lead of other cities and regions that have established centers to advance the cause of female entrepreneurship, Ehlen said.
The addition of a support center, she added, would have the additional benefit of making outreach programs, such as those offered by the Women's Business Development Center in Chicago and Women 2.0, available to entrepreneurs in St. Louis.
"The region needs to channel more resources (to women-owned businesses) through these types of services," Ehlen said.
And while the findings of the American Express study were decidedly dour, Lockard sees the report as a possible catalyst to "grow businesses here rather than stay at the bottom."
Women are growing businesses in other cities, Weeks noted, saying there's no reason St. Louis can't join the vanguard as well.
A big reason for the national growth in female entrepreneurship resides in government data and other studies that show that nearly 6 in 10 students in American colleges are women. Today's parents raise girls to believe "they can do anything they want."
"Not only are women as educated as men, but those undergraduate and graduate degrees, along with work experiences and managerial positions, are giving them tools for entrepreneurship," she said. "They are learning more about the principles of business, and that is really speeding up the increase in the rate of entrepreneurship."
(c)2012 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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