Women now own 40 percent of all businesses in the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett area, a greater percentage than any other U.S. metropolitan area except Phoenix, according to a study by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners in Silver Springs, Md.
The number of women-owned businesses in East King County rose 70 percent from 9,742 in 1987 to 16,568 in 1996, according to figures compiled by Hebert Research Inc. in Bellevue. That reflects faster growth than the booming local economy.
During that same period, the total number of firms in the metropolitan Seattle area grew by 57 percent, according to the study by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners.
Women moving to form their own businesses are reacting in part to a male-dominated business world, said Caroline Robertson, executive director of the Bellevue Downtown Association.
“Women don’t fit into the traditional way of doing business,” Robertson said. “We’re not processoriented. We’re not hierarchy-oriented. So if women want to survive in their careers, they will create their own business. Or they hit a glass ceiling.”
And it’s not just small retail or service businesses that are being founded by women, said Roberta Pauer, regional labor economist for Washington state’s Employment Security Department. Women are moving into manufacturing and other high-paid industries.
In 1987, service firms such as hair salons, dry cleaners and motels accounted for 30 percent of all women-owned firms, but that dropped to 17 percent in 1992. Retail businesses such as gift shops and clothing stores accounted for less, too, dropping from 23 percent to 16 percent.
In contrast, manufacturing companies, which accounted for only 6 percent of sales by women-owned firms in 1987, rose to 26 percent in 1992. That’s according to the Economic Census of Women-Owned Businesses.
Local women business owners say part of the impetus for getting started comes from the support they receive from government agencies, community organizations and professional women’s groups.
Rae Lissa Smith used to be an administrator for the state Department of Corrections in Bellevue. Six years ago, she started a picture framing business at home so she could spend more time with her child.
To jump-start her framing business, she consulted networking groups and local chambers of commerce. Most of Smith’s advertising is by word of mouth. She now serves on the board of the Kirkland Chamber of Commerce and is a member of the Northshore Chamber of Commerce.
Home-based businesses like Smith’s are not uncommon. According to Hebert Research, five of every six women-owned businesses in the Seattle area have one employee - the owner. The remaining firms have an average of about nine employees.
Many of the owners take advantage of government incentives for women-owned firms.
Washington state requires that contractors doing business with state agencies subcontract a certain amount of their work to minority- and women-owned firms. To take advantage of this, women-owned firms must be certified by the state Office of Minority and Women Business Enterprises in Olympia.
Need money? The U.S. Small Business Administration finances millions of dollars in loans to women-owned businesses each year - more than any other type of business.
Commercial banks consider women-owned firms a hot growth market. Wells Fargo, Seafirst, U.S. Bank and Key Bank are among the nation’s top 45 lenders to small business. Last fall, Wells Fargo established a 10-year, $10 billion women’s loan program. Most of the loan requests so far have been for $25,000 or less.
Peer groups dedicated to women’s business issues are another source of support.
While local trends follow national patterns, the West is a leader in women-owned businesses. Of the 50 metropolitan areas in the United States, the top five in percentage share of women-owned businesses were in Western cities (Phoenix, Seattle, Oakland, Denver and Portland), according to the study by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners.
“I think the West Coast in general is more progressive than the East Coast,” said Sally Gray, an investment officer at Dain Bosworth in Bellevue, whose clientele includes numerous women business owners.