Measured against most other states, Nebraska and Iowa are short a few women like Jill Lorsch, Kathy Jordan and Cindi Goff.
Their businesses — an import brokerage, coffee shops and a street-sweeping company, respectively — are part of a growing list of women-owned firms in the Midlands. Between 1997 and 2012, that list expanded by nearly 35 percent in Nebraska and by almost 21 percent in Iowa, according to a new study.
But compared with the 54 percent national growth rate over the same period, our numbers are not quite up to speed. Iowa, in particular, seems to be a tough spot for women in business, ranking last or second to last in several categories.
Local business advocates say those are numbers that shouldn't be ignored. Firms owned by women - which are growing nationally at a faster rate than businesses overall — represent a potential powerhouse for creating new jobs, boosting local economies and helping to speed the economic recovery.
"We think it can be turned into a motivation," said Mike Tramontina, president of Iowans for Social & Economic Development, a Des Moines business assistance organization that runs a Women Business Center. "This is a challenge, a concerted effort to reach out to more potential entrepreneurs, to provide more training ... to see if we can help them overcome some barriers to growth."
The new report was commissioned by American Express OPEN, a division of the credit card company aimed at small-business owners, and used census data and projections.
It analyzed trends in women-owned businesses in terms of overall growth and by industry. And it broke down the results by state, which revealed Nebraska's middle-of-the-road results and Iowa lagging far behind other states.
Of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., Nebraska ranks 39th for growth in the number of firms, 25th in revenue growth and 20th in employment growth. With those factors combined, the survey gave women-owned firms in the Cornhusker State a "combined economic clout" ranking of No. 27.
Iowa finished dead last in revenue growth (which shrank by 3.5 percent) and in the overall ranking. It was second to last for growth in the number of firms and overall employment growth. In the latter category, the state saw a nearly 20 percent drop over the 15-year period.
It's not clear what's to blame for the low numbers.
Leaders of several business development groups said the challenges facing women in business in Nebraska and Iowa are more or less the same challenges facing women in business around the country.
Becky Greenwald is the regional advocate for the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy, and her territory covers Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri. She said part of the issue for women is that they're still playing catch-up after years of being outsiders in business.
In 1972, women owned less than 5 percent of all U.S. firms. Today, that number is closer to 30 percent.
Amelia Lobo, director of the ISED Women Business Center in Des Moines, said it's possible that the types of businesses that draw more women could have something to do with growth trends. Some of the industries with larger numbers of women-owned businesses — health and social assistance, services like dry cleaning and beauty salons, and retail — are sometimes the first to take a hit when the economy is struggling.
She said many women are still balancing a large number of home and family responsibilities with work, which might have something to do with their selection of one type of business over another.
"There are certainly a lot of demands on women still based on family obligations, and that may have something to do with it," she said.
But Lobo added that it's clear women aren't just going into business because they think it will somehow allow more flexibility than another type of work.
"These are not lifestyle businesses," she said. "Women are not going into business predominantly because it's easier to have a family and a small business. These are businesses that grow."
Plus, there are the issues that affect just about every business owner, regardless of their gender.
"Working capital, startup capital ... traditional lenders aren't interested in loaning to startups because they are too risky," said Monica Braun, director of the Women's Business Center for the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project in Lyons, Neb.
Keeping up momentum as a business grows is also an issue. The report found the women-owned firms with $25,000 to $49,999 in revenue grow at the fastest rate, but that the growth drops off significantly between $250,000 and $499,999 in revenue. At the million-dollar mark, women-owned firms make up less than 2 percent of all businesses bringing in that much revenue.
Kathy Jordan, who runs two Scooter's Coffee House franchises in Council Bluffs, said finding and keeping good employees can be one of her toughest tasks.
"Whether you're a male or a female in the small-business world, I think some of the same issues are going to happen no matter what," she said. "It's just the market that we're in now and the attitude of the people."
Some agencies have attempted to help women in particularly male-dominated industries, like construction. Last year, the SBA began a new program that requires some federal contracting work to be set aside for bids only from women-owned businesses.
Kathleen Piper, deputy district director for the SBA in Nebraska, said her office has been holding workshops — including one coming up this month — to help women sort out what kind of set-asides they might qualify for. So far, nearly 100 women have registered to be in line for the government projects.
About 40 women are now members of a group called the Women-owned Construction Consortium, which meets monthly at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. That group is increasingly attracting the attention of government agencies looking for contractors, said Andy Alexander, a program manager with UNO's Nebraska Business Development Center.
Some additional help can provide a boost, but local women business owners said lasting success has more to do with having a passion for business — and showing over and over again that you know your stuff.
Jill Lorsch has operated a custom brokerage firm in Omaha since 2000 with two other women, Pam Feyerherm and Traci Woolsoncroft. The three worked together in the industry for years before striking out on their own.
Lorsch said New Venture Brokers started small: "We dug deep in our pockets, found an Office Depot $199 desk special and used cardboard boxes for tables."
But it didn't take long before the women had built a solid client base of customers, all importers who relied on New Venture to sort out all of the documents to get their products into the country.
"We're pretty down-to-earth people," Lorsch said. "You'd be surprised at the number of businesses that really embrace that, the no-nonsense, let's get the job done right."
Omaha businesswoman Cindi Goff said she faced a few skeptics when she opened her first business — River City Barricade Co. — in 1981, when she was 25 years old. Some potential clients didn't think a young woman would know anything about business, let alone about one related to construction. The company rented and sold road barricades.
But she pushed forward. By 2010, when she sold the business, Goff had 25 employees.
Now, she's back in the game with another business, a street-sweeping company called Broomers Inc. She works with private companies for parking lots and does some work on local government property. Goff and her co-owner, Diane Urbach, have five employees.
"I don't know where you can go and get the earning power you can get with your own business," she said. "You have to be passionate about it and have to be devoted. What you need most is time. You really have to be devoted to the business."
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