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VOL. 37 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 12, 2013

Success at any age

From teen dreams to retirement-age reflection, 12 female entrepreneurs tell their stories

By Linda Bryant

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There’s little doubt that the number of women-owned business is growing in the United States – Middle Tennessee included.

Any woman of any age who has the nerve, the will, the support and vision can be her own boss, from spirited teenagers and hard-driving millennials to the “accidental entrepreneurs,’’ created by the recession and second (or third career) baby boomers.

Nashville also has its share of power brokers, women who have kept a successful business going well past the date when others have retired.

Experts say 30 to 40 percent of businesses in the United States are owned by women. According to the State of Women-Owned Business Report, released last year by American Express, the number of businesses owned by females has grown by 54 percent in the past 15 years, 1.5 times the growth-rate of U.S. firms as a whole.

Sounds like good news for women entrepreneurs. But there is a downside.

The same American Express report contains some sobering realities that point to barriers women still face.

For example, despite owning roughly 1/3 of U.S.-based businesses, women attract only 5 percent of the nation’s equity capital. When it comes to first-year funding, they receive 80 percent less capital than men, the report states.

Kia Jarmon

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“Women are catching up, and we are definitely seeing more interest in entreprenuerism from female students at Belmont,” says Jeff Cornwall, professor of entrepreneurship at Belmont University.

“The increase is significant. I’d say women studying entrepreneurship at Belmont is at about 40 percent right now. Ten to 15 years ago that number was more like 10-15 percent.”

But Cornwall acknowledges the roadblocks local women face if they want to be their own boss.

“It’s still hard for women to get access to significant funding,” he says. “But it’s gotten better and continues to get better, especially here in Nashville. Ninety-percent of start-ups are self-financed or boosted by help from family and friends.

Millennials makes waves

“For some people there’s still a social stigma attached to women business owners and women in charge,” Cornwall adds. “Of course, it’s all changing very fast, especially among the millennial generation. This generation seems to represent a real shift. Male and female, they are more interest in opening their own business.”

Jeff Cornwall

Cornwell also is seeing an increased interest in entrepreneurship from baby boomers, the generation than spans 1945-64, as well as a bump in ‘accidental entrepreneurs.”

The typical accidental entrepreneur is forced into starting their own business by life circumstances.

Belmont graduate Kia Jarmon is a product of the millennial generation, those born between 1981 and 2000. Jarmon, 28, started her public relations firm, the MEPR Agency, two weeks after she graduated from college in 2006. She ran the business while holding a second job until she had earned enough money and clients to go fulltime in 2010.

“I was either too young or too ambitious – or both – to realize there were challenges,” Jarmon says. “I never grew up thinking there were barriers, so I just don’t think it was part of my mindset. I funded the agency myself and started slowly, offering a couple of services at first.

“My clients told me what they needed, which was media relations and event management. I listened to them.”

Now that Jarmon has steady clients, brand recognition and knows she can consistently pay the bills, she is ready to take MEPR to the next level.

Connie McGee

By the time she’s in her 30s, she wants to move away from helping cash-crunched startups and other small businesses to bigger – and more lucrative – markets, including larger government accounts.

She’s interested in creating a line of products for customers who can’t afford her on a day-to-day basis.

Jarmon would like to concentrate more on leadership initiatives and speaking engagements and perhaps delegate many of the company’s day-to-day responsibilities to an employee or partner.

Bootstrapping and peer support

Belmont’s Cornwall says Jarmon’s choice to bootstrap her business in its early years is in line with what he advices his students to do when they start out.

“I tell all entrepreneurs to be realistic,” Cornwall says.” Most of the time venture capital and angel investors will back someone with a track record. I tell them to keep their overhead down.

“The 20s is an ideal time to get started with a business,” Cornwall adds. “Your personal overhead is low, and there are usually few fixed expenses such as a mortgage note. You can get by on a modest income, and it’s a tremendous advantage.”

But not all women who start a business are as unencumbered as Jarmon was when she started out.

Kimble Bosworth

Kimble Bosworth, owner and president of Proforma Printelligence, a custom printing and marketing company, says she started her own business because she “didn’t have a choice.”

“I really did go kicking and screaming,” the 46-year-old says. “I always wanted to make the leader look good. I never wanted to run my own business.”

‘Selling for my life’’

In 2008 – and at the height of the recession – Bosworth says she faced an untenable loss in pay and commission from an employer. She left the company and bought a Proforma Printelligence franchise. Her company offers print, promotional products, ecommerce solutions and multimedia services.

Boswell had signed a non-compete agreement with her former employer, which meant she had to find completely new customers.

“I was selling for my life,” Bosworth says. “I knocked on doors and reached out to just about everyone I knew. I had $170,000 in sales the first year just from my personal contacts.”

Cornwall says entrepreneurs such as Bosworth – who are a little older and more used to getting their paycheck from an outside source – can succeed if they are willing to tolerate the unfamiliar risk and get plenty of support.

“The recession created many accidental entrepreneurs,” Cornwall says. “Some invested in franchises because they often give so much support to owners. It can be a good way to go if you pick the right franchise.”

Bosworth’s company has grown by double digits each year since she started, and she’s now inching close to $1 million in revenue. She’s also increasingly involved with fellow women business owners as an officer of the Nashville branch of the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Nashville moves forward

Women entrepreneurs may still face more barriers then their male counterparts, but local experts say Middle Tennessee is trying to even the local playing field.

“It’s often harder to be a woman entrepreneur, and various people are frustrated with the rate of change,” says Vic Gatto, a partner in Nashville venture-capital firm Solidus and a managing partner at JumpStart Foundry, a high-profile business incubator sponsored by the Nashville Entrepreneur Center.

“Nashville is leading when it comes to addressing this issue,” Gatto continues, adding that it might take a “10-year horizon” to address the root causes.

Gatto lists shortages of female angel investors and mentors as two problems that need to be solved before women can participate fully.

Additionally, many technology companies, which usually make up a high percentage of local startups, lack female ownership.

Gatto partially attributes this difficulty to the fact that there are fewer women math and science majors at the college level. He expects that disparity to change in the coming generation and beyond.

“Thirty-five to 40 percent of our applicants are women, and that number has been going up consistently,” Gatto says. “At least 50 percent of the credible applications are from women. The volume applications [are] not as high, but more of them are of high quality.”

JumpStart Foundry selects 10 startups a year to participate in an intensive 14-week entrepreneurial boot camp designed to give the companies optimal chances to succeed.

Three of this year’s selected companies are led by women.

‘Evolve Women’

Meanwhile, the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and Connie McGee, a former health care IT executive with a strong interest in helping women succeed in business, will launch a new platform for women’s business initatives on Aug. 8.

The new program, “Evolve Women,” will offer critical information and support to women business owners.

“We’re receiving an overwhelming response,” says Executive Director Connie McGee. “There are so many women out there with great business ideas.

“We want to help them overcome the barriers. It can really help to sit down with someone to map out a business strategy. I think it’s going to snowball into something big.”

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