Women-owned businesses seek ways to grow

About five years ago, I met Sharmila Melwani, mother of a toddler, who could whip up a batch of cookies so delicious she decided to make a business out of selling them. Like many moms, she launched her business from her home kitchen, but when things took off about six months later, she moved Cookies by Shar to a commercial kitchen in a Davie, Fla., warehouse.

Melwani loved the idea that she could earn money and still control her own work schedule. She began cranking out the cookies and continued to bake even during the recession, landing big accounts such as Epicure and Whole Foods in Florida.

Earlier this year, Melwani moved the business to a new and larger commercial kitchen. She set new and larger goals as well. She wants to take her cookie business national and grow it into a million-dollar business.

While the past decade saw women juggling responsibilities and priorities and starting business in record numbers, there’s a new focus going forward ? growth.

“You’re going to see a lot of programs and support to help women grow their small businesses into more significant businesses,” says Gwen Martin, interim director of the Center for Women’s Business Research. “That’s where the emphasis is going to be.”

Getting to the next level, thus far, has proved difficult for women business owners.

Women still are starting businesses at a faster rate than men. But only 3 percent of the 10 million women-owned businesses in the country have been able to break through the million-dollar revenue barrier, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research. That’s an insanely small percentage. Six percent of men-owned businesses are clearing the $1 million mark.

Business experts believe many of the same factors that spark females to start a company are holding them back from expanding, for example work/life balance. Like Melwani, most still have many other demands on their time, particularly at home and in the community. And, there haven’t been a lot of role models, so many lack confidence or desire to make a leap.

“There’s a big difference in starting a business and growing it,” Martin says. “Most don’t have the skills or knowledge of how to make that bridge.”

In Florida, more than 700,000 women-owned businesses contribute as much as $125 billion to the state’s economy. Some are sizable. At least 50 of the women-led businesses are larger than $3 million in revenue. Even though the recession has challenged entrepreneurs, many feel that number can be even higher.

Women are beginning to help each other. On the national front, Nell Merlino, founder of Count Me In, and the Make Mine A Million Dollar Business program, has made it a goal to pump up the sales volume of women-owned businesses. Her group is encouraging more of them to aim for the million-dollar mark or at least shoot for substantially larger revenue.

The Commonwealth Institute South Florida studies women-led businesses and their leaders. The group discovered that women who want to grow their businesses want more forums to bounce ideas off their peers and it has created those opportunities.

One of the most successful tools is coaching. Merlino says most of the women with multimillion-dollar businesses have had a coach guide them through the tough spots, someone to hold them accountable when they fall short of a goal.

“Coaches help you tap into your own wisdom to figure out your next action or what’s getting in your way,” explains Alisha Marie, a business coach and consultant specializing in women-owned businesses.

Another tool is learning to outsource and delegate, a solution to the work/life balance issues. Marie calls it “building a transition team.” Suggestions include bartering, hiring a college student, a professional accountant or asking your kids to pitch in.

Kim Bolufe has owned three retail shops in South Florida for more than 15 years. Her stores sell stylish, high-end clothing. As buyers cut their shopping budgets, Bolufe finds herself traveling more to make better purchases and keep merchandise fresh. Bolufe says her goal is to not only weather the recession but to boost the revenue of the existing stores and her online business. She has strategically hired and trained managers to run operations while she’s on the road.

“It’s important to delegate,” she says, but do it smartly. “Always know what’s going on.”

To grow, experts advise women they must get a full picture of their financials.

Martin says women have the ability to play a big role in the economic recovery. Already, they employ more than 13 million people and generate $1.9 trillion in revenue. She’s convinced those numbers will get larger in the next few years.

“These are not just little businesses out of the home,” she says. “That’s not a bad image, but it’s not the only image.”

(c) 2009, The Miami Herald. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.