When you own a business, there is no glass ceiling. The ceiling is as high as you want to make it.
Perhaps that is why entrepreneurship is so appealing to women, who are gravitating toward it in record numbers. There are currently more than 8 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., 50 percent more than there were in 1997. These female entrepreneurs may be new, but they’re making things happen.
In general, America is a terrific place for women to launch a business. However, some locations are better than others. According to American Express Open’s recently released State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, the states with the fastest growth in the number of women-owned businesses since 1997 are Georgia (98 percent), Nevada (88 percent), and Mississippi (77 percent).
Surprised? I’ll admit that this isn’t quite what I expected. But as I corresponded with female owners from these states, I realized the true extent of the available opportunities. Georgia, Nevada, and Mississippi are meccas for women-owned businesses because of a killer combination of hometown loyalty, well-established small-business resources and cost-effectiveness.
Dannella Burnett’s local community of Gainesville, GA has always been an integral part of her catering business, Oakwood Occasions. The 44 year-old got her start working out of her church, and today is preparing a move to the new government center, where she will also host a café and a coffee kiosk.
Although Georgia has a cost of living well below many of the more crowded U.S. states, it offers women-owned businesses many of the same resources and more. The National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) Atlanta chapter is a powerhouse subsidiary of the national organization and supports female owners through a variety of initiatives including CEO roundtable groups, monthly educational programs and networking nights.
Similarly, the Greater Women’s Business Council, a non-profit organization for certified women business enterprises (WBEs) in Georgia, aims to increase the competitive advantage of women-owned firms in the area.
Ms. Burnett cites the Georgia Small Business Development Center, a partnership between the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Georgia, as an important source of information and guidance for women-owned firms. “We also have a great local Chamber of Commerce, and several terrific networking groups including WOAMTEC—Women on a Mission to Earn Commission—and Business Networking International—Southeast,” she says. “Not only are they resources I've used to build relationships and partnerships, but they have all become clients as well!”
Twenty-seven year-old Sarah Loy of Henderson, NV was inspired to become an insurance agent after she was unexpectedly sued following a car accident. Ms. Loy worked for American National for several years and then opened the doors to her own firm outside of Las Vegas. Although she was concerned that the city had “no sense of community,” she was pleasantly surprised.
Among Las Vegas’ many networking groups for small-business owners is Defining Women, which was instrumental as Ms. Loy sought clarity on her company’s vision and goals. “The organization changed my internal conversation, and now I have a whole community that I can call on,” she says. “Las Vegas may have a big reputation, but it’s really a small town. If you extend yourself and network, anything you need is a few phone calls away. It’s amazing who knows whom.”
Farther north in Reno is 38 year-old Laura Zander, who launched retail yarn shop Jimmy Beans Wool in 2002. She claims that the less populated areas of the state are the perfect haven for small businesses. “We would not have experienced the same level of success if we were in, say, the Bay Area. Northern Nevada’s small size really gave the business a chance to shine,” she says. “Also, the people here are simply as nice and welcoming as it gets. That makes a big difference when it comes to making connections and establishing relationships.”
According to Ms. Zander, Nevada boasts a strong SCORE resource, which provided her with free and confidential business advice. She also sought the assistance of EDAWN.org, or the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. A public/private partnership committed to recruiting and expanding companies that have a positive economic impact on the area’s quality of life, EDAWN was helpful in raising Jimmy Beans Wool’s profile and introducing its owners to key members of the community.
Forty-eight year-old Laura Merritt of Olive Branch, MS, launched a Sports Clips haircutting franchise as a long-term investment for her family of five. In getting her stores up and running, she called upon the Mississippi Board of Cosmetology for assistance. “As I have never been a hair stylist and don’t intend to be, hiring experts was critical,” Ms. Merritt says. “The State Board supplied me with information on all of the licensed cosmetologists in my area so that I could easily recruit my team.”
Colleen Conger, 42, of Aberdeen, MS, agrees that the state was very helpful when she was founding her graphic design and photo restoration business, Digital Photo and Design. “At the Mississippi Small Business Development Center, I attended several seminars where I was able to network with other business owners and talk one-on-one with a business counselor who helped me secure business licenses and loans,” she explains. Ms. Conger also shared that the Tupelo-based small-business incubator, Renesant Center for IDEAS, assisted her in creating a business plan and identifying sources of capital.
Ms. Conger generated momentum by liaising with local groups such as the Monroe County Chamber of Commerce and the Amory Main Street Association. “They utilize the spirit of local patronage to keep our businesses and the economy strong,” she says. Ms. Merritt seconds the point about hometown support. “My stores are in a fast-growing county, and our leaders are doing a great job of monitoring the growth while allowing things to remain smooth for business owners.”
Lower startup cost is another key factor for women interested in starting a business in Mississippi. “Mississippi has lower business and sales taxes and was generally more cost-effective than my other option, Tennessee,” says Ms. Merritt.
Finally, Mississippi is an ideal breeding ground for prospective entrepreneurs because it’s under the radar. “The playing field is wide open, whether you want to open an antique mall or provide medical services,” says Ms. Conger. “There are so many organizations poised and ready to offer knowledge and assistance to get a new business off the ground.”
Read more OPEN feature articles on small businesses.
Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Money Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.