It's no secret American women pack some entrepreneurial clout. Through 2011, according to the State of Women-Owned Businesses Report from American Express OPEN, there were an estimated 8.1 million women-owned businesses in America, generating close to $1.3 trillion in revenues and employing nearly 7 .7 million people.
The report highlights the fact that “women-owned firms continue to diversify in all industries.” This is underscored by the Winning Women competition, sponsored by Ernst & Young, which concluded its fifth competition this past November, honoring the winners at the annual Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Springs.
The point of the competition is to help women business owners “think big” and scale their businesses. The winners represented a broad range of industries and included women who designed jewelry, repelled rodents, provided healthcare solutions, created a healthy school-lunch program and provided staffing.
There were two winners in the staffing category, each with different approaches. Given that 2013 is likely to be a year where hiring (hopefully) rebounds, it’s worth taking a closer look.
The Need for Flexibility
Like many an entrepreneur, Allison O’Kelly says she started Mom Corps out of a “personal need.” After having her first child in 2003, O’Kelly, a CPA who was on the management fast track at Toys R Us, realized she needed a job offering flexibility. So she started working at a small accounting firm where her clients asked her if she had friends that they could hire. Her friends, in fact, were jealous of her flexible job situation, and she says she realized “there were companies looking for talent and talent willing to work.”
In 2005 when some baby boomers started to retire, leading to a labor shortage, O’Kelly suddenly understood that employment problems weren’t “a mommy issue, but a workforce issue” and started Mom Corps, a staffing company, specializing in offering flexible jobs. Initially O’Kelly says it was “harder to sell the concept” than she thought it would be, but instead of trying to convince nonbelievers, she decided it was easier to find people who were interested in the concept.
As the company grew, O’Kelly faced a dilemma. She didn’t want to get financing and had to figure out how to grow with no money. Her answer: franchising. There are 17 Mom Corps operating nationwide.
O’Kelly believes we live in a 24-hour work-world. “It doesn’t matter,” she says, "when the work gets done.” And she warns other business owners, “If employers don’t embrace flexibility, they’re going to end up wondering why they don’t have any good talent.”
Leslie Firtell also started a staffing company out of necessity, but Firtell’s need was forced upon her, when after 10 years of working she was “terminated out of the blue.” Not wanting “to risk being fired again” Firtell started Tower Legal Solutions, a full-service legal staffing company that provides contract attorneys to corporations and law firms to supplement their staffs. Her clients include top Fortune 100 firms like Walmart, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Johnson and Johnson.
Tower, started in 2007, is on target to break $50 million in revenues this year. But it hasn’t been an easy ride. The recession hit Tower hard since many of Firtell’s clients were the big financial firms like Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns that took giant hits. But Firtell managed to ride out the storm, taking a bit of a personal hit, but not having to let any of her employees go.
And that’s Firtell’s secret sauce. She says, “Quality will suffer if you don’t pay your people well.” And that sentiment translates to her contracted workers as well. In many cases, she explains, companies don’t care about their contractors, but “if you don’t send core performers, you won’t be [called] back.”
It’s not about the money for Firtell; she thinks too many business owners “are focused on the money and not on the passion of what they do.” She places part of the blame on business school, where she says, “They teach you to work for someone else."
"I own a business,” she asserts. “I don’t run a business. Business owners need to hire people smarter than they are, and learn you can’t be the master of everything.”
Read more articles on women-owned businesses.