WOMEN@WORK

Half the sky: Women’s voices

Posted March 17, 2011, at 9:01 p.m.
Last modified March 17, 2011, at 10:27 p.m.

Editor’s Note: The Women@Work column, written by the staff at the Maine Center for Women, Work and Community, is a new Bangor Daily News business feature appearing every other week.

The story goes something like this: An elephant was walking through the forest and nearly stepped on a tiny hummingbird lying in the path with its feet up in the air.

“What are you doing?” asked the startled elephant.

“I heard the sky might fall. I am getting ready to hold it up!” replied the bird.

“But you’re so small. How can you possibly help?”

“True,” said the hummingbird, “I am small, but we must all do what we can, and this is what I can do.”

Goldman Sachs -– yes, that Goldman Sachs -– borrowed from the Chinese saying that comes from this tale for the title of its 2008  report, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky.” The report  looked at the gender gap in underdeveloped countries and led to a five-year global strategy to invest in 10,000 underserved women, providing them with “a business and management education.” Under way in more than 20 countries with 70 university and other public and private partners, the Goldman Sachs Foundation is making this investment because research has convinced them that “investing in girls and women yields significant economic growth.”

There are 8 million majority women-owned  firms in the U.S., and according to a report by the Center for Women’s Business Research, the CWBR, women-owned firms have an economic impact of $3 trillion annually, and account for more than 23 million jobs — 16 percent of all U.S. jobs. If these businesses were a country, the center suggests, “they would have the fifth-largest GDP in the world, trailing closely behind Germany, and ahead of countries including France, United Kingdom and Italy.”

More than half of Maine’s population is female — 51.2 percent, based on the 2009 census. Women are nearly half — 48.8 percent — of the paid work force. 2006 estimates put the number of women-owned businesses in Maine at 55,322, or 36.4 percent of all Maine firms, according to the CWBR. In 2008, there were 137,419 microbusinesses — those with five or fewer employees — in Maine accounting for 21.3 percent of all jobs in the state.

James McConnon,  Extension specialist and professor of economics at the University of Maine, who counts these small enterprises, estimates some 30 percent are women-owned microbusinesses.

For the past 10 years or more, women have been starting businesses at a rate two times faster than their male counterparts. Motivating this movement are several variables including the “glass ceiling,”  that keeps women out of top decision-making positions and the “mud floor,” the  bottom rungs of the career ladder women seek to escape. Another motivator is what inspires any entrepreneur, the idea that they have a better way of doing something and have the optimism and drive to make it real.

Whether motivated by the necessity of generating income, wanting more control over their work lives, or a passion for an idea, it is clear that women are in business to stay and are “doing what they can” to generate wealth for themselves, their families and their communities.

The  Maine Center for Women, Work and Community has been helping women start businesses in Maine for more than 25 years; from our vantage point of working with more than 7,700 entrepreneurs, in partnership with the many public and private groups that support business development in Maine, we see great promise in the creativity, determination  and resilience of women in the business world.

We have learned a lot from these enterprising women; there is much still to learn. The Kauffman Foundation says women are the most understudied group of entrepreneurs. Through this column, and through profiles of a diverse array of women in business, we hope to share what we know and to also learn more about women in business: about how they start, what helps them grow, their particular challenges; their differences and similarities with other small businesses.

While the sky isn’t falling over Maine, there is work to be done to create jobs and a more vibrant economy. This column will explore how women in Maine are doing “what they can do” not only to hold the economic sky in place over our state, but are contributing to making it a bright and prosperous one for all of us.

Stay tuned.

Eloise Vitelli is program director for Women, Work and Community, a statewide organization that has provided training and assistance to startup entrepreneurs since 1984. She is the 2006 recipient of the Maine SBA McGillicuddy Entrepreneurial Excellence Award.

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