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A woman’s way into entrepreneurship

Ashley Milne-Tyte Feb 3, 2012

Tess Vigeland: Of course plenty of women still believe they can have it all. And some of them started their own businesses to make that happen. But for all the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in this country, it’s not evenly divided along gender lines. Most entrepreneurs are men — and women-owned companies are far less likely to hit the million-dollar revenue mark.

Ashley Milne-Tyte met two women who’ve taken very different paths to having it all.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: Lori Ames had just got off an airplane on her first day of vacation in Vegas. Then her cell phone rang. That call changed her life. Her ex-husband told her their 21-year-old son Robert had been rushed to the hospital with a brain tumor. She had to come home to Long Island.

Lori Ames: And the first couple of days he really didn’t speak or react to anything. And they would come in and they would pinch him and say, do things like say, “Robert, what’s your name? Robert, you have to answer us.”

Lori was vice president at a small PR firm in Manhattan. She’d worked there for 20 years. Now she was at her son’s bedside day and night. Her boss kept asking when Lori would be back. But then Robert had his third surgery.

Ames: They told me that he was going to need chemotherapy and he was going to need radiation and he was going to need all these treatments. I realized there was just no way that my life was ever going to be the same and I didn’t see how I would possibly be able to go back to commuting to Manhattan every day more than an hour each way.

Lori had always relied on the security of a steady paycheck. But she quit her job and started her own publicity business at home because it let her fit work around her son. The doctors gave Robert a good prognosis, but recovery was going to take a long time.

Ames: When he came home, I sent out an e-mail over LinkedIn to everybody saying, “Hey, just in case you’re looking for me here’s what’s going on: I’m going to be working from home, if you want to reach me here’s how you can do it.”

She got her first client right away. Now, a year later, her company, the PR Freelancer, is bringing in $100,000 in revenue. Lori has one part-time employee and an office near the house with an unconventional set-up.

Ames: This is technically Robert’s half of the office, with his recliner and his flat-screen and his refrigerator. We have extra folding chairs for meetings.

Robert spends every day at the office with his mom. The trauma to his brain means he gets stressed if he’s left alone. And he sometimes has trouble processing his thoughts. But when Robert’s here, he feels safe.

Robert Ames: I enjoy it just fine, it’s just like uh, being at home, I’m comfortable. I’m just happy that Mom’s happy.

Lori’s thrilled. But she never expected to start a business and hasn’t given much thought to growth — yet.

That’s something another Long Island business owner wishes more women would do. Maureen Borzacchielo is CEO of Creative Display Solutions, an event management company. She says a lot of women entrepreneurs don’t focus on growing their businesses because their families take priority. She says women also tend to lack confidence.

Maureen Borzacchielo: “Can I really do this? Is it OK for me to want to grow a multi-million dollar business?” I found that as I was becoming more successful I caught myself apologizing, and I didn’t know why I was really doing it. Why should I apologize for my success? I bust my butt to be successful.

Maureen started the business in 2001, because she decided to change her life drastically; she wanted to be her own boss and have a baby. She’d been working 60 to 80 hour weeks at her previous company. She knew she couldn’t put in those hours and cope with a newborn. So she founded her company and had a baby son. After a year or so, when he was a toddler, she began putting a lot more time and energy into the business.

Her warehouse is stacked with signs from recent trade shows.

Borzacchielo: And then we’ll stage clients’ assets, we’ll put them up, we’ll inspect them, if they get damaged out at a show we’ll repair them, et cetera.

Maureen’s become comfortable with her success. But until quite recently the U.S. government wasn’t sure women even deserved to be in charge. Julie Weeks runs Womenable, which assesses female-owned businesses. She says it was only 24 years ago, beginning in 1988…

Julie Weeks: …That women could hold business credit in their own name. Prior to that time they had to get a male co-signing a business loan even if it was their husband, their son, some unrelated guy who didn’t have anything to do with the business.

Maureen Borzacchielo had no trouble getting credit when she started, but she still runs up against some irritating assumptions. Take the time a state inspector dropped in.

Borzacchielo: And I introduced myself, the person heard the last name and asked if my husband was here. And I said, “Well, why would you need to speak to my husband?” And he said, “Well, isn’t he the owner of the company?” And I said, “No, I’m the owner of the company, I own it 100 percent.” It was very comical because at that point my husband had come on board; I had hired him as an employee!

For the last several years, Maureen has focused on increasing sales and hiring new staff. Her company now brings in $4 million a year. Sure, she says, growing the business means she still works 70 hours a week when things are really busy, around three months of the year. But now Maureen has a staff she can also leave early to pick up her now nine-year-old son from school. She’s proud of her achievements.

Borzacchielo: Because you know what? I’m creating jobs. I am actually an engine of change in this economy. We’ve increased our staff this year by 20 percent. So yes, we’re a small business, but 20 percent still meant that we hired two or three new people.

Something she hopes to keep doing in the years to come.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace Money.

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