Oregon is a great state to work for woman owned businesses.
 


Top women executives say the state is a great place to network, find financing, ask questions and meet friendly, like-minded businesspeople

05/12/02

STEVE WOODWARD

 
Oregon Moment No. 1: Judy MacDonald Johnston and other founding women employees of the startup Tessy & Tab Reading Club gather at a Portland direct-mail plant to give their 10,000 charter subscription offers a celebratory send-off. Caught up in the excitement, the mailers snap their pictures, as though they are old friends. Later, needing a signature on a document, their banker abandons his office to meet them for a neighborly brewpub lunch.

Judging by the numbers, Oregon appears to know what women want. Oregon has the highest concentration of women-owned businesses in the United States -- nearly one out of every three in the state.

And the numbers are growing quickly: Oregon has one of the nationís fastest growth rates for new women-owned businesses, taking into account not only sheer numbers of companies but also employment and revenue.

Ask any woman entrepreneur why the grass looks greener in Oregon, and you likely wonít hear much about access to capital, regulatory environment, technology infrastructure and such.

Instead, youíll probably get an earful of adjectives such as friendly, open, casual, relaxed, supportive, helpful -- and female. Oregon is about "people supporting strangers for no particularly good reason," says Judy MacDonald Johnston, who is starting her third consecutive business in Oregon.

"People in Oregon are more open and friendly to begin with, which is a typical female mode of behavior," says Johnston, quoting her sister, Jean MacDonald, a Portland Web designer who operates Well-Tempered Web Design.

"Itís not male-aggressive."

Regardless of whether an X or a Y chromosome -- or neither -- resides in Oregonís business core, the stateís reputation as a softer, gentler place to do business resonates strongly with women entrepreneurs. Freed from the common fear of asking naive questions or being intimidated by domineering businessmen, women interviewed by The Oregonian see a state in which small women-owned businesses can take root and flourish.

The stateís consistently high marks were affirmed earlier this year by the Center for Womenís Business Research, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization. The centerís report, "Women-Owned Businesses in 2002," showed that Oregonís 99,492 privately held companies that are majority-owned by women constitute 32 percent of all Oregon companies.

In addition, the center estimates that the number of women-owned firms in Oregon rose by 24 percent between 1997 and this year. During that period, employment in women-owned businesses grew even faster, 62 percent, and sales increased 61 percent.

"There definitely is a more open environment here," says Diane McClelland, executive director and president of Astra Society International and co-founder of the Foundation for Women-Owned Businesses, both womenís mentorship programs based in Portland. "Thereís an openness to change and innovation. Women here are particularly interested in helping one another."

Simply put, Oregon is relaxed, compared with other places, says Sylvia Gercke, who often swaps tales with women entrepreneurs as public information officer for the Portland district of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

"Weíre not New York, where people are really busy," Gercke says, "or San Francisco, where thereís a fear of asking someone to help you."

Oregon Moment No. 2: Heather Howitt dials Sunshine Dairy in 1994 out of the blue, wanting information about milk for her new tea-latte business, Oregon Chai. A dairy employee obliges, patiently answering the then-25-year-old Howittís questions for more than an hour. Later, a friend of a friend in the food industry schools her on which trade shows to attend and who might make a good company board member. Oregon Chai is now a $25 million-a-year enterprise.

There are, of course, contributing factors beyond the stateís geniality.

Some women entrepreneurs cite the willingness of Oregonians to embrace untraditional roles and approaches.

Others point to the visibility of women in leadership roles, such as Portland Mayor Vera Katz and Peggy Fowler, president and chief executive officer of Portland General Electric.

Still others say Oregon businesswomen have relatively easy access to "microloans" -- small loans needed to launch low-cost home-based service businesses often favored by women but generally not available through traditional banking. Microloans are available from groups such as the Portland-based Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs and Medford-based Southern Oregon Womenís Access to Credit.

But women in business do not sell short the power of support networks -- informal and formal -- full of people willing to be long-term mentors.

"People say, íWhy Oregon?í " says Johnston, raising the question that her colleagues in the Silicon Valley ask when they learn she is launching Tessy & Tab Reading Club in Oregon.

Itís simple, she says, thinking back to the Oregon mentors she met in 1995, when she and her co-founders started PrintPaks, a maker of computerized craft kits that they sold to Mattel in 1998 for $26 million.

"We felt right from the beginning, from the first person we met, (that) itís a network that just stayed with you," she says. "People just kind of stayed with you."

Sharon Hadary, executive director of the Center for Womenís Business Research, noticed the flourishing of formal support networks during a trip to Portland earlier this year.

More than 20 businesswomenís organizations now are active throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington, according to the Portland district of the U.S. Small Business Administration and an informal survey by The Oregonian. (A partial list accompanies this article.)

Hadary, whose organization ranked Portland as the nationís No. 1 growth market for women-owned businesses in 1999 and No. 6 in 2002, says support networks are crucial in fostering such businesses.

Hadary says other important factors are access to capital, a communityís business expertise and markets, as well as a culture in which women participate as leaders. Also, she says, places such as Portland, Phoenix and metro areas in California accept those who donít fit stereotypes of business people.

"I have heard a lot of people say that particularly in the Northwest, the business community does not seem as bound by tradition as it is on the East Coast, particularly in the Northeast," she says.

Oregon Moment No. 3: Knocking on doors for business in 1988, Sonal Shah gets some breaks for her then-new company, Northwest Software. Not bound by tradition, a handful of Oregon employers, such as Nike and Hewlett-Packard, fling open their doors to women-owned businesses, actively seeking them out for supply and service contracts.

Networking is one thing for women entrepreneurs. Getting business orders is quite another.

To improve the odds, a Portland-based organization called Astra Society International has taken on the role of an independent certifying body. It acts as a go-between for women-owned businesses and about 500 large corporations that have signaled they want to do business with women, such as Pepsico and United Parcel Service.

Astra began in 1996 as a networking organization whose mission was to help women develop personal and professional skills. Today, as an affiliate of the Womenís Business Enterprise National Council, Astra also investigates participating womenís businesses to ensure that each is, in fact, at least 51 percent owned by women and that a woman runs its daily operations. The certification averts potential embarrassment for corporations whose social-responsibility policies encourage them to award contracts specifically to women-owned businesses, only to find out that men actually own and control some of them.

Financing is another area in which women-owned businesses need a little help from friends.

"Women hate being in debt," Astraís McClelland says. "They resist going into banks, resist traditional financing."

Instead, they tend to borrow from their own savings and credit cards, she says.

To help plug the gaps, Kathryn Shimabukuro, a board member of the Oregon Entrepreneurs Forum, is trying to create a womenís angel-investor network in Portland. The network is being modeled on Seattleís Seraph Capital, a group of women who invest in and advise early-stage companies.

"Itís something we discovered there was huge need for," says Shimabukuro, a private banking officer with Bank of America in Portland.

The number of Portland-area women who are "qualified investors" -- U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission shorthand for wealthy or high-income -- is far smaller than in the Seattle area. But a core group exists, exemplified by women such as Debi Coleman, a former high-profile technology executive who now is a managing partner of Portlandís SmartForest Ventures, an early-stage investment company.

Shimabukuro expects a high degree of participation in Portland, as word of the effort spreads through the community through support networks.

Call it the Portland effect: Itís just friendlier here.

"I probably know more business owners, (and) Iím probably better connected in a year and a half in Portland than I had been in Seattle my entire life," Shimabukuro says.

Oregon Moment No. 4: Mulling the future of her tiny frozen cookie-dough company in 1993, Jana Taylor decides to ask for help from Val Brown, who has just sold his $50 million-a-year Beaverton nut-packing company, Hoody Corp. A year later, enthusiastic about the prospects for Janaís Classics, Brown agrees not only to invest his own money but also to go to work for Taylor as vice president of operations.

"When the student is ready, the teacher will appear," says Jana Taylor, president, chief executive officer and founder, "and Oregon has many teachers."

When Taylor founded Janaís Classics in 1984, she got lots of advice from lawyers, accountants, advertising and public-relations professionals, retailers, brokers and suppliers. The helpfulness, she says, broke down her inhibitions and fear of asking the wrong questions.

"You donít feel threatened in expressing your naivete," Taylor says. Taylor is long past naivete. She runs a business with $18 million to $20 million a year in sales, 130 employees and corporate customers such as American Airlines, Baskin Robbins, Haagen-Dazs, Nestleís, Dreyerís Grand Ice Cream, Harrahís Entertainment and Burgerville USA.

Despite the growing availability of mentors and supporters, Oregonís women entrepreneurs say they continue to bump into gender barriers. Those barriers often force women to work harder to prove themselves.

"I still feel like thereís a 150 percent effort in all that I -- we -- do," Taylor says.

The same sentiment goes for Pinky Beymer, president of Chilkat Enterprise, a Warm Springs-based excavation company. Like women in the Portland area, she was able to find women business owners who encouraged her to quit her day job as a training program manager for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and devote herself full time to building the business. But unlike many Portland-area women, she found almost no support from within her own industry. In fact, she says, detractors taunted her by leaving anonymous messages on her answering machines.

Likewise, Laurie Carlson, who runs one of Portlandís three women-owned collision repair shops, sought support from a woman trade magazine writer in Washington, D.C., who, Carlson says, told her: "Donít let the men in our industry step on you."

Those men included Carlsonís own father, who initially discouraged her from entering the family business founded by her grandfather and who later grudgingly sold her the company.

Carlson increased the shopís business, hired more employees and replaced low-margin work with high-margin business. But her father grumbled about more taxes and added personnel headaches.

"Five years after I was into it, my dad didnít like the changes Iíd made," recalls Carlson. "He said, íYou know, I would never want to be in this business now, the way you do it.í "

Carlson was unfazed.

"Women are more open to wild ideas," she says.

Oregon Moment No. 5: In 1984, before womenís business networks sprouted like so many Oregon morels, Carlson joins an unusual group of women who call themselves The London Ladies. They assemble regularly at the home of motivational speaker and author Alyce Cornyn-Selby, dress in vintage clothing, and take a limousine to lunch at the London Grill at the Benson Hotel. Flaunting their gender and flouting societyís expectations, they talk serious business.

You can reach Steve Woodward of The Oregonian staff at 503-294-5134 or by e-mail at stevewoodward@news.oregonian.com.