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PERSPECTIVE ON WOMEN AND BANKING : The Last Bastion of Patriarchy : Entrepreneurial women are battling age-old obstacles to obtaining funds for major ventures.

November 06, 1994|EMILY CARD and ADAM MILLER | Emily Card, a lawyer in Santa Monica and nationally published writer on finance, participated in the drafting of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act . Adam Miller is a UCLA graduate student

Today's young women can hardly believe the horror stories about women's financial disfranchisement before the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in October, 1974. Back then, women had to be past child-bearing age to obtain credit on their own, without a male co-signor. The presumption was that all women would marry, become pregnant and drop out of the work force. Even middle-aged single women required mortgage co-signatories; in one ironic instance, a father in a nursing home had to sign for his daughter, a business executive.

Today we cannot imagine a world in which women don't have Visas, MasterCard and American Express; yesterday's pariah has become today's marketing target--at least for consumer credit. But women business owners need capital today as much as women consumers needed access to equal credit 20 years ago.

Why don't women get business capital? The answers have more to do with sociology than economics.

The weight of tradition or habit: Popular myth misstates that "most of the money in the country is owned by women." Women do own a substantial amount of capital, at least in name. But the flow of funds is still largely controlled by men, whether as owners of capital or husbands of owners, venture capitalists, trust officers or financial advisers. This vesting of money in men stretches back to the dawn of agrarian society, the beginning of the accumulation of capital and the birth of patriarchy, in which property and lineage was traced through the male line.

While few legal barriers remain to women in the business arena, to become successful entrepreneurs in large-scale businesses, women must have access to capital. It's hard to imagine a woman active in the business arena today who could cobble together capital for a takeover along the lines of Ted Turner's attempt to acquire CBS.

If women are to succeed, they must move from boot-strapped businesses using bundled credit-card debt as capital to businesses that are adequately capitalized from the start.

Models of success (and failure): Where are our Ted Turners? Ironically, one of the nearest examples is his wife, Jane Fonda, who turned acting celebrity into a fitness empire. Few other entrepreneurial women have achieved famous-name status or, as a group, critical mass. Until they do, the limiting effects are clear. Young women don't see the possibilities of business success. Middle-aged women of accomplishment don't feel empowered to leap from the corporate ladder to venture-backed success. And, most important, men investing money don't think of women when they think entrepreneur.

Prejudice: Though it is subtle today, prejudice against women and minorities in business still runs high. A reference to "women-run business" is most often taken to mean small-scale retail or service, not a mainstream profit-maker. Which is not to belittle the home-grown business. The small success stories of millions of women have amounted to a flourishing economic sector so large that one study suggests that women-owned businesses now employ more people than the Fortune 500 companies.

Just as in politics 20 years ago, when the usual route to power for women was as widows or daughters of successful men, today, a scanning of the 1994 Forbes 400 of wealthy families illustrates the same pattern: The richest women in the country inherited their wealth or married it. While many men on the list self-made their fortunes, only one female entrepreneur made the list: Estee Lauder.

Still, it is forecast that 40% of businesses will be women-owned by the end of the decade, up from 4.6% in 1972. But there are limits to the speed with which boot-strapping, sweat equity and determination translate into large-scale accumulations of capital. Women entrepreneurs are demanding better, faster access to the capital fast track.

The dearth of lead investors: Investments in start-up and even mid-level or "mezzanine" financing don't happen by magic. Like most undertakings, the investment community of private, family, venture and even institutional investors follows industry leaders or "lead investors."

At a recent national conference of a group whose mission is to increase the flow of capital to women-led businesses, none of the participants could cite a single woman lead investor. The women who do have capital must get it flowing to other women.

What can be done to translate these limited examples into a wider capital arena for women? In the private sector, a group of women investors and business leaders has inaugurated a national group, the Capital Circle, to promote the flow of capital to women. Two equity-venture funds also have been launched in recent months.

Creativity is the key. What's stopping successful corporations from spinning off women-led businesses, or launching subsidiaries with women executives?

Until capital is directed to women because of their business prowess and not in the name of charity, the last bastion of patriarchy will not die.

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