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Women in Business Flex Their Muscles

Rising numbers force corporate America to cater to female entrepreneurs. 'Nothing levels a playing field like money,' says one engineering firm owner.


In the end, it all came down to a feeling of comfort for Martha Diaz Aszkenazy.

The owner of a growing San Fernando construction firm needed a new cellular phone service.

First, she listened to two salesmen from Nextel Communications talk at a male-dominated builders group meeting.

"They kept stressing all the bells and whistles, how powerful the phone was--kind of like the comedian on 'Home Improvement,' " she said. "I don't care about how the phone works. I'm not interested in all the power. I just want it to work."

Then a female representative from AirTouch Cellular called on Diaz Aszkenazy's firm--part of AirTouch's growing emphasis on women business owners. She phoned and visited several times, and dropped off a free leather phone cover.

"Her style as a woman appealed to us," said Diaz Aszkenazy, who is deluged almost every day with brochures and advertisements targeting women business owners. "It was very, very comfortable. We talked on a woman level. She was available by cell phone and pager and didn't think our questions were dumb. And no one else," she said wryly, "was offering those cute covers."

Diaz Aszkenazy, whose firm recently rebuilt Angels Flight, the tiny downtown railway, is one of a growing number of women business owners throughout America. These women are no longer just fledgling entrepreneurs. They are increasingly at the helm of vibrant businesses, wielding increasing economic clout with the purchases they make.

This fundamental shift in the economic landscape has many corporations, including IBM, AT&T, Wells Fargo and BancOne, rushing to tap this market, even to the point of seeming downright sensitive to the needs of women.

Companies both large and small are trying to learn the language of women business owners--devising marketing strategies that target such entrepreneurs based on studies that show they often are quite different from their male counterparts in what they want, in the purchases they make and how they manage.

Corporate America has "discovered women--big time," said Judith Luther Wilder, co-head of Women's Inc., a Sacramento-based nonprofit organization that links women business owners with some of the nation's biggest companies. "Women have always had some market share. Now they have market power."

The numbers show why:

* About 8 million women own businesses, a 78% increase from 10 years ago. These businesses generate $2.3 trillion in sales. Women are starting new businesses at three times the rate of men.

* In Los Angeles County, women started 21,300 businesses in 1996, nearly double the number in 1992, according to County Data Corp., a Vermont data firm. Nationwide, women formed about 342,200 businesses in 1996, nearly triple the number in 1992.

* Women own 36% of U.S. companies and employ 35% more people than the Fortune 500, according to recent figures.

* By 2000, about half of America's businesses will have a female owner, the U.S. Department of Labor projects.

"Women business owners have been around for a long time, but the economic powerhouse they are starting to represent--that's what is waking us up," said Lucile Reid, who directs Wells Fargo Bank's $10-billion loan program for women owners. "They've grown from being tiny businesses to strong, small businesses with great growth prospects, so you better pay attention."

Still, some argue that advertising focusing on women entrepreneurs unfairly stereotypes them as all the same and creates gender-segregated services. It may also exacerbate tensions between men and women in the workplace and elsewhere.

"All of that may be the unintended consequences," said Ivan Preston, a professor of advertising at the University of Wisconsin. "But advertising in general has become more segregated over time. Advertisers don't sit around saying, 'How can we ghettoize women?' They just want to sell. It's not always right, but it's the mantra now to market to smaller and smaller groups."

Corporations such as IBM have created divisions to target women business owners and are hiring women to lead them. Some companies are launching advertisements such as AT&T's television commercial about two female entrepreneurs who create bendable sunglasses. Others are adding more women to their sales forces and training salespeople to be more sensitive to women's management and purchasing styles.

In an ironic twist, this has major corporations rushing to meet the needs of some of the same women who found themselves unable to get their Fortune 500 employers to adopt the women-friendly policies that might have encouraged them to stay.

"They're more and more interested in us. Lately, we've been inundated with calls from corporations wanting to market to us," said Phyllis Hill Slater, who owns an engineering firm on Long Island and is the new president of the National Assn. of Women Business Owners, a trade group with nearly 10,000 members.

"And when corporate America recognizes you, all companies recognize you. Nothing levels a playing field like money," she said.

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