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Women's Work 

More and more, men and women business owners face the same challenges.

For the most part, there is nothing businesswomen in Louisiana can't accomplish if they have enough passion, a solid game plan and are flexible in their approach to success. With larger numbers of women entering the work force during the past several decades, it follows that more and more women also are becoming entrepreneurs.

Nationally, women-owned businesses increased an average of 14 percent in most states, according to the Small Business Administration, and lenders have increased capital available to such enterprises, including Wells Fargo & Company, which last month pledged to lend $20 billion to women-owned businesses nationwide during the next 10 years. In Louisiana, the U.S. Census Bureau's 1997 Economic Census (the last year for which figures are available) indicated there are 11,505 women-owned businesses, with 1,250 in Orleans Parish. That's out of a total of 78,477 businesses statewide and 8,933 in Orleans Parish.

Despite those numbers, a report from the National Women's Business Council indicates that female business owners are most worried about capital, health insurance benefits for their employees, a lack of access to federal contract dollars and the general state of the economy as deterrents to future growth. The report was based on survey responses from participants at five "Women Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century" summits hosted by the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Small Business Administration and the National Women's Business Council.

In that survey, more than half the women said they had trouble obtaining capital for their enterprises and the majority had to rely on personal savings for most of their start-up capital, along with reinvested business earnings, lines of credit and loans from friends and family. Less than half the women surveyed said they could afford to provide health care benefits to their employees.

Locally, female entrepreneurs say they've found banks that will give them fair consideration and have survived by being flexible in their thinking and offerings. That wasn't always the case, says Maggie Jones, a business consultant who helped establish The Magic Box, Pippen Lane and other business in New Orleans and around the country. "When I first went into business in 1973, the biggest problem was to get bankers to take you seriously," she says. One banker told her to bring in her husband to discuss a loan to start her Dallas-based Designs for Growing toy business. "I had to go through those kinds of humiliating experiences, but I think nowadays there are as many women bankers as men bankers and they take you seriously. You just have to have a good business plan."

Jones eventually established several stores in Texas and Oklahoma and as a business consultant had clients all over the country. She now works as the financial officer for Scriptura, a stationery store with three local outlets owned by her two daughters.

Money is a hurdle all businesses have to clear. "One of the biggest problems is people coming in (to a new business) underfinanced," Jones says. "You can't spend every cent you have just to open the business ... you run out of money before your dream really has a chance to grow." She recommends businesses start with enough money to operate for six months and that they protect their credit record to insure future success. "If you lose your credit, you lose your power," Jones warns. "If you have to pay for everything COD, that limits your ability to buy, and therein lies the death knell."

Karen Adjmi and Jackie Palumbo, owners of Earthsavers, which has opened eight local outlets in a dozen years, agree with Jones.

"We've been well supported by our bank from the beginning," says Palumbo. "We started on a shoestring in 1990; we borrowed $30,000 to start the first store." Part of the reason the bank welcomed them, the partners say, is that they had a good credit standing through their previous business, an advertising agency.

The bank then supported the duo when they decided to transform Earthsavers, originally an environmental store, into a business that offered spa and relaxation services and products. "We've never felt an obstacle or stumbling block in that way," Palumbo says. "They're in business to see and support success. We're constantly reinvesting, redeveloping, and they've supported us at every turn."

Despite her mother's early experience with trying to obtain funding for her toy business, Scriptura owner Margaret Jones says she doesn't feel at a disadvantage because of her gender. "I think we all have the same challenges: employees, overhead, cash flow and keeping (the business) fresh," she says. "To me there is no difference in the challenge facing men and women. Perhaps we've been raised to have different skills, so our approach to the problems are different, but our problems are identical."

Glenda Jeffcoat, owner of Nu-Earth Organics, has had different experiences, perhaps because her composting and enhanced soil business is one more commonly run by men. "Most of what we deal with is big trucks, heavy equipment, and the process of composting ... it's mostly geared toward men," she says, admitting, "If a man were to go into a bank with my financials they would look at him differently." She feels it's the same with governmental bodies and large contractors.

"People don't perceive a woman to be in this business," Jeffcoat says. "We're going through an education process; people are learning who we are. Architects, landscapers, they know who we are and are using us. The word is slowly getting out to other people."

Paula Cassell, who owns American Design Technology Inc., says she's shifting her business focus from landscaping -- also traditionally a man's world -- elsewhere because of problems with maintaining a responsible workforce.

"A great challenge for me here has been to get crew members to be timely and professional and have conscientiousness and pride in the job," says Cassell, who is an architect and also has served as a city planner and a diplomat. "I found that one way to do that is to work the job with them. ... I wasn't intending to do that. That's a level of hand-holding that I had not expected."

She now plans to focus on her other areas of expertise and interest, including historic preservation, publications design, writing, analyzing, photography and city planning.

"I'm not giving up," Cassell says. "I'm transforming. You can evolve; you look at the market where you are, you look at your own goals, you look at what works in the market. ... Each time you make a move, you have a larger skill set to put in your bag, so no matter where you are in your life, you can pull out the skills you need from the bag and go."

Diversifying also has helped Julie Neill Designs grow consistently over the past four years. An artist, Neill began her business by painting and personalizing picture frames. She then moved into furniture, mirrors and other home accessories and now has her own line of lighting.

"My business has been growing since day one," says Neill. "I'm always putting whatever (money) I make back into the business." She's never sought outside capital but instead has survived and thrived through expanding her offerings. "What I do in a funky, scary economy is custom work. People stop buying gifts and tchotchkes when the economy is down, but they still build houses, so they still need lights and cabinetry. What has gotten me through the slumpy economy has been the custom work."

Brennan Bridgeman-Baumer, who owns Brennan Travel in Metairie, says technological developments such as cell phones and the internet have helped her to more personally help her clients without increasing her overhead. "We're in the service industry and people are pretty much figuring they don't want to talk to boxes any more," she says. "We've taken technology and used it to increase the service we provide. Through technology, I can be in Florence, Italy, and issue an airline ticket through my office."

Most of her employees have been with her for a long time, but she worries about the area's ability to attract new residents -- and thus more money and workers -- because of downfalls in education and services infrastructures.

"If you're looking at moving into the New Orleans area, the education system is a big deficit," Baumer says. "Are you going to move your family where you have to spend another $15,000 to send your children to school? Safety is another issue. I want to be able to go out of town and not have to worry about my child being safe with the babysitter. These are just things you have to think about when you're in business in Louisiana."

Aside from Earthsavers, none of these businesses automatically offer their employees health benefits because of prohibitive costs. Most of these business owners agree that a good business plan coupled with products and services people want and proper funding are the fundamentals for a successful business.

"I don't think that being a woman, especially today ... has anything to do with it," says Earthsavers' Adjmi. "Today, I think, anything is possible and unless you make something (like gender) an issue, it isn't an issue."

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