Women at the helm: How female professionals can benefit from a solid support network

Smart Business

Women are playing an ever-increasing role in changing the economics of growth, growing businesses and jobs, and creating new opportunities for everyone. This is especially the case in economies that are slow or stagnant, where greater opportunity exists to start a business.

“Women are taking advantage of these opportunities in droves, and they’re able to grow businesses in times of slow economic changes,” says Stephanie Union, a partner and chair of Kegler, Brown, Hill + Ritter’s women-owned business area.

Many women have taken small mom-and-pop shops and grown them into successful small businesses.

“There’s a greater opportunity for women to do that today, whereas in past generations, there might not have been, and communities are benefitting from the number of jobs they create,” she says.

As women continue to progress in the professional world, mentorship programs, referrals and professional associations designed to support women business owners are increasingly important.

Smart Business spoke with Union about the unique opportunities women have today to give or receive advice that can help grow women-owned businesses.

How can women helping other women and referring business to each other be beneficial?

There’s recognition among certain successful women that you can pass on your success by referring your colleagues and friends to other female professionals. It’s amazing the number of referral groups, professional networks and organizations that provide many opportunities to get involved, a number of which encourage referrals among women. Having that camaraderie can help women succeed and gain ground in their own businesses.

There are also a number of certification programs for women-owned businesses that offer a leg up in terms of getting certain types of work from federal and state governments. For example, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council will certify women-owned businesses, as does the Small Business Administration. The certification processes are rigorous, and companies have to prove that they are a woman-run business and that the majority of the company is controlled by a woman. The documentation and effort required to get certified is stringent, but that designation can be very beneficial for companies in certain industries.

How do the needs of women business owners differ from those of their male counterparts?

A number of women find themselves in industries traditionally dominated by their male counterparts, so finding their way among the men can be a challenge. Partnering with people who have insight into the industry can help them find comfort. Many women business owners have navigated the waters themselves and can help other women get established.

The needs of women business owners can sometimes be fulfilled more fully by fellow women. Women who are professionals generally have a better sense of what other women business owners are experiencing and what they have to face on a daily basis. That empathy can direct the way women do business together and help all of those businesses succeed and prosper.

How can women benefit from working with services that cater to women business owners?

Having ties with professional women’s groups can give someone perspective on the obstacles women deal with and how to support women going through those struggles. While the services aren’t different or better, they are provided in a way that women can appreciate more and respond to better.

There is something to be said for knowing the struggles women face and have faced. Taking these into account when giving advice can help women business owners succeed.

What issues are women business owners likely to face?

There have been historic struggles for women. While there are laws that allow women to vote or prevent discrimination, women still face struggles that are different from those that men face.

Maintaining a work/life balance is an issue for both men and women, but it’s hard when you’re a mother and working full time, considering there remain different societal demands for women than men. While conditions are changing, they haven’t fully equalized between the sexes, so daily struggles still exist. The goal is to recognize those struggles and support women by helping them find balance within the working world.

What can women do to help other women be successful professionals?

There are mentoring opportunities. Who better to understand the struggles of a woman than another woman? Some organizations and associations have mentorship programs, but, in my opinion, the best mentorships happen without much formality. It is better if the relationship develops naturally.

Natural mentorships are informal. It’s not a situation where you must meet with the woman you are mentoring four times per year and accomplish certain goals. Instead, it is a relationship that develops in which you care about the way the person you are mentoring is advancing and can offer her advice.

To be prepared to be a women business owner, you also need education. When starting your own business, there are a lot of things you need to know in terms of accounting issues and legal matters, including rules surrounding employees and hiring. You need to have a good education or surround yourself with people who have experience in those areas.

A number of women-focused associations or organizations can provide the support or connections needed to get a business up and running.