By Darren Fishell Bangor Daily News, Maine.
If Marsha Firestone had a daughter, she'd encourage her to start a business.
"Entrepreneurship is the great equalizer for women," said Firestone. "It is the one place where women can make more money, can have more influence, more decision-making, control their time, and it is the place where they can have the most opportunity."
Firestone doesn't have a daughter, but she does run an international peer advisory network of about 1,800 women entrepreneurs with established, multimillion dollar businesses.
Early next year, that will include a group of about 20 other women business owners in the Portland area. Firestone's Women Presidents' Organization held a reception last week for potential members leading up to an initial meeting in January.
Juliet Browne, an environmental and energy attorney at Verrill Dana, is the chairwoman for the local group.
"Portland just seems really ripe for this," Browne said. "There's such a positive trajectory of entrepreneurship in Portland, and there's a critical mass of women-owned businesses."
Statewide, businesses owned by women grew sales about six times faster than businesses owned by men from 2007 to 2012, according to a census survey of business owners.
Data on business growth at the local level is due later this month, but statewide figures suggest that women-owned businesses in Maine have room to grow -- and faster than men-owned companies.
In 2012, there were about half as many businesses owned by women as by men.
Those companies had an even smaller share of statewide sales, in part because the industries in which women-owned businesses excelled had lower overall sales, such as educational services and health care and social assistance.
In some areas, women-owned businesses punched above their weight. About one in five wholesale businesses were owned by women in 2012 estimates, but they brought in about one of every three dollars in sales for the industry.
Still, in general, there's a wide disparity in both business ownership and total sales between Maine's men- and women-owned companies.
The census data also suggests lower sales for women-owned businesses in the state could reflect that they are in earlier stages.
In the retail industry, for instance, women owned 40 percent of the businesses in 2012, compared with 43 percent owned by men (the census data has a separate category for businesses owned equally by men and women).
While the number of women-owned retailers kept pace, they had only 22 percent of the industry's sales.
Women-owned businesses also are more likely to have no employees. About 13 percent of women-owned firms have paid employees, compared with about 23 percent of men-owned companies. Along with that, women have a higher share of businesses without employees than they do of those with employees statewide.
The Women Presidents' Organization is focused on growth for those existing businesses, aiming not at startups, but at established companies looking to grow. When Firestone started the organization in 1997 with one chapter in New York City, she saw a need for that kind of group.
"I realized that there were many programs for startups and young businesses, but none for women that had already achieved a certain level of success," Firestone said.
The membership group (a $1,800 yearly fee) brings up to 20 business owners together for monthly meetings to discuss challenges they are having in a confidential setting with entrepreneurs who are not in direct competition.
"They don't want to share their issues in front of a competitor," Firestone said.
The discussions will include problems of business strategy but also some gender-specific challenges, such as getting access to loans and venture capital that go disproportionately to men, according to a U.S. Senate committee report issued last year and a 2008 study of Small Business Administration loans done by The Urban Institute.
Browne said the group's membership could extend beyond Greater Portland, for anyone willing to drive to make its monthly meetings, where the focus is on business strategy.
"The issues would range from access to capital, personnel, hiring, firing, how to expand into new markets and whatever issues that the group brings up," said Browne, who has been trained by the Women Presidents' Organization as a facilitator and receives a stipend to run the local chapter.
Browne said last week the group has not identified the members who will participate in its first meeting, scheduled for Jan. 19, 2016, but will continue recruiting and taking applications this month.
While women have gained ground in the business world, Browne said the group seeks to continue chipping away at disparities in representation of women on corporate boards, in politics and elsewhere.
"I think we're starting to see those numbers improve, but we've got a lot of work to do," Browne said.
Across all industries, census figures show women-owned businesses in Maine are making faster gains in revenue, but they still trail those owned by men along various metrics, from the share of companies to the share of annual payroll.
Those numbers don't reflect, however, any difference for women in working for themselves. Firestone said she believes the possibility of higher and equal pay contributed to the national growth rate of 27 percent for women-owned businesses from 2007 to 2012.
"They decide, 'I can make more money and I can have more influence if I do this myself,'" Firestone said. "And most of them go off and do it themselves."