By Chris Fleisher
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Financial website WalletHub recently ranked Pittsburgh 96th out of 100 metro areas in promoting women-owned businesses. Some experts dispute WalletHub’s assessment of women entrepreneurship in the city saying the ranking offers a crude measure of Pittsburgh’s progress and overlooks local programs aimed at helping women. But the report raises questions about the progressiveness of Pittsburgh’s business community when the city is promoting itself as a model for economic reinvention.
Two decades after she left Pittsburgh, Denise DeSimone returned to her native city as a triumphant entrepreneur.
She had successfully launched several tech-oriented companies in the South, finding receptive corporate clients in Memphis and access to resources she needed to grow.
And so, when she started a marketing agency called C-Leveled in Shadyside in 2009, she was surprised at how much resistance she encountered.
“For a while, I tried to walk into people’s offices and say, ‘Give me the worst project you’ve got. I’ll go with that one,’ ” DeSimone said. “The one nobody wants.”
As it turned out, she was the one nobody wanted. At least, that’s how it seemed.
Pittsburgh is a different city from the place Denise DeSimone left 30 years ago, with an economy that has diversified beyond its manufacturing roots. And yet, when it comes to supporting women business owners, the city has plenty of work to do.
Financial website WalletHub recently ranked Pittsburgh 96th out of 100 metro areas in promoting women-owned businesses.
Some experts dispute WalletHub’s assessment, saying it offers a crude measure of Pittsburgh’s progress and overlooks local programs aimed at helping women. But the report raises questions about the progressiveness of Pittsburgh’s business community when the city is promoting itself as a model for economic reinvention.
Pittsburgh lags other metro areas in growth of women-owned firms, in number and by revenue. The number of firms since 2002 has grown 19.4 percent to 52,900 since 2002, and sales are up 18.5 percent to $9.5 billion, growth that ranks the city near the bottom of 25 metro areas tracked in the annual American Express OPEN report on the state of women-owned businesses. The number of firms overall in the United States was up 45 percent over that period, and sales grew 56 percent.
No development center
One of Pittsburgh’s drawbacks is the lack of a Women’s Business Development Center, said Jill Gonzalez, an analyst at WalletHub.
Part of the Small Business Administration, such development centers are one-stop shops for women entrepreneurs. They pull together federal, state and local resources and provide help to companies of all sizes, from writing a business plan to getting financial backing and developing peer networks that can help them grow.
The presence of a Women’s Business Development Center emerged as a key difference between the top-ranking cities, such as Nashville, and those near the bottom, such as Pittsburgh, Gonzalez said.
“The lack of being able to quickly and successfully link up to resources and investors, not having that ability close by makes it very hard to be a successful entrepreneur,” Gonzalez said.
There are currently proposals with the SBA to establish a center in Pittsburgh.
The region had one until September, when Seton Hill University stopped hosting it. The university made that decision because the center no longer seemed as relevant, given the growth of other non-profit organizations supporting small businesses, said Seton Hill spokeswoman Jennifer Reeger.
The Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Chatham University offers similar programs to the federally funded centers for women entrepreneurs, but they are not nearly as robust. For example, the federally funded centers have access to a larger pool of lenders through the SBA and broader geographic reach, and offer programs tailored to the needs of specific communities beyond the more general training and mentoring services at other centers.
A bigger issue facing Pittsburgh’s women entrepreneurs is getting the capital to grow into multimillion-dollar companies, said Rebecca Harris, director of the Center at Chatham.
“Getting women more access to capital is critical,” she said. “It’s one of the biggest challenges that we face. You cannot grow a business without having more money, and women start businesses with much less capital than men.”
Carol Philp said she couldn’t get in the door at any local banks when she started her Aspinwall branding and design firm, CPI Creative, in 1994. She began the company out of her basement using her savings. It wasn’t until several years later when she met a business banker at PNC Bank — who was a woman — that she got her first line of credit.
“I think that she saw potential in us,” Philp said.
Pittsburgh’s banks and larger corporations are more willing to open their doors to women than they were decades ago, Philp said. But some say Pittsburgh still has an old-guard attitude that has slowed the pace of change.
“It is an older community,” said Geri Swift, president of the Women’s Business Enterprise Council, a group that certifies women-owned businesses in the Mid-Atlantic region and connects them with corporate customers. “You go to the South, and some of the newer communities, they’re not as bogged down by the old patriarchal approach.”
Swift, who was in Pittsburgh for an event Thursday, helps corporations create diversity programs and hook up with more than 1,000 women-owned businesses the council certifies. She has been coming to Pittsburgh for more than a decade and counts 10 corporate clients in Western Pennsylvania as council members, she said. A longer list of companies, however, have refused her invitations.
“The resistance from some of them is we don’t have enough money in our budget,” she said, an excuse she finds difficult to believe. The cost of annual membership is $2,500, a small price for multibillion-dollar companies.
Women bear responsibility, too, for expanding their presence in Pittsburgh’s economy, DeSimone said. They must do a better job supporting each other, through business referrals and expanding their networks.
The barriers to entry for women-owned businesses are coming down, especially as a younger generation assumes leadership positions among the city’s major employers, she said.
Pittsburgh is still getting comfortable with a new economy after a period of rapid change. Women will be a bigger part of the entrepreneurial community here, she said, but changing hearts and minds of the city’s power brokers takes time.
“I think the philosophy in Pittsburgh is if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” DeSimone said. “This isn’t about something that’s broke. This is about being able to provide opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses.”