When Teresa Vidger, President and CEO of Temporary Housing Directory, started her business in 2001, it was out of personal necessity, rather than personal passion. Previously, she had worked at Destination Connection, Coldwell Banker's leasing division for six years. She spent six days per week finding housing for corporate clients preparing to relocate, driving up to 100 miles per day—all while independently fielding referral calls from insurance companies looking to temporarily house displaced victims.
That ended when she realized that she couldn't keep up her hectic pace and be a mother to a child that needed special attention. "My son was born premature and only weighed two pounds," says Vidger, who continued working part-time for her employer for another year before she realized she could strike out on her own and still be successful by carving out a niche that focused solely on finding temporary homes for people displaced by disasters. "I realized that I was able to continue the temporary housing work because it was mainly done over the phone."
Who knew that her company, Temporary Housing Directory, No. 72 on this year's Inc. 500, would become a $20 million enterprise and give Vidger the flexibility to work from home? "Nowadays," says Vidger, "I work from my home office full-time just like all of my employees. If you have the right people who are self-starters, they can be much more productive in their own work environment with fewer distractions."
Although it's challenging to balance a family and a growing business, Vidger says that "quality time is the most important" and she's happy to be home before and after school to greet her three kids, including her son, an avid soccer player, who is now 11 years old.
Vidger is just one example of millions of women entrepreneurs who are making an enormous impact on the American economic landscape. To highlight their achievements, Inc. has identified the top 10 fastest growing, women-owned (and women-run) businesses in America. What you'll find is a rare glimpse into the world of companies that have grown on average from 1,000 percent to 10,000 percent. And for those of you who are wondering…no…the economy has not slowed them down one bit.
What Drives Them?
According to the Center for Women's Business Research, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, nearly 10.4 million firms are owned by women, employing more than 12.8 million people, and generating $1.9 trillion in sales in 2004.
With growth a primary goal, it makes sense that "the number of women-owned businesses continues to grow at twice the rate of all U.S. firms," reports the National Women's Business Council in Washington, D.C. As technology improves and women leveraging their workplace skills, the playing field is leveling for women who are growing their companies at warp speed. The experts cite the following trends:
Women seem to take better business advantage of technology and use it innovatively to build scale into their business models.
More of these businesses are becoming certified to do business with the government and the top publicly traded companies as minority-owned enterprise.
More and more women are confident in the transferable skills that they've gained after years of working in a particular field.
The increasing desire to have work-life balance, allowing them more control over their lives and schedules, and the ability to spend more time with family.
The recent push toward entrepreneurship is twofold: "Women really want more control over their lives and their careers," explains Margaret Barton, Executive Director of the NWBC. "They've come up with a great business idea, they're confident in their skills, and they realize that they don't have to deal with the overhead costs of office space." A study conducted by the SBA Office of the Advocacy show that women are hanging out a shingle at home in record numbers. The 2004 Population Survey results reveal that women have a 61.3 percent participation rate in home-based businesses.
As more women hang out a shingle, the demographic makeup of these leaders is changing as well. Women of color now own one in five of all women-owned firms, for example. These firms employ nearly 1.1 million people and generate more than $161 billion in revenues.
Where It's At
Increasingly, these CEOs are expanding into nontraditional areas of commerce including construction, manufacturing, and transportation, which has seen the biggest spike in participation, although the Women's Business Center indicates that retail (16%) and services (53%) still make up the largest share of women-owned firms.
Take Nicole Loftus, president and CEO of Chicago-based Zorch International, for example. Her company, which ranks 8th on this year's Inc. 500 list, has grown a whopping 10,822 percent in the past few years thanks to an innovative supply chain model that cuts out middle man distributors. "It allows the manufacturer to work directly with the end user buyer," says Loftus.
Her bread and butter are cups, mugs, shirts, hats, pens, and banners with corporate logos on them. After working in the apparel industry since age 14 at a wholesale factory and later Levi Strauss & Co., "I started working at a large distributor in the promotional product industry, which is where I discovered the need for a new supply chain and started Zorch at 32," says Loftus. Revenues have grown $23 million in the past year alone. Similarly, CEOs like Kelly Petersen of the Labor Law Center provides products, too. Their posters, forms, and employment kits keep other businesses in compliance with labor laws.
Delving into the sciences, engineering, and tech fields suits Jingli Yang, Ph.D., CEO of Earth Resources Technology Inc., No. 127 on the Inc. 500 list, just fine. A provider of IT support services to clients like NASA and NOAA, she expects 2008 revenues to double to $50 million, from the previous year.
At a time when the economy is hurting from a mortgage meltdown, Michele Shoda's company, Solid Source Realty is thriving. The company sits at No. 95 on the Inc. 500 list this year.
Sure Shoda was smart enough to take advantage of the real estate boom by opening her brokerage in January 2003. But what made her genius was creating a system "to allow agents to keep more commission instead of paying up to 50 percent to the broker holding his or her license," says Shoda, whose company earned $32 million in revenues.
Implementing "a paperless management system two years ago, allows our agents to manage real estate transactions online 24/7, so it is no longer necessary to come into an office," says Shoda, a real estate investor for the past 16 years, who sold several rental properties with significant equity for the start-up capital.
Meeting the Challenge
One of our experts says that the biggest challenge is the same for both males and females. "It's the same challenge that everyone faces -- access to capital," says Loretta Prescott, programs and communication manger for the Women's Business Resource Center in New Hampshire. "Entrepreneurs use personal savings, business and personal credit cards, business loans or lines of credit, and equity capital," to fund their ventures, explains Allison M. Gilmore, Director of Communications and Research Analysis for the National Women's Business Council in Washington, D.C. They're also tapping the SBA for grants and turning to angel investors, small business investment companies, and family and friends for a leg up.
Once funding is in place, "The next hurdle is figuring out who is going to buy what you sell and then figuring out the right marketing strategy to sell to your potential customer," says Prescott.
Extracting out the right customer was simple for Christie Lee, President of Oil Chem Technologies L.L.C. in Sugar Land, Texas, No. 142 on the Inc. 500 list this year (see "Has She Solved the Oil Crisis?"). A chemist by trade, it was her 17 years in the oil field working for Halliburton and Witco Chemical that helped her realize that there was a void to fill.
When oil companies are looking for new methods (like steam, carbon monoxide, or chemicals) to recover oil from reservoirs when conventional methods have been exhausted, they call Oil Chem, whose revenue over the past year has risen from $250,000 to $14 million in projected revenues for 2008.
For some entrepreneurs, capital and clients are not so much the issue as is sustained growth. For entrepreneurs like Leslie O'Connor, president and CEO of Atlanta, Georgia-based Search Wizards, a recruiting and sourcing firm, "the evolution from mom and pop" to corporation had its growing pains. "The growth happened before the infrastructure was ready for it." she says. When O'Connor started the firm in 2000, she initially did placements with minimal overhead, but once they added major clients in 2006 and 2007, it became necessary to hire an internal support staff. The company ranks at No. 89 on this year's Inc. 500 list.
Even with their level of success, some entrepreneurs still struggle. A 2007 study by the National Association of Women-Owned Businesses indicated that other issues for entrepreneurs were access to affordable healthcare insurance, fair and equitable tax treatment for small business, and business technology.
Making a career switch in the same field can be equally challenging. This was the case for Lisa G. Shaffer, Ph.D., president and CEO of Spokane, Washington-based Signature Genomic Laboratories, No. 114 on the Inc. 500 list.
"Many of my colleagues from academia feel that I have sold out to corporate America," says Shaffer, who started the company in 2004 to provide an answer as to why a child has a birth defect, has autism, or is having trouble learning. "The academic environment is very loyal. And for those who make the switch from a research facility to a corporate one, they can receive some backlash. Being corporate allows me to give back. I don't think that I could have influenced this field as significantly if I had remained in the constraints of academia," Shaffer says. "What my academic colleagues don't recognize is that Signature uses some of its profits to make better microarrays, do proper validation studies, and perform testing at no charge for those who can't afford it."
Signature Genomic Labs is the first lab in the United States to use microarray-based methods to detect chromosome abnormalities. This important research has helped her company grow into a $19 million corporation that expects 20 percent revenue growth every year for the next five years.
The Female Advantage
Here's an interesting fact: Women-owned businesses with $1 million or more in revenue are more likely to have large corporations (34%) and government (31%) as their primary clients. Catering to government clients was a wise move by Carol Craig, a former flight naval officer, who "learned that the government had programs designed to help women-owned and minority businesses after a couple of years of successful consulting," she says.
Her company, Craig Technologies, which grew 770 percent over the past year and had $8.7 million in revenue in 2007 and ranks at No. 75 on this year's Inc. 500 list, provides information technology support, training, and modeling and simulation to government customers.
Likewise, government contracts proved invaluable to Chiquita R. Young, President and CEO of Brentwood, Tennessee-base LeGacy Resource Corporation, which had 2007 revenues of $13.6 million and ranks at No. 57 on this year's Inc. 500 list.
"Having had a federal career, I decided that I would become a contractor to the federal government rather than continue as a civil servant," explains Young. LeGacy provides security (i.e., information and personnel) and administrative support to clients like the U.S. Department of Energy. Their biggest deal, a $35 million five-year contract with the department, was a significant part of their 600 percent growth rate in 2004.
The advantages to being a woman-owned business are great. To gain contracts with government agencies and corporations required to do business with minority-owned businesses, more women are getting qualified as a Woman Business Enterprise. This designation is helping more female entrepreneurs access to prime contracts, team up with larger companies for professional services such as technology or systems integration; and receive subcontract awards to those businesses that make products.
For all of these women, growth has meant the freedom to run organizations how they want, to grow at a sustainable pace, and to do so with an unwavering optimism. "I never fear failure," says Craig of Craig Technologies. "I have always had backup plans and I have continued to plan ahead for the 'worst case scenario.' Every experience is a success if you learn from it."