Reasonable people have been disagreeing for years about whether female business owners have less access to capital because of their gender. True, the lion's share of venture capital goes to companies managed by men. But does that reflect bias or simply the fact that fewer women try to get it? The debate will undoubtedly rage on, but meanwhile the "supply side" is responding with new funds.

We can't say how big the trend will get or even whether all the groups will succeed in raising the capital they want. But if you're looking for money -- and you happen to be a woman -- here are some bases to touch:
Capital Rose,
Wayne, Pa., 215-687-1666. Founder Rebecca Maddox hopes to raise up to $40 million in the form of small contributions from women across the United States. Besides making equity investments, the group plans to make loans to companies that can't get financing. Rather than structuring the fund as a conventional limited partnership, she intends to organize it as a nonprofit organization, putting any gains into a trust fund for future investing. Maddox claims her fund "can do things differently," since her investors want to do something more meaningful than just get high rates of return.
New Era Capital Partners,
Los Angeles, 310-284-8868. Established by two veteran venture capitalists (both men) and a former entertainment-industry executive (a woman), this group aims to raise $50 million for investment in woman-owned companies in industries such as retailing, food products, and communications. For the most part, it will target expansion deals and buyouts, says general partner Raymond A. Doig.

Women's Equity Fund, Boulder, Colo., 303-443-2620. In contrast with most venture-capital funds, which try to achieve high portfolio returns through risk-oriented investments of $1 million and up, this group expects to make smaller investments in less glitzy businesses -- sums of $10,000 to $100,000 in, for example, professional service businesses, specialized retailers, and light-manufacturing companies. Initially it will target companies in Colorado, says president Annette Taylor, a former banker. To augment its capital of $1 million, the fund recently signed an agreement with Norwest, a bank holding company, which will make loans of up to a total of $50 million to portfolio companies.

Prism Venture Partners, Chicago, 312-902-5347. This fund plans to do later-stage deals and buyouts of businesses owned by women and minorities, says general partner Jerrold Carrington.

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Woman entrepreneurs who aren't looking for equity right now but who do want a loan will find that a number of the nearly 100 "microlenders" designated by the Small Business Administration encourage woman-owned businesses to apply. For information, contact your SBA district office.

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