The number of women owned businesses continues to grow at twice the rate of all U.S. firms, employing over 7.6 million persons with a total payroll of $218.1 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2007 Survey of Business Owners.  With these businesses representing a significant portion of this nation's economic growth, it's critical that resources and education are available to the women who are bringing our nation nearer to regaining its financial footing. It's also important that these CEO's take the initiative to seek support and gain recognition for their growing firms.

While women are more likely to seek business advice—69 percent women vs. 47 percent men according to American Express, there is still a roadblock for many women when it comes to stepping out and gaining the much deserved support and recognition that will empower them to grow their companies and become economic leaders. What are those roadblocks? Why do women hesitate to ask for help?

To solve this mystery, I reached out to Nell Merlino,  Founder, President and CEO of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, the leading national not-for-profit provider of resources for women to grow their micro businesses into million $ enterprises.  Nell is leading a global movement to empower women entrepreneurs to achieve freedom and financial independence by providing tools, resources, and a supportive community of their peers. 

Q. Nell, your organization has supported hundreds of women in economic and personal growth. What is your goal in terms of the number of women who will reap the benefits of the Make Mine a Million $ Business program?

A.  The million dollar mark is a tangible goal, but the less tangible result is what's most significant. With the support of programs like Count Me In, women in business can achieve freedom, security, and a dream realized.  With stronger profit margins business owners have control over their own destiny. They will be able to provide for themselves and their family, as well as strengthen their ties in local and global community.

Being an entrepreneur can create a sense of isolation. Decision-making can become overwhelming; it gets lonely. We provide a break in that isolation as we include all of our members in this global purpose. We intend to see one million women enjoying financial freedom through their business success within the next decade. 

Q. Count Me In offers its winner's education, peer support, important connections and resources, coaching services provided by The Coach Connection, and more. In your opinion, why isn't every woman business owner entering Make Mine a Million and other competition opportunities?

A.  I don't think there's recognition of the value of competitions when it comes to businesses. Our society values things like beauty contests and competitive team sports for our children.  It's a newer concept to enter our businesses into a competition.

I also believe that one of the reasons women sometimes hesitate to enter a business-related competition is that they don't take stock in how much they've already achieved. The thought of putting it out there and presenting it can be intimidating to them. Women often want to wait to have it all perfect.  Does that ever really happen?

Q.  So what is the benefit of 'putting it all out there' even if it isn't perfect?

A. The galvanizing of a business owner's intention, resources and vision forces them to pull everything together an articulate way. It heightens the visibly of business and helps you to hone in on what you need to do next AND what you've accomplished already. When you enter this competition you will take a step back and look at what you have to bring to the table and create an honest assessment of yourself and your business. It will put you in the position to compete and gain clarity on what to do next to reach the goals that you've set.

Women know more than we give ourselves credit for and are sometimes leery of stepping out because we think we need to be better than we already are. Women would be well served by entering these competitions. We need to help women everywhere to step up and realize what they've achieved and to take the limits off of what they can achieve.

Q. Do you believe that some micro-business owners find it difficult to see themselves as CEO's? What might stand in their way and how can they change it?

A. It's challenging for some women to see themselves as the boss.  Our definition of 'boss' depends on our experience with past bosses – if those haven't been great, why be one? One of the reasons that women leave jobs is because they are not recognized for their talent and aren't given the level of responsibility that they are capable of. But if you want to own a business you have to be in charge.  Otherwise you undervalue yourself and will repeat the pattern of working for a bad boss – you! Or, you can run your biz differently and treat people differently, but you must start with yourself by recognizing your own talent, strength and weaknesses so you can deal fairly with others.

There is real value in leadership; leaders have ideas, values, a vision and a point of view. You can't sort of lead – you have to lead. Being a boss is being a leader, whether it's leading 3 people or 3000. You've created an organization and need to step up to the plate.

Programs like Make Mine a Million help women see the importance of envisioning something bigger; a critical piece of being a leader.  We start with being the boss of ourselves. You've taken this step to create opportunities for yourself, your family and others – why are you thinking so small about it?

Another belief that gets in the way is the fear that people may no longer like me if I act like a boss. It's a legitimate fear; some people won't like you because someone has to be in charge and make decisions – some of which may not be popular. Leadership does not have to be command and control; there are other ways to be in charge. You can take a step toward being in charge when you finally recognize your strengths and talents, take responsibility and include others in the decision-making process.

If leadership is a difficult role for you, talk to people who are great bosses. Find someone who runs an organization that you think is cool and have upfront conversations about what they like about being in charge. Then figure out what you will like and what kind of leader you are going to be.

Q. Do you believe that by changing self-limiting thought patterns, business owners can actually impact their business's bottom line?

A.  Oh yes!  This is about the vision of your business, yourself, and your dreams and aspirations. There are too many stories about people who have given up on their dreams because they believed they couldn't do it. It's heartbreaking that people don't see what I see in most women. There are moments of brilliance in almost everyone but some can't hold on to it, don't see it, or someone talks them out of it. Coaching and peer support are so important. You will come to understand what it is that allows that best part of you to come out. You've taken the steps of creating your own business, now what's the next step – the next set of questions? If you don't ask yourself those questions you are left scrambling just to figure things out. You need to explore the why and how. The decision to set up your own business is about YOU. What kind of life do you want? Change your thought change your life.

Q. What are some examples of how the Count Me In programs have made a difference in the life and business of its winners?

A.  I don't know where to begin.  Women are financing family vacations that they thought they'd never be able to afford. They are sending their kids to college or ballet lessons and experiencing the extra things are that will make a difference in their life and the life of the next generation. These women are pioneering new products and providing services that people need and getting them out there to the consumer.

Females are 51% of the population and are only just starting to make a contribution to the economy that will revolutionize how we take care of ourselves and each other and live richer, safer lives.  We are moving into an era where businesses are growing and have a greater influence on the economy; how we shop, eat, educate and raise children. I am playing a small part in helping women get over the ancient challenges that hold them back. What is our role? How can we be our best selves, whether an employee, business owner or stay at home mom?

This is the kind of conversation that happens at the M3 events.  Women need to recognize that we have power – we are in charge of ourselves. Count Me In gives women a big window to take a look at how they can empower themselves and fulfill their dreams.

The deadline to sign up for this year's Make Mine A Million $ Business competition is Oct 15, 2010. Join the race to the million; visit Count Me In to learn more.