Standing above the New York Stock Exchange trading room looking out at a sea of mostly men Friday morning, Nell Merlino was reminded of a breakfast she had in 1993 in the same room.
Merlino, who helped found Take Your Daughter to Work Day and is now founder of Count Me in for Women's Economic Independence, a resource for female entrepreneurs, was invited to a breakfast on the floor with Goldman Sachs partners to promote the holiday.
"At the time, that was the most women who had ever been on the floor," she says. "It just says that we have to keep doing this, keep showing up and keep showing men and women that we can do this."
On Friday morning however, Merlino was raising awareness of the impact of female entrepreneurship on job creation and the economy by ringing the opening bell while fellow female business owners whistled and cheered beside her.
Count Me In was founded in 1999 as a nonprofit online micro-lender for female entrepreneurs. Today it is perhaps best known for its major initiative, Make Mine a Million $ Business, a contest that aims to inspire women business owners to reach $1 million in revenue.
The organization sponsors Make Mine a Million $ Business contests in which women give presentations on what they would do to get their business to the $1 million mark. The top presenters receive twice-monthly business coaching, in addition to publicity and access to financing.
"A lot of women suffer from a vision that's too small," Merlino says. "We do a lot of work with that. We get women to think about what they would like to accomplish with their businesses if there were no limits. They've often never said it to anyone before."
Theresa Alfaro Daytner, CEO of Daytner Construction group, which ranked No. 269 on the 2011 Inc. 500 list, heard about Make Mine a Million $ Business through the National Association of Women Business Owners and competed in 2006.
Daytner was nearing $1 million in revenue, but needed an extra push to get there. After she was selected as a top participant, Daytner was paired with business coach Cindy Petersiel, who she turned to for months for strategy and an objective opinion on her business.
"It was hugely beneficial, because here was this unemotionally attached person who was objective and wasn't carrying the baggage we were letting get in our way," she says. "That was so helpful."
Daytner also benefited tremendously from the publicity and media attention she received by doing the competition—landing on the cover of Costco Connection magazine, which was widely spread throughout her area.
All of the resources she got through Make Mine a Million $ Business helped propel her business forward, but it was the support she got from other women, including a chance conversation with author and financial adviser Suze Orman, that really changed her attitude.
"I told her, 'I'm going to grow my business to $10 million,'" Daytner says. "I was waiting for her to laugh. She looked at me, and she said, "Well, why limit yourself?"
Standing beside Merlino and other female entrepreneurs, like Leah Brown, CEO of A10 Clinical Solutions, which ranked No. 92 on the 2011 Inc. 500, and Stacey Schieffelin, founder of Your Best Friend Cosmetics, Daytner says she thought of her grandfather, an immigrant from Chile, and how the trading floor symbolized the immigrant's dream and free markets.
Female-owned business accounts for about 30 percent of all privately-held firms in the United States, according to the Economics and Statistics Administration. Since 1997, the number of female-owned businesses has grown at a much faster rate than men-owned firms and has added about 500,000 new jobs as other private companies lost.
Kathy Korman Frey, founder of the Hot Mommas Project, a case study library on female entrepreneurship at The George Washington University School of Business, says women are economically very powerful.
"There is study after study showing what a goldmine women entrepreneurs are across every angle, whether it's the number of female-owned businesses entering into the economy, or in terms of growth," she says. "The ways women tend to spend their earnings are an economist's dream. Women will take money and spend in their communities, so GDP will increase."
Organizations like Count Me In are so important, Daytner says, because they provide support female entrepreneurs can't find elsewhere.
"You have to have the right community supporting you," she says. "When it's women entrepreneurs trying to scale up, that supportive community allows us to be free to think bigger."
Merlino says the organization and female entrepreneurs are just getting started.
"Women don't want to go backwards, and we're not going to," she says. "The products [female] business owners come up with and how they structure their businesses are indicators of some positive stuff to come."