Money. You can’t build a business without it. Yet, if you’re a women owner, you probably started with less of it than a comparable man and you will raise less of it as you grow. If you settle for that situation, odds are you will end up with a smaller and less significant business than you should. But women who've done it say there's no reason you can't get the capital you need.

Fellow columnist Vivek Wadhwa writes in his special report about venture capital’s “gender problem,” which he sees as a blot on the tech industry’s claim to pure meritocracy. And unequal access to funding is hardly limited to Silicon Valley. A key Department of Commerce survey of women-owned companies across the U.S. reported that women-owned firms started life with only 64% of the capital of male-owned firms and were less likely to tap outside financing over their lifetime, including loans, angel investments and venture capital. That helps to explain why the average women-owned business has 25% lower revenue than the typical male-owned firm in the same industry.

The government report doesn’t necessarily blame gender bias. It cites one study, for instance, that found women are less likely than men to ask for outside funding. Other research suggests that differences in credit scores, growth potential and firm size account for just about all the variance in financial access.

The women entrepreneurs I interviewed for this story likewise don't blame it all on bias: Your fate is ultimately in your hands, they say. Their experience suggests that there are things you can do to control your financial fate, regardless of preconceptions lenders may have about you.

Ask, and keep asking until you get what you want

“Women don’t dream big enough,” says Gloria Larkin, President of TargetGov, which gives small businesses guidance in bidding on government contracts. She used her 401(k) to launch her company, but realized that to fund growth she’d need outside money. So she asked and kept asking until she was able to secure a loan.

“Think out financing early,” is the advice of Hester Taylor Clark, founder of The Hester Group. She caused herself a lot of unnecessary worry by waiting too long to ask. “Seek it out before you need it,” she says. “When you are persistent, not everyone will give you what you want. But someone will.”

Don’t let fear of rejection make you tongue-tied. Keep asking for what you need.

Don’t insult your VCs' intelligence

Before you work up the nerve to ask for money, you need to work up numbers that prove you’ll be able to pay it back. What is your credit score? Does your business have growth prospects that warrant outside funding? Will the funder believe you know the risks in your industry, have assessed them wisely, and are up to the challenge? After all, you are asking an angel or VC to put their money at risk (or money others have entrusted to them) on your behalf. You have to be able to make your case.

Fear of math is no excuse. Shelly Sun attributes funders’ stinginess towards women entrepreneurs’ to the latters’ lack of financial acumen. Sun is CEO of BrightStar Care, a company she founded with her husband in 2002. Whether the person asking for a loan is a man or a woman, Sun says, the bank wants the person in charge to know the finances.

“You need to understand the numbers, not just pass them off to the CPA or CFO … The bank cares if you have confidence in how you will repay the loan. If you defer to a CPA, the bank stops listening.”

She doesn’t mean that you need to prepare your own financial statements, just that you must understand them well enough to make sound decisions—and that you go to your fund raising meetings able to state your case with confidence and clarity. Here’s a minimal level of knowledge you’ll need:

  • You must be able to grasp the impact any decision you make has on cash flow. 
  • You should be able to articulate your financial position well enough that a banker can be confident you understand the consequences of taking out a loan (or giving up equity).
  • Learn your credit score, and know how to raise it so that you qualify for the least expensive financing.
  • Keep revenue projections realistic.
  • Be clear about when funders will start to see a return on their capital.

If you are serious about growing your business, at some point you are going to need capital. You can ask for what you need as cogently as possible, or you can be shy and intimidated about it. I’ll let you decide which is the better choice.

For free resources that can help you find capital, check out this video from the Inc. Women's Summit, with Pravina Raghavan of the Small Business Association.

And for the financially uninitiated, Sun put together this reading list:

  • Accounting and Financial Fundamentals for Non-Financial Executives, by Robert Rachlin and Allen Sweeny
  • Never Run Out of Cash, by Philip Campbell
  • Simple Numbers, Straight Talk, Big Profits, by Greg Crabtree