When it comes to building world-class, high-growth companies, men and women aren't so different

A lot has been written about how men and women in business behave differently from each other. But when it comes to strategic thinking about starting and building growth companies, men and women act very much alike. The fact is, women who head companies in industries dominated by men have more in common with men in similar companies than with women in the more traditionally female retail and service businesses.

Historically, women have been more likely to start retail and service businesses, because those are the industries they typically have had experience in, and those companies have also been the easiest to enter in terms of getting capital. Since research tends to lump all types of women and all types of businesses into one group and report the averages, the characteristics of women who start high-growth companies in nontraditional industries are masked. Those women are simply outnumbered by the traditionalists who run retail and service businesses.

That picture is rapidly changing. We're seeing an increasing number of women starting companies in industries that have been virtually closed to them as owners. Those industries include transportation, construction and development, communications, manufacturing, aerospace, wholesale distribution, finance, high technology, and entertainment.

My research, which included 1,400 responses to the National Association of Women Business Owners membership survey, as well as interviews with male and female entrepreneurs across the country, has convinced me it is not so much sex that differentiates one company owner from another; rather, it's the type of business and the industry in which the company operates. In fact, woman entrepreneurs in nontraditional industries like construction and manufacturing are quick to say that entrepreneurship has given them a way to set aside the issue of sex entirely and compete on an equal footing with men in their industries. Sue Szymczak, founder and CEO of Safeway Sling USA, a Milwaukee manufacturer of nylon and polyester slings used on cranes, has built one of the most successful businesses in that industry on the quality of the products and services she provides. She believes the formula for success in her industry, whatever one's sex, is hard work. "You can take people like myself who came from a very poor background, with only a high school education, and if you're willing to work yourself nearly to death and risk everything you have, you can succeed," she says.

A third of the woman-owned companies in my study were in nontraditional industries, and the owners of those companies differed from other woman business owners in many ways. They were 26% more likely than women in traditional retail or service industries to export products and to develop global markets; they were 64% more likely to have exported products into new foreign markets in the previous year. They also preferred to invest in and use technology to facilitate the operation of their businesses. Consequently, they were more likely to use computers for inventory, order entry, personnel tracking, purchasing, and sales analysis.

When it comes to finding financing, the women in nontraditional industries were more likely to use commercial bank loans than women in traditional businesses, even though securing those loans was a difficult process at best. They also used techniques such as accounts-receivable financing and leasing.

By a ratio of two to one over women in traditional businesses, women in nontraditional industries favored corporate forms of organization. The businesses they created usually were larger, with average gross sales 38% higher than those of their counterparts in traditional businesses. They hired nearly twice as many employees. A logical result is that their businesses contributed a higher percentage of their total household income, on average about 73%, compared with 62% for women in traditional retail or service businesses.

Women in nontraditional industries were also 17% more likely to increase the amount of investment in their businesses. The differences even extended to political affiliation. Those women were 63% more likely to be Republicans than to be Democrats, while women in traditional businesses were equally divided between the two parties.

Here are some of the characteristics women who own nontraditional growth companies share with their male counterparts: They have a global vision. To help achieve that vision, they develop strategic alliances with businesses and networks of people who can help them understand diverse cultures. They put together an internationally experienced management team. Like the owners of other well-managed companies, they always have an eye out for ways to innovate in all areas of their business. Their strategies are market driven, with the customer at center stage. Through the formation of teams, their employees have a say in how the business is run and what products and services are developed.

Yes, there are some real differences between male and female entrepreneurs, but when it comes to the strategies they use to build world-class, high-growth companies, men and women are more alike than different. Further, in terms of running their companies, women who own nontraditional businesses think more like their male counterparts than they do like women who own traditional companies -- an indication that research that categorizes company owners merely by sex doesn't tell the whole story.

Kathleen R. Allen (kallen@sba.usc.edu) is an associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California; a cofounder of Gentech Corp., a high-tech start-up in Fresno, Calif.; and the author of Launching New Ventures (Upstart Publishing Co., 1995).

Published on: Sep 1, 1996