What most distinguishes them from their male counterparts is a different outlook, an inclusive company culture and a naturally collaborative style. “We are less competitive in our DNA,” says Jeanne Knutzen, founder, owner and CEO of Pace Staffing Network in Bellevue. “Don’t get me wrong. We are very competitive, but we have the mindset of ‘win, win,’ not ‘we win and somebody else loses.’ I’m more competitive for my customers. When they are winning, I’m winning.”
Knutzen started her recruiting, staffing and managed services company in 1975 when double standards were blatantly out in the open. She and her husband had identical balance sheets when they sought bank loans for their separate businesses. He was given carte blanche and she got a few hundred dollars that had to be paid back in 90 days. Today, her company brings in $15 million to $35 million a year.
Paula Begoun, whose Seattle skin-care-products company Paula’s Choice has earned her the reputation as the Cosmetics Cop, says she found success through a combination of honesty, integrity, hard work and fun. “Work needs to be 50 percent work and 50 percent fun,” she says. “If that gets out of balance, something is wrong with your company’s culture.”
Knutzen and begoun are in fine company, even if they remain a distinct minority. Right now, women business owners account for about a quarter of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. But women are starting businesses at one and a half times the national average — about 1,288 a day — according to a 2015 State of Women-Owned Businesses report commissioned by American Express.
Last year, there were nearly 9.5 million woman-owned firms in the United States — 36 percent of all businesses in the country — and they generated about $1.5 trillion in revenues and employed 8 million people, according to the report. Between 1997 and 2015, when the number of businesses nationwide increased by 51 percent, the report says the number of woman-owned firms increased by 74 percent.
“We are seeing greater interest in the entrepreneurial ambitions of women, and these key factors are collaborating to open doors, increase access, and empower and enable women to succeed,” says Carla Harris, chair of the National Women’s Business Council in a 2015 report on women’s entrepreneurship. Harris predicts the number of woman-owned and woman-led businesses will more than double during the next five years.
That’s not to say it’s an easy road. Schescke, the owner of Indian Eyes in Pasco, endured years of prejudice and discrimination after leaving her Lakota reservation to live in an all-white community with a foster family in Nebraska, and later as a minority businesswoman working in the male-dominated construction-services industry.
Today, her “cradle-to-grave” logistics and facility support company is a prime contractor to the U.S. Department of Energy and holds a top government security clearance. Her firm was called in to provide “life-support services” when Pope Francis visited the United States last year and she was “boots down” as one of the first responders to the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “We were right in the middle of it — snake pits and all,” she says of the project, which lasted six years.
Schescke relies on her Lakota values and attributes much of her success to building a good team and delegating responsibility instead of trying to do it all herself. “That means letting go and then having the resources to support growth,” she says.
For Lee Rhodes, a cancer diagnosis led her to create Glassybaby. When she was going through treatment, she dropped a tea light into a rough-hewn glass vessel and found great comfort in the color and light. She was then inspired to sell her own hand-blown votives. Since 2001, Glassybaby has been a Seattle success story — in spite of critics who question its single-product orientation — and has donated nearly $5 million to more than 300 nonprofits.
Brown, president and COO of Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, learned at a young age that it’s OK to be uncomfortable. When she was 8 years old growing up in Richmond, Virginia, she and her brother were the first African-American students to attend a formerly all-white school after the state began to end racial segregation. “At first, I was uncomfortable about the whole business of going to this new school,” Brown recalls. But she worked through the discomfort and discovered that people grow when they push themselves. “And it doesn’t feel so uncomfortable anymore,” she notes.
Brown is passionate about encouraging females to pursue education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and she supports STEM programs for girls of all ages.
A global study released this year by the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., concluded that companies whose executive ranks are at least 30 percent female generate as much as six percentage points more in profits than firms with less robust female representation.
“If you’re a firm and you’re discriminating against potential female leaders, that means you’re essentially doing a bad job of picking the best leader for your firm,” the study concluded.
Megan Meade, president and CEO of The Pacific Financial Group, a Bellevue boutique investment firm, jokes that “it’s taken 20 years to become an overnight success.” Meade began as a file clerk in the business her father started in 1984 from their basement. It was hard enough to be a woman in a male-dominated field, but climbing her way up the corporate ladder under the shadow of her father made it even more difficult. She admits she was fired three separate times but learned from those experiences and returned to the company each time wiser and more resilient.
“It’s an endurance test,” she says. “When I was younger, I thought I knew more than I really did. … It was embarrassing but I didn’t dwell on it.”
She learned the hard way the importance of listening to others before jumping to conclusions and that asking for help is not a bad thing.
Those lessons paid off. Today, Pacific Financial is the third-largest investment firm, ranked by number of investors, in the Puget Sound region, with more than 11,000 clients and nearly $1.5 billion in assets under management.