An Office Of Her Own

Black women have proven themselves a force to be reckoned with in the world of business. But is the best yet to come?

Over 70 years ago, black intellectual leader and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois said, "The future woman must have lifework and economic independence." And for nearly as long, women in America have not only taken this statement to heart, they’ve put it into practice.

Women have, indeed, made significant strides in virtually every aspect of American industry. From the enterprising talents of Madam C. J. Walker, the first African American woman millionaire, to the professional wizardry of Ann Fudge, the first African American woman to head a division of a Fortune 500 company, black women have also demonstrated that they mean business.

This year, for example, 15 firms run by our sisters are among the top companies recognized by black enterprise. Five made the industrial/service 100 list, six the financial 50 list, two the advertising list and two the auto dealer 100 list.

The 20th century has seen black women rise from laboring in laundry rooms to teaching in classrooms to leading meetings in boardrooms. Though they endured countless bumps and bruises, they eventually emerged victorious in the pursuit of their slice of the American pie. For nearly 30 years, be has reported on the shining achievements of black businesswomen as they climbed the corporate ladder or secured the next big deal. Time and again we’ve answered the skeptics who’ve wondered whether women could be effective leaders in the workplace with a resounding "Yes!" Now, as we welcome the 21st century, be turns the tables to ask: does business hold as much promise for women in the future as it did in the past?

MINDING THEIR OWN BUSINESS
If the trends of the past decade continue, the answer to that question will likely be yes. According to the latest figures by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners (NFWBO), the number of women-owned businesses stands at 9.1 million-38% of all American companies. The number of employees at women-owned firms has quadrupled to 27.5 million since 1987, and annual sales have grown fivefold to $3.6 trillion.

"The increasing number of women-owned businesses and their growing economic impact are changing the business landscape," says Lois Haber, NFWBO chair and president and CEO of Delaware Financial Services Inc. in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. More than ever, "women entrepreneurs are active in the marketplace-accessing capital, buying technology, using the Internet to expand their businesses and establishing retirement plans in much the same way as their male counterparts."

For black women, the NFWBO statistics are just as promising. Representing about 37% of all minority women-owned firms, the number of businesses run by sisters increased by more than 135% between 1987 and 1996 to about 405,200. Sister-owned companies employ more than a quarter of a million people, generate over $24.7 billion in annual sales and account for about 5% of all women-run firms.

"Black women are awakening to the fact that we really can pursue ‘the dream’ through business ownership," says A. Lorraine Jones, Atlantic regional director of the

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