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Women Take Can-Do Spirit to New Heights

Women own and run more businesses than ever before and, in San Diego, have gained better footholds in businesses that were traditionally male dominated.

Certainly, preferential contracting treatment from government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Defense and the California Department of Transportation has helped women break into male-dominated businesses of wholesale supply and construction.

But many of the 39 enterprises on the San Diego Business Journal’s Women-Owned Businesses list have been in the game a long time, and without that type of help. Innovative Employee Solutions Inc., ranked No. 3, has been serving clients since 1998, according to its president, Elizabeth Rice.

“Women approach things in a way where we ask more questions, put more time into listening to clients, and are used to dealing with unique situations — which is critically important to the staffing industry,” Rice said. “In staffing, you can’t just give a client a one-size-fits-all solution.”

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The U.S. Census Small Business Ownership report in 2010 found that California had more women-owned businesses than any other state. California has 13.1 percent of the nation’s women-owned businesses, with receipts of $181 billion — just more than 15 percent of all businesses’ gross receipts nationwide. Texas came in second with about 60 percent of the number of California’s women-owned businesses.

Urban San Diego County, a metropolitan statistical area that stretches from Carlsbad to Chula Vista and east to El Cajon, ranked 18th in the nation for the number of women-owned businesses (Los Angeles was first and Orange County was 17th), while it ranked 17th in population, according to census data. Women-owned businesses — defined as those where women own 51 percent or more of the business — have increased 20 percent from 2002 to 2007, the time frame the census used for the 2010 report.

Data Compiled Before Recession

The report’s statistics are for 2007, so it didn’t take into account the impacts of the recession, which put more than 1 million Californians out of work and shuttered tens of thousands of businesses in the state. An estimated 67,000 California companies went out of business and the recession forced survivors to shrink or change considerably.

“We saw our business drop off in the second half of 2009 but it is starting to pick up again,” Rice said of the company’s staffing business, which manages contracts, payroll and human resources issues for clients by acting as the employer and then contracting the employee to the client. “Coming out of the recession is good for us — employers will tend to bring people on as short-term contracts and hope to be able to hire them.”

The company has about 900 of those workers right now, working primarily in technology and biotech, and health care. Owner Karla Hertzog’s first client was SAIC, where staffing depends on government contracts.

Sedona Staffing in Clairemont Mesa; The Cydio Group Inc. in Mission Valley; La Jolla’s Pridestaff; A-Star Staffing in Mission Valley; and The Lawton Group in Kearny Mesa also made the list.

Some of San Diego’s top 39 women-owned businesses are strong in industrial sectors where women-owned businesses make up less than 20 percent of the playing field. While women own just 7 percent of California’s construction businesses, seven of the 39 women-owned businesses on the list are working in some aspect of construction. Similarly, downtown-based Luth Research, at No. 7, is flourishing in the professional services sector, where just 30 percent of the players are women-owned.

“I used to say I was in the data collection business but now I’m in the information business,” said CEO Roseanne Luth. “Our job is to give our clients honest, real answers.”

Last year Luth’s business, which caters to clients including Maidenform, ESET and Microsoft Corp., grew 50 percent, she said.

Working in a Man’s World

And the Women-Owned Businesses list includes two printing businesses, Neyenesch Printers Inc., No. 8, and Streeter Printing Inc., No. 29, businesses that have traditionally been owned by men.

Adrienne Streeter, owner of the Miramar-based printing company, said that she is the third generation in the business in her family.

“We’ve been a green printer for a long time,” she said. “We recycle all our paper and print on recycled paper, we use vegetable and soy inks — we’re part of this community and we value what we have.”

Streeter said that the recession hurt, but business is returning to pre-recession levels.

“Print is not only not dead, it’s having a resurgence as people realize that they have to reach their customers as many ways as possible,” she said. “Printing lets you target your market and gives you ways to see if what you’re doing brings you business in ways that they realize the Internet can’t.”

The list also includes women-owned businesses in fields where they’re expected, among them the travel industry and public relations.

Career Move to Travel Industry

Joyce Dentt, chief executive officer of Kahala Travel in Mission Valley, came to the travel industry from a career in the construction industry.

“In travel, the clients we deal with are primarily women and the work is very detail-oriented,” Dentt said. “You do the best for your client when you listen to them and get a feel for what they truly want.”

But you also find women-owned businesses providing services to the defense industry, including Martha Renshaw’s Tele-Consultants Inc., listed at No. 5, which provides communications engineering and expertise. About 60 employees work at the company’s Mission Valley office, including those working on systems engineering for satellite communications with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

“When I came into this company 20 years ago you just didn’t see women working with the military, not ever,” Renshaw said from the company’s Georgia headquarters. “As a woman leading this business, I was intimidated at first because so many of our contacts are very high ranking military, very technically competent men. I learned to gain their respect by listening closely and working collaboratively and that was a culture shock for some of them.”

Renshaw said that as the company’s CEO, she built a business with a flatter management structure, one where she leads by listening. Those skills are coming in handy on a project she’s working on in Kenya, where the United Nations is working to develop businesses with people who have good ideas.

“What we’ve learned here translates to entrepreneurs everywhere,” she said.

Marty Graham is a freelance writer for the San Diego Business Journal.

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