(WOMENSENEWS)--Travel agent Stacy Small waits for a connection in Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport, surrounded by gadgets.
On a laptop, she books a plane ticket for a client. On a BlackBerry, she sends a note to a friend. On a cell phone, she chats with a reporter about how technology has helped her launch her own travel agency, even as the industry is whipsawed by proliferating Web sites that let consumers book flights and cruises and hotel rooms directly.
Before she acquired her PDA--personal digital assistant in tech lingo--and laptop, "I couldn't tear myself away from my home computer," says Small, who is based in West Palm Beach, Fla., and began her business, Elite Travel International, in 2005. "Now I don't stop working when I am traveling, and I keep in touch socially with my family and friends."
Millions of female entrepreneurs say they prize technology's assistance in helping them juggle work, home and social commitments. According to a survey by the Center for Women's Business Research that was funded by IBM, 61 percent of 150 female entrepreneurs surveyed value technology's ability to help them balance home and work responsibilities, while 47 percent cited its ability to support a more flexible work schedule.
Along with the work-life balance that technology helps make possible, however, are a new set of challenges: keeping pace with change, choosing among competing technologies and finding consultants whose guidance reflects entrepreneurs' day-to-day needs.
Primary Decision Makers on Tech
"Women have been very aggressive in adapting and using new technology," says Sharon Hadary, executive director at the nonprofit Center for Women's Business Research in Washington, D.C. She says that 83 percent of female business owners are the primary decision-makers for technology purchases made by their firms.
Whether they're purchasing one cell-phone plan or desktop computers for a multinational network, female-owned businesses account for $38 billion in annual IT (information technology) spending, and another $25 billion in telecommunications, the center found. Annually, U.S. companies spend $368 billion on hardware, software and telecom equipment, according to Andrew Bartels, vice president and research analyst at Forrester Research, an independent technology and market research company based in Cambridge, Mass.
Women running businesses of all sizes say that the ability to set their own hours, manage far-flung employees, move more fluidly between child or elder care and work, or juggle multiple jobs is eased by technology.
After mastering accounting software QuickBooks, Los Angeles-based Laurel Green launched her own bookkeeping business in a bid for greater flexibility to go on auditions (she is also an actress) and to care for her young son. To drum up clients, she offers free accounting consultations and advertises her services through a popular listserv in her neighborhood. "It's a really nice balance," she says. "I have my child, my husband, (acting), and also this career on the side that brings in extra money."
Elizabeth Rodgers says that in the absence of productivity-enhancing hardware and software products, many women "spin their wheels and do more than they need to do." She and her husband, Jonathon Fishman, founded Ben's Ranch, an IT service business in Santa Monica, Calif., that counts Green among its clients.
"We try to suggest solutions," Rodgers says. "If you set up a productive workspace, you can get more done at home." That helps make business transactions and family time alike run more smoothly.
Case in point: instant messaging. "It's been the best thing for me," says Brooke Long, a Web designer in Shakopee, Minn. "I have a (business) partner in England who's doing the database development for a project while I work on the front end and basic HTML coding. We get so much handled over IM."
It's Tough Keeping Up
Long says that following advances in Web technology is the most challenging aspect of running her business, Cataluna. "I have to pick and choose what I want to learn. I don't ever claim to be at the forefront of technology. I like to wait and see what is going to stick."
From advances in open-source programming--built around the concept that users will view, alter, enhance and distribute software for free--to the proliferation of free or cheap Web sites that let entrepreneurs create a blog to market their company, technology's rapid evolution demands that women concentrate only on the options most relevant to them.
An example of a Web business feature with possible direct benefits to entrepreneurs is meta-tagging, a method of labeling keywords on a Web page--such as a brand name or type of product--to better attract online shoppers and drive more sales.
Beth Bacheldor and Amy Black, entrepreneurs in Occoquan, Va., opened their retail store Two Girls and a Boy in 2003. Black wishes that she and Bacheldor had meta-tagged their store's Web site earlier than they did. When they contracted with their Web design firm to meta-tag certain terms, the women noticed an uptick in the number of hits--and sales--based on certain brands of high-end babies' and children's clothing, such as Le Top and Zutano.
Even in late 2007, Two Girls and a Boy's founders are in the e-commerce vanguard. According to the Center for Women's Business Research's findings, 97 percent of female business owners use their Web sites to provide basic information about their companies, while just 39 percent offer online purchase options.
Consultants Ease Transitions
Gail Montplaisir, president of Washington, D.C.'s Taurus Enterprise Group, which develops single- and multi-family homes, recommends that entrepreneurs hire a well regarded consultant to shepherd them through technological transitions to keep the overall business running smoothly.
"You want to make sure your voice and data systems are integrated," she says. "If you upgrade your phone system, and then your computers, there is a risk that those pieces will not work together smoothly, and it's key to make sure they do. It's a real annoyance to spend $15,000 on new technology that does not work with what you already have."
"Definitely outsource," echoes Marla Selko, founder of Urban Referrals, a Washington-based business that matches homeowners seeking contractors for renovations with those who offer such services. "Find the funds to get help with technology so you can start your business with a system that will help you work efficiently and grow." Good consultants, she adds, will train you on certain products so that you can handle tasks yourself but call on them as needed.
The Center for Women's Business Research study underscores Selko's and Montplaisir's points. When purchasing new technology, reliability is the No. 1 consideration for 82 percent of the study's female respondents. Compatibility of technology products was right behind at 75 percent, while price came in last, with 55 percent of female entrepreneurs citing it as a high-ranking consideration.
"Year after year, we've seen that women value technology as a way of running their businesses more efficiently," says Hadary. "We expect them to continue to use it more to make their businesses more profitable and enhance their sales and marketing efforts."
Amy Rogers Nazarov is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Cooking Light, The Writer and Cure, among others.
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