V. Cheryl Womack

(WOMENSENEWS)–V. Cheryl Womack started her Kansas City trucking and insurance business out of anger.

After nearly five years of helping her boss make millions in a company that sold insurance to truckers, her boss brought in another man with her same level of experience and asked her to train the newcomer. It was obvious that the new hire, who received a significantly higher salary and an expense account, would soon become her boss.

"Fear had stopped me from starting my own business, which I had considered for a while, but anger was the motivation that got me over the hump," said Womack.

In 1983, after quitting her job, Womack ventured out on her own with $17,000
–the same as her annual salary at the time–by carrying a house note for a home improvement loan. She made monthly payments and paid off the loan as she built income in her business.

In many ways, Womack was typical of women who start their own private businesses.

She was confident of her skills, knew her industry and had been employed in a wage job; those are the features shared by many female entrepreneurs who strike out on their own, according to the seventh annual Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) 2005 report on Women and Entrepreneurship, released in March. That report also found that opportunity–rather than necessity–was a dominant motivator for women in high-income countries such as the United States.

But unlike the average female entrepreneur, Womack managed to build the enterprise into a company valued at more than $100 million when she sold it four years ago. The average female-owned sole proprietorships produced revenue of $31,000 in 1997, compared with $58,000 for male and female-owned businesses combined, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, based in Washington, D.C. Now, Womack is in the driver’s seat of Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World, the nonprofit arm of the Star Group, a for-profit networking forum for women that Womack moved from Los Angeles to Kansas City after she bought it in January 2003.

Annual Crowning Ceremony

Each year since 1997, Women Entrepreneurs has staged what amounts to a coronation ceremony for other female entrepreneurs around the world who have attained similar entrepreneurial success.

This past March, 15 women from 11 countries were inducted into the group in a lavish ceremony in Bangkok, Thailand. Their combined businesses generate total annual earnings of more than $9 billion and employ more than 35,000 people globally.

They join more than 300 members who run private businesses with combined annual revenues of more than $200 billion and employ 525,000 people in more than 50 countries. A quarter of them own businesses that generate $400 million in yearly sales apiece; 13 percent generate more than $1 billion in sales annually; and 17 percent are in manufacturing, industrial and distribution businesses.

The celebration–which inducts the roughly dozen new members and pours limelight on members who attend–features the usual roster of receptions and trips to historic sites and attractions.

The multi-faceted mingling disrupts the norm for female entrepreneurs, whom the March GEM report found less likely to know other entrepreneurs than their male counterparts. Authors called the finding significant because entrepreneurs rely on role models and social networks for both information and access to resources.

Womack said that, in line with the GEM report finding, many members of her group did not have a sophisticated network of support. "That’s why we are giving women reasons to return each year to share business ideas, to learn about other businesses (among our group and how they did it) and, finally, to share failures."

Ms. Universe and the Olympics

Womack conducts the annual event like a cross between Ms. Universe and the Olympics. She visits countries and interviews leaders–ranging from commerce representatives all the way up to presidents–to drum up the best invitation for her bevy of deep-pocketed women.

Based on a survey of attendees of this year’s Thailand ceremony, she estimates the event–through travel, shopping and airlines–injected $15 million into the national economy.

"If people can watch a Miss Universe pageant and feel good about seeing the ‘perfect woman’ tell you her dreams, I want the world to hear the successes and results of women who come in every shape, size and color, and hear of their tremendous achievements," says Womack. "The media profiles women at publicly traded companies whose puppet-masters are their shareholders and boards of directors. I want to get more women out in the public eye to show that you can do quite well without being at a publicly traded company."

In contrast to a publicly owned company that raises money by issuing shares that are bought and sold on stock markets, a privately held company funds itself exclusively through its own profits.

As this year’s host, the Thai government provided $500,000 to support the occasion, which had many of the trappings of an official state event, with the deputy prime minister, the minister of foreign affairs and members of the royal family participating in key junctures of the six-day itinerary from March 18 through 23.

Royal Awards Ceremony

Thai Princess Ubolratana presided over the induction awards ceremony, which was televised and broadcast on radio nationwide in Thailand and covered by TV crews from Australia, Romania, Singapore and South Africa. Ambassadors to Thailand who attended the main gala represented 10 countries, including Poland, Romania, Japan, United States, Australia, Greece, South Africa and Canada.

Inductees in 2006 included Patara Sila-On, chair of S and P Syndicate Public Company, Thailand’s largest restaurant chain; Khunying Sasima Srivikorn, chair of Golden Land Property Development, Thailand’s leading real-estate developer; Supaluck Umpujh, vice chair of The Mall Group, the most popular group of shopping complexes in Thailand; and Sonia Segura, chair and CEO of Diplomatica International, Spain’s leading digest of global affairs with an internationalist perspective.

After she took over as president in 2003, Womack began boosting the group’s assistance to younger women with fledgling businesses by extending a total of $15,000 in support grants. The grants go to businesswomen in the host country.

This year, Women Entrepreneurs will for the first time sponsor four to six summer internships for female college students in Australia, Thailand, South Africa, Japan and the United States, giving students the chance to work in businesses outside of their home countries.

"Too many people today pigeonhole what they want to do with their lives while they are in college," said Womack. "If a student has studied only one business and lived in one country, she doesn’t know how she might enjoy something outside of what she has already picked."

Sandra Guy, a 23-year veteran journalist, is a business reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times. She has covered business, politics, education, technology and peace issues, and served as a former president of the Chicago chapter of the Association for Women Journalists.

For more information:

The Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World

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