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More women seize opportunities to start businesses

| Saturday, April 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Portrait of Donna Baxter, CEO of Soul Pitt Media, in her home office in Wilkinsburg on April 16, 2014.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Judy Masucci at her store, 'A Mother's Boutique' in Wexford. Masucci sells maternity and breastfeeding apparel and accessories.

Judy Masucci had enough of her corporate job.

She was exhausted by the 12- to 14-hour days she worked for a biotech firm. The job was hard, but after her son was born in 2005, it became nearly impossible.

There was only one thing she could do — she quit.

“I think there is a lot of negative reinforcement in corporate America that pushes women to find other solutions,” Masucci, 46, of Wexford said.

Masucci's solution was to open a clothing store for nursing mothers called A Mother's Boutique. In starting a business, Masucci joined a growing list of women who have become entrepreneurs.

Many are striking out on their own out of frustration with their corporate jobs. Others are fulfilling a desire to be their own boss, and some act out of necessity because of being laid off in a market where finding work has been exceedingly tough in recent years.

The number of female-owned businesses has increased 68 percent to 9 million from 5.4 million in 1997, according to an analysis of Census data by American Express Open, a small business credit program. The Pittsburgh-region has seen an increase in female-owned firms in the past 17 years, which have shot up 41 percent since 1997 and total 52,800.

These companies span the spectrum, from health care to technology, marketing, retail and manufacturing, said Jayne Huston, director of Seton Hill University's E-Magnify program, which offers training and resources for women who are entrepreneurs. Opportunity is everywhere, she said.

“It used to be, back in the day, you'd see service and retail,” Huston said. “That has really widened out.”

Women are starting businesses at 1 12 times the rate of men, Huston said. Last year, her office worked with 1,265 people, a 42 percent increase from three years prior.

Along with a wide range of opportunities, there are broader options for financing these ventures. Although the number of small business loans to women in Western Pennsylvania have been cut in nearly half since the recession, from 118 in 2008 to just 61 last year, that's not because funding is drying up, said Carl Knoblock, district director for the SBA in Western Pennsylvania. Quite the contrary. Entrepreneurs of all types can turn to micro-loans, home equity lines of credit or raising money from individuals online through websites such as Kickstarter.

“You see people looking for funds with crowd funding,” he said.

Donna Baxter avoided going into debt when she started her company, Soul Pitt Media. What began 14 years ago as an email newsletter for Pittsburgh's African-American community has grown into a multimedia company with a 12,500-circulation quarterly print magazine, active social media presence and entertainment and lifestyle website,

Baxter, 45, of Wilkinsburg, relies solely on advertising to pay for a handful of editors, ad salespeople and freelance writers. Otherwise, her overhead is low. Baxter has Web design skills and does the online work herself.

“There are just so many more ways to do things and not spend a lot of cash,” she said.

Still, Baxter has not committed herself to the business full-time. She kept her day job as a graphic designer, because she enjoys her work and needs the health benefits, she said.

When Stephanie DiLeo decided to become a business owner, she plunged right in.

In 2008, the 54-year-old accountant from Greensburg purchased Homer City Automation, which makes specialized parts for assembly lines.

DiLeo worked for Homer City's parent company, FMC Technologies, and knew that FMC wanted to sell off that portion of its business. Another buyer arrived before her, but the deal fell through.

DiLeo wanted to help her co-workers retain their jobs and to be her own boss. This was her opportunity.

“I just said, ‘OK, I'll do it,' ” DiLeo said. “And I started negotiations with FMC.”

She scraped together a mix of bank loans and personal finances and bought the company for $1.2 million. The company not only survived the recession, but has grown its workforce from 14 to 35 and doubled its annual revenue to $4 million.

DiLeo is something of an anomaly, however, and not just because she is a woman working in the male-dominated manufacturing world. Her business is growing. It has employees. Many women-owned firms remain small.

“We are starting lots and lots of companies,” said Huston. “But what's not happening is the growth of their companies.”

Even as the number and scope of businesses owned by women have grown, their influence in the larger economy has not kept pace. These companies remain relatively small, typically with only a few employees and pulling in less than $1 million in annual revenue.

That is especially true in Pittsburgh, which American Express ranked near the bottom for cities in which women-owned firms have the greatest “economic clout,” measured by the growth in number, revenue and employment of female-owned businesses.

Among the 25 most populous cities, Pittsburgh ranked 24th (41.3 percent) in the growth of number of female-owned firms and 23rd (18.4 percent) in revenue between 1997 and 2014, according to American Express.

One possible explanation for Pittsburgh lagging behind is that some of the major industries — high-tech, professional and business services, manufacturing — tend to be male dominated, said Julie Weeks, the report's author.

Huston doesn't believe that. She sees women entering a variety of industries, and where they need help most is in connecting with mentors and peer networks who can help them learn how to grow.

“That's what we need to do,” she said. “It's not enough to just start them.”

The nationwide nonprofit Women Presidents' Organization, which has a Greensburg chapter sponsored by Seton Hill, is a group that women with companies with more than $1 million in annual sales can join.

Each chapter serves as a peer advisory group, where female entrepreneurs can discuss financial concerns, hiring, developing the organization and other issues they confront as they grow their companies.

DiLeo said the WPO had been a lifeline for her.

Among the biggest hurdles for her was building confidence. She acknowledged that she “had no idea what I'd bought.” She was an accountant, who never dealt with human resource issues or management.

“You realize, ‘OK, I'm not the only person who has that issue,' ” DiLeo said.

There are trade-offs to being your own boss. Masucci, in Wexford, hasn't completely left behind a stressful life. She makes less money than she used to, has two part-time employees to manage and a child to raise.

But she has no regrets.

“I will always be a workaholic,” she said. “But now I'm doing it for me.”

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or

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