Published in the Fort Myers News Press on March 10, 2012
When Gail Markham opened her accounting firm 32 years ago, she learned what discrimination felt like.
She had applied for a business loan and prepared a thorough loan package, including an in-depth business plan, projections and financial statements showing her company was profitable. But the loan officer at the bank wouldn’t recommend her loan, she said.
“I believe in my heart that if I was a male CPA sitting there, he wouldn’t have done that,” said Markham, a partner at Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co in Fort Myers.
Although Markham and other women business owners faced discrimination years ago, today women are not the minority they once were. But despite the benchmarks women have achieved as business owners and professionals in Southwest Florida, business groups, centers and awards geared toward women have taken off in the area, and new ones move in every day. Also, women-owned businesses still qualify for minority-owned business programs, even if the owners are white.
When women-owned firms are combined with equally owned male-female firms, nearly 46 percent of U.S. firms have a female in a primary ownership role, according to a January study by the United Negro College Fund Special Programs Corp. that was commissioned by the National Women’s Business Council.
In Lee County, women-owned businesses make up about 26 percent of all businesses and in Collier County, they make up about 27 percent of all businesses, according to the 2007 Survey of Business Owners U.S. Census report.
Markham’s firm is a prime example of how demographics have changed. In school, she was the only female in her accounting class, but today about 75 percent of employees at her accounting firm are female and three out of the four principals are female, Markham said.
There are also many more women-focused groups and awards.
The National Association of Women in Construction has had an active presence for many years and the American Business Women’s Association has five local chapters . About two years ago, local business women also launched a Southwest Florida chapter for the National Association of Women Business Owners and recently the Florida Women’s Business Center opened a branch at the Southwest Florida Enterprise Center.
That’s not to mention the local organizations tailored for business women such as Lee Collier Business Women and the Women in Business group for the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. Many of the organizations have their own awards including the chamber’s APEX award and ABWA’s Women Making History award. There’s also the upcoming International Women’s Night of Southwest Florida, an award ceremony that will recognize a local woman in May in honor of International Women’s Day, which was Thursday.
Events still important
Leonardo Garcia, who heads up the Hispanic American Business Alliance, has been working with Lee County Commissioner Tammy Hall and the Multicultural Center of Southwest Florida to create the event.
“In every part of the world you’ll see communities celebrating this important date,” Garcia said. “It’s about time that we come together as a community and start celebrating the achievement that women bring to this community on International Women’s Day.”
He says the event’s international component separates it from other community women awards, that are tailored to only the local community. He also feels that it’s important for men to attend these events and become involved in women’s group to become more aware of their needs and challenges today.
The event is also a way to continue to provide awareness and education to the next generation of leaders, male or female, he said.
Even with so many organizations to choose from and awards to participate in, each event or networking group serves its purpose, said Colleen DePasquale, president of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber.
“Every group kind of has their own little culture and you just might fit into one better than another,” she said.
More than gender
While some attend the meetings to mentor and socialize with other women, Carol Conway says the gender factor isn’t a focus for her. That’s not to say Conway, owner of CRS Technology Consultants, hasn’t participated in women-focused business groups.
She’s participated in the Greater Fort Myers Chamber APEX Award, was involved in NAWBO during the infancy of her company and attends International Women’s Forum meetings . The groups and awards have fulfilled different professional needs as much as a mixed-format group would, Conway said.
“I’ve never joined an organization specifically and explicitly for gender,” she said. “I joined because of content.”
The relevancy comes from the information, materials and resources the peer group contributes, she said.
In the 19 years she’s owned her business, she never felt disadvantaged in any way, she said.
While the special considerations may have served a purpose when women were first entering the workforce , the needs of women in business have evolved, she said.