Women share tales from the front at entrepreneurial conference

Sherrie Matthews of PrintSolutions
Sherrie Matthews, president of PrintSolutions, a woman-owned business in Crown Point, Ind.
Sherrie Matthews of PrintSolutions, a woman-owned business in Crown Point, Ind.
Sherrie Matthews, president of PrintSolutions, a woman-owned business in Crown Point, Ind., has achieved $20 million in annual revenue.

— Count Sherrie Matthews among those rare women business owners who have passed the $1 million mark in annual revenue and are forecasting more.

In the six years since its inception, Matthews’ Crown Point, Ind.-based marketing company, PrintSolutions, has grown to $20 million in revenue and 110 workers.

That makes it among the top 2 percent of all women-owned businesses nationwide, according to data discussed at the Women’s Business Development Center’s annual Entrepreneurial Woman’s Conference held Wednesday at McCormick Place-West.

PrintSolutions’ success comes from treating customers as partners and offering strategy along with design and print production, said Matthews, who had a booth at the event. “I got lucky. I’ve had some really good clients,” she said.  Many of the company’s first customers are still working with PrintSolutions, said Matthews, who worked for an advertising agency prior to launching the firm.

“If you have a connection with somebody, you’re going to get their business,” Matthews said.

The daylong conference, which attracted about 2,000 attendees, was all about helping women create connections with business owners and corporations that need their services. It also commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Women’s Business Development Center, which has served more than 65,000 clients since it was started by Hedy Ratner and Carol Dougal, co-presidents.

Higher than average growth

Nationwide, about 8.1 million women-owned businesses in the United States generate nearly $1.3 trillion in revenues and employ about 7.7 million people, according to a report on women-owned businesses by American Express Open. Women-owned businesses are growing at 1.5 times the national average, said Julie Fajgenbaum, vice president of brand, advocacy and social media at American Express Open.  They’re also outpacing men in new business formation, with the number of women-owned firms climbing 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, compared with 25 percent for their male counterparts, the study said.

Stalled progress

But success hasn’t always been easy and most women-owned firms stall before hitting a headcount of 100 or $1 million in annual revenue, Fajgenbaum said. Fewer than 2 percent of women make it past those marks, she said.

To be successful, women business owners need perseverance  and passion, particularly during a challenging economy, experts said. “When you own a manufacturing company and have the responsibility for all your employees, that’s a tough time,” said Sharon Avent, president and CEO of Smead Manufacturing Co., who received the Entrepreneurial Woman of the Year  award. After an “unsettling” couple of years due to the economy, sales are picking up, she said.

War stories

Besides tough market conditions, some women have confronted resentment. Marilyn Jones,  founder and president of Consolidated Printing Co., had to prove herself in a male-dominated industry, said her granddaughter Ashley Anderson, who accepted the WBE Success award on her behalf. When Jones made sales calls early in the company’s history, she sometimes was met with, “What could a woman possibly know about printing? Send a man over,” Anderson said. The company distinguished itself by being among the first to use non-toxic chemicals to print.

“The key is to think outside the box,” said Teresa Ging, founder and president of Sugar Bliss Cake Boutique, a cupcake bakery in the Loop, who received the “rising star” award.

In delivering the keynote address, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he was committed to creating an environment where businesses can grow to generate wealth and jobs for families and the economy. But he also said, “I believe firmly government can’t create jobs. We can create conditions for jobs to grow.”

Goldman Sachs financing

Emanuel announced $20 million in small business financing from Goldman Sachs through a program that also will offer free management training to business owners at City Colleges of Chicago. The application deadline for the January 2012 class is 5 p.m., Oct. 26, while applications for future sessions will be accepted on a rolling basis. For more information, visit www.ccc.edu/10KSB.

Despite the trials and tribulations of running a business, few at the conference spoke of regrets. “I could never go back now. It’s the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had,” Matthews said. For those startups who might need encouragement, Matthews advised, “Keep going. Look at the big picture….Stay focused on the prize.”

— Ann Meyer