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Women Entrepreneurs: A Research Overview

Abstract and Keywords

Despite the proliferation of research, the population of women entrepreneurs is vastly understudied. This is surprising considering women are one of the fastest rising populations of entrepreneurs, and contribute significantly to innovation, job creation, and economies around the world. Why are women entrepreneurs comparatively understudied? What have we learned about women entrepreneurs in the past few decades? What are the future research directions? This article addresses these questions. It begins with a brief overview on the extent of research on women's entrepreneurship and considers reasons why they are under-studied. The article also explores empirical findings in terms of similarities and differences between men and women entrepreneurs, then it concludes with suggestions for future research.

Keywords: women entrepreneurs, business sector, entrepreneurial process, access to resources, growth capital, innovation, job creation

23.1 Introduction

Entrepreneurship was historically defined as a ‘man's domain’. Early characterizations of entrepreneurs included the ‘captain of industry’ (Schumpeter, 1934), the ‘hero who perceives gaps and connects markets’ (Liebenstein, 1968), the ‘enterprising man’ (Collins and Moore, 1964), ‘key man’ (Hebert and Link, 1982) and the ‘man who organizes the firm (business unit) and/or increases its productive capacity’ (McClelland, 1961: 205). The emphasis on male entrepreneurs in early literature is not at all surprising since men were primary participants in entrepreneurship world wide. History shows us that men were those most active in self-employment, business creation and business ownership for decades (Hebert and Link, 1982).

More recent definitions are less gendered, suggesting entrepreneurs carry out a series of activities to create something new of value under different conditions (Acs and Audretsch, 1993: Shane and Venkataraman, 2000). Specifically, entrepreneurs are defined as those who: (p. 612)

  • pursue opportunities without regard to resources they control (Stevenson and Jarillo, 1990)

  • create innovative economic organizations for the purpose of gain or growth under conditions of risk and uncertainty (Low and MacMillan, 1988)

  • discover, evaluate and exploit opportunities to introduce new goods and services, ways of organizing markets, processes and raw materials through organizing efforts that did not previously exist (Shane and Venkatarman, 2000).

Despite the proliferation of research, the population of women entrepreneurs is vastly understudied. This is surprising considering women are one of the fastest rising populations of entrepreneurs, and contribute significantly to innovation, job creation and economies around the world. Why are women entrepreneurs comparatively understudied? What have we learned about women entrepreneurs in the past few decades? What are future research directions? This chapter addresses these questions. We begin with a brief overview on the extent of research on women's entrepreneurship and consider reasons why they are under-studied. The next section explores empirical findings in terms of similarities and differences between men and women entrepreneurs, then we conclude with suggestions for future research.

23.2 Extent of research on women's entrepreneurship

The first notable article on women's entrepreneurship appeared in the mid-1970s. Eleanor Brantley Schwartz's (1976) pioneering article, ‘Entrepreneurship, a New Female Frontier’ included measures from Collins and Moore (1964) and compared these to the characteristics, motivations and attitudes of women. She found that similarly to men, women were motivated by the need to achieve, job satisfaction and independence. Schwartz (1976) was followed by, Hisrich and Brush (1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987) who described characteristics of women entrepreneurs and their businesses and considered factors leading to success in the first and largest longitudinal study in the US. Their conclusion was that women were similar in motivations to men, but were less often business educated, faced barriers to capital access, and grew businesses more slowly than men. Watkins and Watkins (1983) examined biases against women in the UK finding different educational and work patterns. Holmquist and Sundin (1988) used Hisrich and Brush's survey in Sweden finding similarities in motives, but gender differences in business goals. Following (p. 613) these early works, the study of women's entrepreneurship gained momentum in the 1990s.

Several reviews considered the extent of research on women entrepreneurs. The earliest reviewed 57 academic articles and categorized these within an existing framework (Brush, 1992). This analysis concluded that even with the rising numbers of women entrepreneurs, academic studies were comparatively scarce. At the time, the majority of studies were descriptive, and focused primarily on characteristics of women entrepreneurs. A subsequent review by Baker et al. (1997) examining all management journals found that about 7 percent of articles published between 1969 and 1994 included or focused on women business owners. Brush and Edelman (2000) covered two years of journals and found 6 percent of articles studied women business owners. More recently, the Diana Project2 reviewed the 7 main entrepreneurship journals for all years since their inception and found an average of 3.5 percent of all articles published included or focused on women entrepreneurs (Gatewood et al., 2003). Terjesen (2004) replicated Brush's 1992 study considering 108 articles coming to a similar conclusion. All of these reviews show that only a tiny proportion of articles focuses on, or includes women entrepreneurs. This is surprising considering the participation and contributions of women entrepreneurs.

23.3 Women's entrepreneurship: the phenomenon

In 1977, there were approximately 700,000 women-owned businesses in the US generating US$41.5 million in revenues (‘The Bottom Line’, 1978). According to the Bureau of Census, in 1972 only 4.6 percent of all US businesses were women-owned. However, those numbers soon began to increase. A Bureau of Labor report showed that the number of self-employed women increased from 1.5 million in 1972 to 2.1 million in 1979 and climbed to 3.5 million in 1984 (Hisrich and Brush, 1986).

From 1997 to 2002, women formed new businesses at twice the national rate (Center for Women's Business Research, 2002). As a result, women are recognized as a driving force in the US economy, whether measured by the number of (p. 614) businesses owned, the revenues generated, or the number of people employed. Of the privately-held majority-owned firms in the US, 10.6 million of the approximately 22 million firms in the US are 50 percent owned by women.3 These women-owned firms contribute US$2.5 trillion in sales and employ 19.1 million employees (Center for Women's Business Research, 2005). Female entrepreneurs are increasingly prominent as employers, customers, suppliers, and competitors in the US and in the global community.

Other reports show women are important drivers of growth in many of the world's economies (Minniti, Arenius and Langowitz, 2005). Recent statistics from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) study estimate that women-owned businesses comprise 25–33 percent of all businesses in the formal economy, and a greater percentage in the informal sector. There is wide variation in women's participation as entrepreneurs depending on country income level, but, either way, there is significant interest in their contributions to jobs and revenues. Peru reflects the highest rate of total entrepreneurial activity (TEA) at 39 percent while Japan is the lowest at 1.2 percent. In Australia, women's participation in entrepreneurship is comparatively high at 33 percent and women's total entrepreneurial activity rate is increasing. In Denmark, women account for 30 percent of new enterprises that are established and 25 percent of all self-employed (Neergaard, 2006). In Finland, nearly 33 percent of all women are self-employed (Kovalainen and Arenius, 2006). In nearly all countries, women entrepreneurs are a significant presence in the world economy, the population is growing and they contribute to jobs and revenues. However, regardless of women's participation and contributions to economies, research has not kept pace.

23.4 Why are women entrepreneurs under-studied?

Considering that the phenomenon of women's entrepreneurship has grown significantly, why is there such a disparity in the contributions and participation of women entrepreneurs and the amount of research? There are three possible explanations: (p. 615)

  1. 1 Women's entrepreneurship is a new phenomenon. As already noted, until the 1980s, men were the primary population of business owners and their ventures, big and small. In the US, growth in the population of women entrepreneurs occurred in the late 1980s shortly after the US government passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (1975) prohibiting banks from discriminating against women in lending. Prior to this, women often needed co-signers to obtain bank financing. The first comprehensive report on US women business owners, ‘The Bottom Line’ was published in 1978. The Women's Business Ownership Act was enacted in 1988, creating a commission to encourage women's economic development. These legislative and political factors were followed by significant programmes to encourage and support women's business development. At the same time, the OECD published a landmark book documenting women's entrepreneurship in developed countries (1992). A series of OECD conferences raised the awareness of women's entrepreneurship (Ducheneaut, 1997) and programmes for women entrepreneurs followed. In sum, the growth of women's entrepreneurship is most evident over the past 25 years.

  2. 2 The assumption that there are no differences between men and women entrepreneurs. Early research focused primarily on male entrepreneurs and developed general theory about entrepreneurial behaviour (Knight, 1921; Schumpeter, 1934; McClelland, 1961). Empirical research testing these theories focused almost exclusively on male populations. Some argued that studying women separately was not important to understanding entrepreneurship and that general theories of entrepreneurship should apply to all populations (Churchill and Hornaday, 1987). As a result, the study of entrepreneurship emerged with measures and theories developed primarily on men due to an assumption that general theory would guide behaviour (Hurley, 1991).

  3. 3 The study of women's entrepreneurship lacks legitimacy, institutional support and funding. This idea stems from two perspectives. First, there is a general stereotype that women entrepreneurs are less qualified, less capable and therefore less entrepreneurial (Brush et al., 2004). The notion that women are more likely to start ‘hobby-type businesses’ that are not fast growth oriented, creates the impression that they are less worth of study. Secondly, reward systems in colleges and universities typically favoured research on large firms, that were publicly traded and owned by men (Baker et al., 1997). At the same time, few foundations, research centres and institutions offered financial support for research on women-owned firms which were often smaller and service based, while journal editors and members of editorial review boards were comprised of an extremely small percentage of women researchers generally, and specifically those studying women's entrepreneurship (Hurley, 1991).

(p. 616)

To some degree, all three of these explanations are true. It is true that academic research on women's entrepreneurship is comparatively new, and that large scale government sponsored studies including and analyzing businesses by sex were done only within the past 10 years (Boden and Nucci, 1997; Lin et al., 2000). Further, the assumption that all entrepreneurs were the same led to continued theoretical and methodological research that focused primarily on economic dimensions (e.g. decision-making, labour, capital and pursuit of profit (Kirzner, 1985; Baumol, 1993) with less attention to social and cultural dimensions (Hurley, 1998; Ahl 2004). Finally, there is some evidence that women are more likely to be present in service and retailing, even though the past decade shows dramatic increases of women founding and growing technology-based firms (Center for Women's Business Research, 2002; Brush et al., 2004). However, these explanations for the scarcity of study do not necessarily justify a continued lack of research on this sizeable and growing population. Even though there is a comparative paucity of studies, the research to date does provide some important findings.

23.5 What have we learned about women entrepreneurs from academic research?

23.5.1 Evolution of theory, methods and samples

It is argued that research about women's entrepreneurship can be divided into two distinct eras: the 1980s where gender was considered a variable; and the 1990s where gender was used as a lens (Brush, Greene and Gatewood, 2006). Early research sought to answer two questions: Who is the woman entrepreneur? and Do theory /measures developed on men apply to women? Research considered several units of analysis—women founders, their teams, their ventures and their communities. At the individual level, studies focused on demographic information identifying characteristics of women entrepreneurs, their personal goals, as well as their reasons for selecting business ownership over wage and salary work (Hagan et al., 1989; Brush, 1992). Theories used were often rooted in psychology (Sexton and Bowman, 1986) or sociology (Aldrich, 1989), samples were frequently small and convenient (Brush, 1992), and the most popular method was survey. For the most part, sampling, methods and theories paralleled research in entrepreneurship (p. 617) generally (Sexton and Kasarda, 1992). Instead of direct tests of theory, gender (sex) was used as a sampling or analytical variable only.

By the 1990s, general research in entrepreneurship gained popular attention with broad political/economic changes, increased availability of equity funding and vast demands for entrepreneurship education (Hart, 2003; Bhide, 2000; Mason and Harrison, 1999; Brush et al., 2003). Research on women increased and became more rigorous. Studies attempted to answer three basic questions: What influences women's choices for entrepreneurship?, What affects growth and development of women-owned businesses? and What is the effect of country context on women's entrepreneurship? Similarly to the 1980s, research continued to focus on the entrepreneur, but more attention to the business venture, management practices and community aspects were apparent. A greater emphasis on theory testing emerged, where researchers drew from human capital, social network, resource-based view, labour economics, career, finance, economic geography, sociology, cognitive psychology and a host of others. More rigorous attention to sample selection, control variables and statistical analysis is present. Application and development of feminist theory suggested gender is a lens with which to examine venture creation and entrepreneurship (Bird and Brush, 2002; Ahl, 2004; Greer and Greene, 2004).

Importantly, large scale federal studies emerged. For instance, Dolinsky et al. (1993) and Dolinsky and Caputo (1994) used longitudinal census data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Labor Market Experience to discover the importance of self-employment to social and economic mobility. They focused on specific effects of entrepreneurship on the improvement of the status of less-educated and economically-disadvantaged individuals. The flow of people in and out of self-employment was also studied using the Revenue Canada Longitudinal data from Survey of Labor and Income Dynamics (Lin et al., 2000), while research about youth self-employment in the US and Australia utilized the National Survey of Income and Program Participation (Blanchflower and Meyer, 1992). Finally, the Panel Study of Entrepreneurial Dynamics (PSED), a national household study of nascent entrepreneurs, examined start-up behaviours (Gartner et al., 2004). This research was replicated in a number of countries (Delmar and Shane, 1994).

Throughout the history of this research, a central question has to do with similarities and differences between men and women entrepreneurs, and their ventures. The next two sections will highlight the major areas of similarity and difference.

23.5.2 Similarities

Research comparing men and women entrepreneurs finds similarities in three main categories: demographics, motivations and business practices.

(p. 618)


Comparisons of men and women based on demographic variables show that age, education and birth order are often the same (Hisrich and Brush, 1984). Evans and Leighton (1989) using the Current Population survey found similarities by age and motivators for self-employment (1989). International studies in Sweden and Ireland reflected the same conclusions (Klofsten and Jones-Evans, 2000). Dolinsky et al. (1993) and Dolinsky and Caputo (1994) used longitudinal census data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Labor Market Experience to discover the importance of self-employment to social and economic mobility. They found racial differences in education and economics were more prevalent than gender differences. Capital stocks and flows were also studied using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). The data revealed that the presence of a self-employed husband enabled intra-family flows of financial and human capital and encouraged females to become self-employed (Bruce, 1999). Another analysis using PSID data showed that the number of men and women making the transition to self-employment was almost equal but that men were more likely to move upward in earnings distribution (Holtz-Eakin et al., 2000).


The earliest studies examining reasons why women choose entrepreneurship found that independence, achievement and personal satisfaction were typical motives, similar to those of males (Hisrich and Brush, 1984). In Norway, women had the same motivations as men (Ljunggren and Kolvereid, 1996), while in Pakistan, women desired freedom, security and satisfaction, similarly to their male counterparts (Shabbir and Di Gregorio, 1996).

Business practices

Several studies examined problems of women entrepreneurs and found that many challenges were similar to those that all entrepreneurs encountered in the process of growing a venture (Pellegrino and Reece, 1982; Hisrich and Brush, 1986). A Canadian study analyzed the effects of personal characteristics, industry, and organizational structure on survival and found women-owned businesses were no less likely to survive than their male counterparts (Kalleberg and Leicht, 1991). Later work shows that men and women business owners of larger and established businesses are quite similar in terms of personal and business structure characteristics (Swift and Riding, 1998; McKechnie et al., 1998).

23.5.3 Differences

Major differences between men and women entrepreneurs are found in representation in the business sector, entrepreneurial process, and access to resources, especially growth capital.

(p. 619)

Business sector

‘The Bottom Line’ (1978), and work by Hisrich and Brush (1984) showed most US women were clustered in service and retail sectors. Early in the UK and Italy, studies found women were more likely to start ventures in traditional sectors (Watkins and Watkins, 1983; Aldrich et al., 1989; Rosa and Hamilton, 1994). One study argued women had lower self-efficacy in non-traditional sectors which explained their choice of industry selection (Anna et al., 2000). Relatedly, in an Australian study, Barrett found men were more likely to choose a business with a female ‘image’ than women choosing businesses with a male ‘image’. The choice of business sector is arguably strategic, and Carter et al. (1997) found that women-owned firms were at higher risk of discontinuing because of their prevalence in highly competitive retail and service sectors. Business positioning in less profitable industries was studied by several scholars, who concluded that choice of sector resulted in lower sales, profits and inability to secure government contracts (Loscocco and Robinson, 1991; Loscocco et al., 1991).

Entrepreneurial process

Boden (1996) used the Characteristics of Business Owners (CBO) to show that gender inequality in wage and salary earnings may positively influence some women's decision to leave wage employment for self-employment. Boden and Nucci (1997) used both the CPS and the CPO for 1982–1987 to compare sex, age, education, marital status, percent income from self-employment, industry, and region. Gender was found to be a major explanatory variable for differing rates of self-employment (Boden and Nucci, 1997). And finally, Boden and Nucci (2000) used census data to examine the relationship between owner and business characteristics and business survival for the years 1982 and 1987. When considering only sole proprietorships in retail and service industries, survival rates were affected by owner experience for both males and females, but the survival rate for male-owned businesses was higher by six percent. The authors concluded that women were disadvantaged in terms of previous managerial experiences and wage opportunities and, therefore, had less human and financial capital for business ownership. Studies about business strategies found women were more likely to emphasize product/service quality rather than customization and cost efficiency (Chaganti and Parasuraman, 1996). Relatedly, they tend to adopt more flexible and conservative start-up strategies than their than men (Verheul and Thurik, 2001). Cliff (1998) studied personal and economic considerations of Canadian female and male entrepreneurs. She found women were more likely to establish maximum sizes that were smaller than their male counterparts, even though they were just as likely to desire growth, they had more concerns with risk and therefore adopted a slower and steadier growth rate.

Research on social roles and support finds that role models, self-assurance and marriage were positively related to supply of women entrepreneurs (Schiller and Crewson, 1997). On the other hand, men receive more social support from their (p. 620) spouses than women do (Birley et al., 1986; Biggart, 1988; Baines and Wheelock, 1998).

Access to resources

Initial start-up resources were considered by several authors. One study showed men used more debt but concluded that this was due to women being more risk-averse (Sherr et al., 1993). Research into Dutch entrepreneurs reported that women founded ventures with smaller amounts of capital, but there were no differences in the proportion of debt to equity (Verheul and Thurik, 2001). A later study found women and men did not differ in choice of debt or equity financing (Chaganti et al. 1995) but other work from the UK shows men use larger amounts of capital at start-up (Carter and Rosa, 1998). While women and men do not differ in choice of debt, Coleman (2000) using bank data found that lenders did discriminate on the basis of firm size, preferring to lend to larger and more established firms rather than smaller, and often female-owned firms. She also found women were often charged higher interest rates and had higher collateral requirements.

Several studies examine women's access to capital. During the 1980s research showed obtaining start-up capital (bank loans, informal loans) were challenges (Hisrich and Brush, 1986). Studies examining gender stereotypes found lenders did not perceive women as possessing characteristics necessary for successful entrepreneurship (Buttner and Rosen, 1988). Several studies show women are less likely to receive capital from individual investors and are less likely to use commercial credit (Carter and Rosa, 1998).

Social networks are argued to be central to resource acquisition (Aldrich, 1999). Studies show there are variations in men's and women's networks, where women have more women in their networks and men have more mixed networks (Aldrich et al., 1989). Another large data set, the General Social Survey, was used to analyze differences in human and social capital of women business owners (Greene and Johnson, 1995) as well as the incidence of social networking and the differences in the level of networking between women entrepreneurs, male entrepreneurs, and female salaried managers (Katz and Williams, 1997). This study allowed for a secondary analysis of weak-tie network linkage in formal organizations and concluded that entrepreneurs' weak-tie network efforts are lower than those of managers, and that female entrepreneurs engage in less weak-tie networking than salaried male managers (Katz and Williams, 1997).

Growth aspirations were studied by several researchers. Carter and Allen (1997) explored whether women-led businesses were smaller due to the owner's lifestyle intentions and choices, or due to the level of resources controlled. They found strong evidence that access to resources had stronger effects on growth than did intention or choice. A study of African and Latin American ventures shows that male-run enterprises were much more likely to grow than female-owned firms, even after controlling for effects of other variables (Liedholm, 2002). Finally, The (p. 621) Diana Project studied women's access to equity capital in the US. From 30 years of data on investments by venture capitalists in US businesses, they found that women received only 4.1 percent of all investments (Greene, Brush, Hart and Saparito, 2001).

Overall, these differences raise important questions for which there is no single answer, although they do suggest future research directions and implications.

23.6 Conclusions and implications

This analysis suggests that key differences between men and women entrepreneurs fall into three areas: representation in the business sector, entrepreneurial process, and access to resources—especially growth capital. There are two major explanations for these differences. First, liberal feminism would argue that social structures such as occupational segregation limit women's ability to gain experience in certain sectors (Fischer et al., 1993; Carter and Williams, 2004; Greer and Greene, 2004). This suggests that the uneven participation of women in traditional male-dominated and often high-technology sectors is due to structural factors in the economy that prevent women from gaining experience, access to markets, or resources. For example, emerging work in transition economies finds women comprised significant portions of the illiterate society, thereby limiting their ability to become self-employed (Welter and Smallbone, 2005). This extends to the glass ceiling where women are often denied the chance to gain high level managerial decision-making experience which could be beneficial in an entrepreneurial start-up. Organizational hierarchies are frequently male-dominated limiting the chance for women to gain this experience (Brush et al., 2004). These limitations also can influence their ability to assemble start-up resources, in that they often come from lower-paying jobs (Verheul and Thurik, 2001). Similarly, women are left out of certain networks, especially financial. Research by the Diana Project found less than 10 percent of all people in the venture capital industry were female, and that during the burst of venture capital financing, 1995–2000, their numbers did not increase accordingly (Brush et al, 2004). Since most would argue that venture capital financing is based on connections and networks, the lack of women in the networks could be viewed as a structural barrier.

Alternatively, social feminism would argue socialization of women creates different perspectives, goals and choices for women. Instead of being denied opportunities in certain sectors, they instead choose to move into retail and/or services where they have stronger self-confidence, and the businesses may be more in keeping with their social values. This choice to pursue businesses in traditionally (p. 622) female service sectors also limits start-up resources and perspectives on future growth. Studies of social roles and social learning support this view. For example, women's levels of self-efficacy and expectations were lower, showing less preference for entrepreneurship (Matthews and Moser, 1996). Relatedly, research in sociology shows the relationship between family and work is stronger for women finding examples of women integrating more compassion and support into their ventures (Holliday and Letherby, 1993). At the same time, it is arguable that aspirations for growth are personal, and that women may choose to keep their ventures small and manageable in order to care for families (Brush et al., 2004).

Because research on women's entrepreneurship is so sparse, it is not possible to draw significant conclusions as to whether a theory of female entrepreneurship is needed, or whether gender should be introduced into current theory. Instead, there is a need to abandon the assumption that men and women entrepreneurs are the same in all respects, and instead, explore where theory applies and where it does not. In other words, general theory needs to be tested to see if it applies on populations and samples of women entrepreneurs.

The two perspectives, liberal and social feminism, suggest future directions for research. Most theories of entrepreneurship (venture creation, self-employment, performance of new ventures) assume that differences among entrepreneurs will be based on factors such as confidence, reputation, and cognitive ability. But, it is not expected that variation could be systematically gendered. While the theoretical explanations from feminist literature above suggest that indeed there might be systematic variations by sex, no formal testing has been done. Future research might address the following questions:

  • Do structural factors such as inheritance laws differentially affect male and females, thereby influencing the amount of start-up resources they bring to an entrepreneurial venture?

  • Do occupational structures and mobility differentially affect males and females, thereby influencing the experience base with which they start entrepreneurial ventures?

  • Does variation in social networks of male and female entrepreneurs influence ability to acquire resources for venture start-up and growth?

  • What is the influence of self-confidence on the likelihood of male and female entrepreneurial start-up and growth?

  • Do men and women perceive opportunities in the same way, and what, if any, variations are their in implementation of venture creation?

In sum, women's entrepreneurship is a significant and growing phenomenon worldwide, yet research has not kept pace. In many countries, women comprise one-third of the population of entrepreneurs, but we know little about them. By including this population in our research, we will effectively know more about entrepreneurship in general.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (1) The author is most grateful to Nancy Carter, Patricia Greene, Elizabeth Gatewood and Myra Hart for their contributions and ideas for this chapter.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (2) The Diana Project is a multi-year, research programme focused on women business owners and entrepreneurs. Though it covers a wide range of topics, its primary emphasis is on financing and growth strategies for women-led enterprizes in the United States. Collaborators are Dr Candida Brush, Dr Nancy Carter, Dr Elizabeth Gatewood, Dr Patricia Greene and Dr Myra Hart.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        (3) In 2000 the US Census Department changed the way that women-owned firms were classified to include two definitions. Of those firms 51% majority owned privately held firms, women comprised 6.7 million and of those 50% owned by women, 10.6 million were women-led. (Center for Women's Business Research 2005).