By Tom Still

MADISON – By any measure, Sue Marks is a successful business woman. She launched three human resources companies over time – the latest of which was combined with another firm and renamed Cielo, which is based in Brookfield with 1,300 employees worldwide.

Fifteen years ago, Marks was among a relatively small number of women entrepreneurs in Wisconsin. Today, she represents a trend that is changing the face of angel- and venture-backed businesses nationally.

For years, the intertwined worlds of startups, angel and venture capital were dominated by the most alpha of alpha males. That is steadily changing in ways that are contributing to entrepreneurism and small business growth at a time the economy needs more of both.

Marks, who will speak next week at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium in Madison, landed angel and venture capital for her young companies at a time when few women did so. Last year, 36 percent of all companies seeking venture capital nationally were women-owned, which was up sharply from 2013 and prior years.

In 2004, according to the Center for Venture Research at the University of New Hampshire, only 3.2 percent of all angel-backed companies were led by women. By 2013, that figure was 20.2 percent.

There was a corresponding rise in the number of women who are angel investors – from 5 percent in 2004 to 19.4 percent in 2013. There were fewer than 20,000 female angel investors a decade ago; there were about 58,000 nationally a year ago. In Wisconsin, the number of women investors is also on the rise.

What’s that mean to the economy? The 2014 “State of Women-Owned Business Report” estimated there are 9.1 million women-owned enterprises in the United States, collectively employing nearly 7.9 million workers and generating over $1.4 trillion in revenues.

Not only is the number of women-led businesses on the rise, but those businesses are growing faster than the U.S. average. The “State of Women-Owned Business Report” pegged that growth rate at 1.5 times the national average between 1997 and 2014. The National Association of Women Business Owners indicates that one in three new jobs in the United States will be generated by women-owned businesses by 2018.

One organization known for helping women-led startups find money and mentors is Springboard Enterprises, which was started by South Milwaukee native and USA Network founder Kay Koplovitz.

Since its founding in 2000, 600 women-led companies have participated in Springboard’s accelerator programs. Those companies have raised nearly $7 billion, created tens of thousands of jobs, and generated billions of dollars in annual revenues. More than 80 percent of Springboard companies are still in business as independent or merged entities, including 11 initial public offerings.

Cielo exemplifies that high-growth trend. It is a talent acquisition and management company with clients in about 60 countries. In the Inc. 5000 index a year ago, Cielo was ranked 902nd among all U.S. companies and ninth in Wisconsin. The Inc. index reported a 496 percent, three-year revenue growth for Cielo, which was formed by a merger of Pinstripe (founded in 2005 by Marks) and Ochre House.

Marks is a serial entrepreneur who now leads a larger, successor company, which is a transition not all startup experts choose to make… or are equipped to handle. She’ll discuss her career and more Tuesday, Nov. 3, at the WOMEN Reception in Madison and Wednesday, Nov. 4, at the Early Stage Symposium.

Progress for women at the young company level is slowly filtering up to larger, publically held firms, although some say not fast enough. About 15.5 percent of the board seats for Wisconsin’s top 50 public companies are filled by women, according to a 2014 report by Milwaukee Women Inc., and 12.4 percent of top 50 executive positions.

With more women running young companies, however, Wisconsin is building a bench of talented female executives… as well as a cadre of women investors to match.