By Tom Still

MADISON – Perhaps it’s time to declare 2005 as the “Year of the Woman Entrepreneur” in Wisconsin. Some business-wise women would say it’s past time.

At last week’s Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee, most of the headline speakers were successful women with words of advice for everyone on starting or growing a business. They included Kay Koplovitz, a South Milwaukee native who launched USA Networks; Nancye Miller, CEO of the national Entrepreneurs’ Organization; marketing expert Jorian Clarke, CEO of Milwaukee’s SpectraCom; and Grace Bulger, author of “The Enlightened Entrepreneur.”

They came with stories of near-disaster (such as when Koplovitz nearly lost a contract to broadcast the New York Yankees’ baseball games), of humiliating rejection, and of soaring vindication. Most of all, they came with a message that more women are heeding: Being an entrepreneur is hard work, but it can be worth the risk.

Wisconsin has one of the largest percentages of working adults (72 percent) in the nation, a figure driven by the state’s above-average percentage of working women. There is little data on how many of those Wisconsin women own their own businesses or want to strike out on their own, but national statistics indicate more women are becoming entrepreneurs.

Women in the United States have an ownership stake of 50 percent or more in nearly half of all privately held businesses, according to a report cited by Springboard Enterprises, an organization founded to help women entrepreneurs find investors. Between 1997 and 2004, the number of businesses owned by U.S. women increased by 17 percent and the gross sales of those companies grew 39 percent (compared to 34 percent for all firms). One in 11 American women is an entrepreneur, it has been estimated, and one in seven workers are employed by a woman-owned firm.

Springboard Enterprises – which was co-founded by Koplovitz – has helped women-owned businesses land $3 billion in capital over time. Despite the growing number of women-owned firms, those companies still receive a disproportionately small percentage of the total venture capital invested in the United States. By some estimates, it’s less than 5 percent.

That figure will improve over time, however, as more women avail themselves of opportunities to learn about entrepreneurship and to attract investors. Springboard Enterprises, for examples, hosts investment forums at which women-owned firms may compete to present their business plans to investors. The next forum in the Midwest will be held Sept. 28 at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. The deadline for application is June 24; go to  for more information.

Wisconsin is a state where women entrepreneurs are making a mark, and where there are growing numbers of women who are participating in “angel” investments. At the Entrepreneurs’ Conference, two-dozen of the speakers and panelists were women with stories to tell about starting a business – or investing in one.

The infrastructure for supporting all entrepreneurs in Wisconsin is led by a number of women. They include state Commerce Secretary Mary Burke; state Financial Institutions Secretary Lorrie Keating Heinemann; Pam Christianson, who runs the entrepreneurs bureau within the Commerce Department; and Erica Kauten, director of the new Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Network. Lt. Gov. Barb Lawton has made a point of promoting women-owned businesses, as well.

Surveys have shown that women entrepreneurs are generally comfortable with risk, financially sophisticated, know how to use advisors, are well-educated, and often find ways to succeed without large capital investments. As Wisconsin grows its “knowledge-based” economy, more of the state’s start-up companies are likely to have a female face.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the WisconsinState Journal in Madison.