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Michael Brandy, Deseret Morning News
Utah Gov. Olene Walker flashes a No. 1 sign Wednesday as she and several business owners celebrate the state's No. 1 ranking in the growth of businesses owned by women. There are about 102,194 women-owned firms in Utah, or 50.1 percent of all privately held firms in the state.

Sharon Moore thought one day that it would be fun to learn to weld. She was looking for a hobby and decided to make some metal art.

She showed up at a community college, one of two women in a beginning welding class. The instructor told her to throw on some coveralls. The rest, as they say . . .

"I had to borrow some men's coveralls, and they were large and scratchy," Moore said. "It got me thinking."

Moore discovered that no one was making coveralls for women, but there were women who would wear them if they were available. About 18 months ago, she founded Rosie's Coveralls for Women. The company specializes in cotton-denim coveralls designed and scaled for women. This year, the business broke through the profitability barrier, and Moore said she hopes to do $200,000 in sales.

On Wednesday, Moore joined other women business owners and Utah Gov. Olene Walker to celebrate the announcement from the Center for Women's Business Research that Utah ranked first in the nation in the growth of women-owned businesses — defined in this report as privately held companies with women holding a 50 percent or greater ownership percentage.

"It's a great symbol about our state," Walker said. "That we are business friendly, that we have an atmosphere where businesses can succeed. . . . Opportunities are open to everyone in this state. Often it's challenging, and often it is risky to start a business. But these women have said, 'I can do it.' "

Utah ranked first in overall growth, followed by Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and New Mexico and Kentucky (tied for fifth). Between 1997 and 2004, the center reported that the number of women-owned businesses in Utah grew 34.7 percent, compared with a national average of 17.4 percent. Employment by women-owned firms increased 70.2 percent during that period. Nationally, the average was 24.2 percent. Sales by women-owned firms increased 72.2 percent.

The center used data from the U.S. Census Bureau to determine its rankings.

There are about 102,194 women-owned firms in Utah, or 50.1 percent of all privately held firms in the state. That places Utah 33rd among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the number of women-owned firms. The state ranked 31st in employment and 33rd in sales.

Jan Hemming, president of the Salt Lake chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, said six factors have contributed to the explosive growth of women-owned businesses in Utah:

• Location. Hemming noted that all five of the top finishers were Western states. "Utah is located in the hottest region for growth in the country," she said.

• Progressive financial environment, including banks and other lenders. Despite Wells Fargo's pledge to lend $20 billion to women-owned businesses nationwide in the next decade, and Zions Bank's ranking as the 10th-largest provider of U.S. Small Business Administration 7(a) loans in the country, the struggle for financing is still the issue women talked about most on Wednesday.

"You do have to be willing to put in your dues," Moore said. "Even though they have SBA loans for women, I found that banks want to know how much you've had in sales, or revenue growth. I didn't have any when I first started. So we're pretty much self-financed, with savings and family and friends."

• Utah's "business-friendly" environment.

Moore maintained that Utah's business start-up process is more sensible than in other states, pointing specifically to California, where she owned a picture frame business. Moore said she was quickly able to find a local manufacturer to produce the coveralls, as well as promotion and test-marketing assistance.

This year, Rosie's Coveralls is going on the road to trade shows from coast to coast. Like its logo, the indefatigable Rosie The Riveter, Moore's company is flexing its muscles.

"It's really a cool thing to have women be Rosie," Moore said. "We're empowered. We're out there."

• The "Success Factor." As more women succeed in business, it acts as a "powerful multiplier," Hemming said, "giving women encouragement to rise to the top and influence other women."

• The growth in home-based and hobby-based businesses.

• Economic necessity and societal characteristics.

Kathy Hillis, vice president and manager of Wells Fargo's Women's Financial Services division, said women are particularly adept at finding and filling niches.

"I think more than men, even, women are good at seeing where there is a need — something they need that isn't being offered, or something unique they can offer," she said.

Kathy Lillywhite started Tuscan Garden Works six years ago because she couldn't find the garden structure she was looking for in the market. She came up with the idea and turned to her husband, Jim Lillywhite, for design and fabrication work. One project turned into a few, and a company was born.

Kathy Lillywhite said Tuscan Garden Works has quadrupled its sales in the past 12 months and outgrown its 6,000-square-foot showroom — a facility the company moved into just last year. The company, which started with two workers, now employs seven, excluding Kathy and Jim.

"It all started with the love of gardening," Kathy Lillywhite said. "We started out of our garage. I had no idea it would be so all-encompassing, so time-consuming or overwhelming. But that's also what makes it so rewarding."

Hillis also pointed to recent data highlighting the persistent pay gap between men and women, which may motivate many women to start their own businesses.

"Utah's pay gap is 70 percent," Hillis said. "Women make 70 percent as much as men in comparable jobs. But when you're in business for yourself, you can overcome that."

According to the study, women nationwide own businesses in every industry. The overwhelming majority, 45 percent, or 4.9 million, are service companies. Retail companies comprise 16.4 percent, or 1.8 million, while 9 percent, or 966,662, are in finance, insurance or real estate.

The construction industry has experienced an influx of women-owned businesses. From 1997 to 2004, the center reported, the number of construction companies owned by women increased 30 percent to 652,807.

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