Marsha Leap spent 15 years running the career center at Florida Southern College, and another five years as a business consultant for Polk Works.
She took that experience and used it to start her company in 2008. With many people out of work, Leap saw an opportunity to market her expertise on career planning and interview techniques.
"I never ever in a million years thought I would have my own business," said Leap, of Leap Ahead Professional Development in Lakeland. "I knew that I was a good career counselor, and I had a passion for that; it was running the business I wasn't sure about. The question was, do I find another job working for somebody else, or do I jump out there and do this for myself?"
October is National Women's Small Business Month, and Florida is home to one of the nation's largest populations of women-owned companies. As of this year the state had an estimated 587,600 women-owned businesses, ranking fourth in the U.S., according to a report commissioned by American Express OPEN.
In addition, Florida ranked sixth in the nation for its growth of women-owned businesses, with a nearly 74 percent increase in the total number of firms during the past 15 years.
The American Express report, "The State of Women-Owned Businesses," analyzed Census Bureau business survey data from 1997 to 2007 and used it to make projections for 2012. The report found that the number of women-owned businesses nationwide has grown by 54 percent from 1997 to 2012 -- a rate of one and a half times the U.S. average.
Though women-owned firms account for 29 percent of all U.S. enterprises, they employ just 6 percent of the nation's workforce and contribute just under 4 percent of all business revenues, the report says.
There were roughly 11,400 women-owned firms in Polk County as of 2007, making up about 25 percent of all businesses here, according to the most recent available Census data. A Census Bureau spokeswoman said the agency will publish updated business survey data next year.
At Polk County's Small Business Development Center, which assists both current business owners and hopeful entrepreneurs, female clients outnumbered males (186 to 149, respectively) for the first time in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.
That statistic might reflect the accelerating growth rate of women-owned businesses, but it more likely indicates the SBDC has become more effective at promoting its services to female entrepreneurs, said Dawn Decaminada, a business analyst for the organization.
"I hope we are reaching a different client base we weren't reaching before," she said.
Polk's business community includes active chapters of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and American Business Women's Association.
Leap, who serves as membership director for NAWBO's Lakeland Metro chapter, said the group dates to 1989 and has about 50 members.
"Women are naturally pretty creative," she said. "There are a lot of good ideas that come from women entrepreneurs on how to improve things -- adding new services or products to help make things better."
[ Kyle Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7584. ]
(c)2012 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)
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