It's a number Alaskans can be proud of — our state has the highest percentage of women-owned firms in the nation.

According to a 2018 report by the University of Alaska's Center for Economic Development, about 30 percent of firms in the state are women-owned. 

"I'd like to think it's sort of our pioneering spirit, the fact that Alaska women are pretty scrappy and so you see an opportunity and you go for it," said Gretchen Fauske, Associate Director of the Center for Economic Development. "We're really digging into the sociology of that, or sort of why, what is that motivation."

Alaska was also ranked seventh highest in the nation for employment growth in women-owned firms by the 2018 State of Women-Owned Businesses report. 

"Sometimes entrepreneurship comes out of opportunity, and sometimes it comes out of necessity," said Jocasta Gee, Diversity Coordinator for the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. "When you're in a recession, it comes out of necessity."

Despite the encouraging numbers, women nation-wide still face significant challenges in becoming business owners. According to the CED report, the three biggest hurdles are:

      • Unequal access to startup funding and financing streams
      • Lack of access to role models or mentors
      •  Gender pay gaps

According to the non-profit organization, SCORE, which works in partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration, business owners who receive three or more hours of mentoring each week report higher revenues and employment growth rates.

"Having someone who has forged through the pathway and you can get their successes, you can understand how you can break through that glass ceiling, as they call it, and really work and succeed in your area of business," said Gee.

As part of a Make it Monday forum, Gee arranged to have a group of speakers, including Fauske to discuss some of the obstacles still facing businesswomen. 

Kimberly Waller, founder of the Women's Power League of Alaska was also on the panel. Earlier this year, Waller started the 20-something mentorship program, designed to create opportunities for the professional advancement of women in Alaska. 

As for the gender pay gap, the CED notes that while the pay disparity between men and women has narrowed recently, it's still about 81 percent — according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on pay disparity in 2017. 

That means that if a man making is $100,000 a year, his female counterpart would make $80,000. 

Fauske calls the figure significant.

"Especially in entrepreneurship, people tend to open their businesses when they're around 40 years old," Fauske said. "So if you've been working on your savings so that you can launch your business when you're ready, that means you have approximately around 20 years of making 20 percent less than your male counterparts, and that's a disadvantage when you're trying to self-fund a business."

On top of the pay gap, according to Fortune, women in the U.S. receive around 2.2 percent of all venture funding. 

"We've seen that for different reasons," said Gee. "One being that there are males who are the venture capitalists, so not being able to see someone who is reflective of you, in that room, you have to work harder to break through those different barriers."

A study by Harvard Business Review, published in 2017, found that investors appear to display gender bias in their line of questioning, inadvertently favoring male entrepreneurs. According to the article, investors tended to ask men questions about the potential for gains and women about the potential for losses.

Despite the reported disadvantage, a 2017 article by Forbes notes that the women-led companies that did secure venture capital funding had 41 percent higher return on equity and 56 percent better-operating results.

"They're usually the best of the best, they're the top of their game," Fauske said of the women that do secure venture funding. "On one hand, it's great that women are turning such great results. On the other hand, I'd rather see more women be funded, and maybe those other great percentages come down a little bit."

For any women interested in starting a business, Fauske recommends contacting a networking group called Women Entrepreneurs of Alaska. The Alaska Small Business Development Center can also offer technical assistance. 

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