insight magazine

Give the Lady What She Wants

Attracting and retaining women business owners as clients is key to sustaining your practice. By Kristine Blenkhorn Rodriguez | Fall 2017


Marshall Field built a successful retail business on one primary principle: “Give the lady what she wants.” He knew his target market and catered specifically to women’s shopping needs. The accounting and finance industry should take a page out of Field’s handbook.

Harvard Business Review called out the financial services industry as the least sympathetic to women’s needs just a few years ago, their financial needs—particularly as business owners— mystifyingly ignored. As the number of women-owned businesses grows exponentially, however, a dynamic and diverse market awaits the accounting and finance professionals who can serve up the specialized financial advising it seeks.

Women-Owned Businesses: A Snapshot

There are now more than 11.3 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., meaning women own about 38 percent of the country’s businesses, says The 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, a summary of business trends commissioned by American Express OPEN. These firms employ an estimated eight percent of the nation’s private sector workforce and generate over $1.6 trillion in annual revenues.

What’s more, between 2007 and 2016, the number of women-owned businesses increased by 45 percent—fully five times faster than the national average among all businesses—and revenues among women-owned businesses have increased by 35 percent since 2007, 30 percent higher than the national average. All told, between 2007 and 2016, women created 3.5 million new businesses, of which 78 percent are owned by women of color.

If all that isn’t impressive enough, the McKinsey Global Institute report, “The Power of Parity: How Advancing Women’s Equality can Add $12 Trillion to Global Growth,” suggests “a ‘full potential’ scenario, in which women play an identical role in labor markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.”

In other words, knowing what women business owners look for in their financial services providers is more important than ever. With that in mind, we offer this insight from some of Illinois’ own women entrepreneurs.

Women Want Relationships

With six out of 10 women investing their personal finances into their businesses, the stakes are high. Being personally invested in the business creates a different vibe than a venture capital-backed operation.

Krista Goral, owner of the Chicago-based custom dress business MeasureMake, likes to work with professionals who’ve experienced the “blood and muscle” of a business. “Not only do I want to know the person on the other side of the table, but they also should know what building a business and creating your own opportunities takes.”

Goral’s desires are fairly typical. A recent study by Accenture states that women want financial advice based on their life journeys. Take Renee Pollino, owner of My Half of the Sky, an L3C coffee shop focused on helping the disadvantaged in Wheaton, Ill., for instance. “As not only a woman, but a Hispanic woman,” she says, “I believe it's important to give opportunity to not only women, but to those who often are not given opportunity.”

In other words, talk journeys and milestones, not just numbers and products.

Women Want Solutions

With previous experience in the banking business, Goral feels financially savvy. But she also says it makes her choosier—as in, don’t overcomplicate things; get to a solution faster.

“Men want to throw a lot of potentially helpful products and solutions at me. But we get bogged down. It’s too many choices, not all of which fit my business. Women tend to listen, pare it down to a few reasonable solutions—and, in general, make it less complicated,” she explains.

Goral’s goal of keeping her business and finances simple isn’t unusual, according to a recent Betterment study that analyzed the accounts of 60,000 investors, 25 percent of them women. The findings: Women signed into their accounts almost half as frequently as men and changed their asset allocations 20 percent less frequently.

It’s about finding what works, and sticking with it.

Women Want Respect

Women love their businesses, but many women express distaste for the financial side, due in large part to insulting experiences.

“I dumped an accountant like a hot potato when he sounded like he was parenting me financially rather than explaining my options and advising,” confides Jordan Holwell, owner of Higher Energy Massage Therapy in Naperville, Ill.

Accounting and finance professionals take note: Business and financial advising should come without condescension.

“Most of your life, you hear about the bias, but I guess I never believed it until I experienced it,” Pollino says, explaining her experiences as a victim of assumptions about her financial and business expertise.

“Two years before the launch of My Half of the Sky, I went to a local bank to discuss financing options. The woman president met with me for 20 minutes and seemed excited about what I wanted to do. She gave me a name and number of a contact that she insisted would be of great help to me,” she explains. “When I called the person, I discovered it was a professor at the local community college who offers a one-day class on how to write a business plan. She hadn’t even seen my business plan. She made huge assumptions about me. That’s just one of many bad experiences.”

Pollino’s experience was echoed by a good portion of our interviewees. Some remember a time when they were asked for their husbands’ financials just to rent space for their businesses. While most women aren’t treated as second-class citizens so openly anymore, many still struggle to secure financial backing and advising.

Women Want to Be Heard

Listen, listen, listen—then listen some more. Communication skills trump gender among most of our interviewees.

Take Joyce Clarkson, co-owner of The Dinner Club in La Grange Park, Ill., who started working with one female accountant because she thought a woman would bring stellar communication and listening skills. “I was wrong,” she admits.

“After working together for some time, my frustration level was through the roof. I could ask this CPA the same question 10 times in 10 different ways—‘How will this affect my taxes? Is this a wise move?’—and she couldn’t give me a clear answer. Communication is critical for me,” Clarkson says, explaining that it’s important to her business decisions to have somebody that can clearly advise without providing a lot of immaterial or impertinent information.

Clarkson ultimately turned to another firm to meet her needs; the owner is male, but her day-to-day contact is female. “It’s not the gender,” she says. “It’s the communication style that matters. They listen. They advise. And then they continue to listen.”

Women Want Equality

For years, women business owners have struggled with an advisory model built for men. But, women are a growing force in the entrepreneurial world with very specific wants and requests. In short, making sure your firm is tailoring services to female clients is crucial to remaining a viable enterprise moving forward.

“Whether I’m right or not, I just feel women CPAs have my best interests at heart,” Holwell says. “But, show me someone who gives me that feeling—man or woman—and I’m all in.”

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