Customers pulling into Steve's Detailing are greeted by a young woman they often mistake for the receptionist.
But minutes after meeting with owner Jana Fair, even the most finicky car nut is impressed by her knowledge of cleaning and detailing cars.
"Sometimes there is an advantage to being a woman in a man's field," said Fair, who works in the parking garage of the First Interstate Bank building in Hollywood, Calif. "But the bottom line is: You produce or you don't survive."
Fair is one of thousands of women creating an explosion of female-owned small businesses nationwide. Many of them are rich with training provided by major corporations. But they have been laid off during the recession or are tired of working in dead-end jobs or in situations where opportunities for advancement are limited.
Accordingly, women are starting small businesses twice as fast as men, according to the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy. One out of every 20 working women in this country are now working for themselves, the office says. Women, who now own about 5 million U.S. businesses, are expected to own half of all small businesses in this country by the end of the century.
In the past, the main motivation for many women starting a business was to achieve a flexible lifestyle and spend more time with the family. Now, women are not ashamed to admit they want to make money.
"One of the biggest differences we see today compared with five years ago is that women are willing to say they are going into business to make money," said Beatrice Fitzpatrick, founder and president of the American Woman's Economic Development Corp. in New York.
Fitzpatrick said women, who are running businesses in every industry, tend to keep trying long after a man might give up and try something else.
Why? Because women still have to work harder to get the money and time to invest in a venture, she said.
"A woman would no more let her business fail than she would let someone kill her child," said Fitzpatrick, whose group has trained or assisted more than 100,000 women in the past 15 years.
In addition to becoming better trained and more politically savvy, women have dropped the idea that they have to act tough to make it in a man's world.
"Five years ago, women felt they had to use a strong, aggressive, male-like approach to business," said Judith Weidman, a Los Angeles communications consultant. "It's become so much easier for women now. There are so many networking groups which help women realize they are not alone."
Judy Rosener, a professor at UC Irvine's Graduate School of Management, created a stir last year when her article, "Ways Women Lead," appeared in the November-December, 1990, Harvard Business Review. In it, Rosener points out that the so
cial and people skills women learn at a very young age can really help them succeed in the business world.
"As women, we've been taught to juggle" many activities, said Rosener. "We are attuned to be very comfortable with ambiguity and dealing with crisis."
Rosener believes that there has been a radical change in the perception of women in business since male "management gurus" such as Tom Peters and Peter Drucker began acknowledging that "it's OK to be female and make it."
Janet Harris-Lange, the new president of the National Association of Women Business Owners, said women are more likely to succeed because they easily admit that they need help and surround themselves with good people.
"A man does not like to admit he is not strong in one area of business," said Harris-Lange, who owns Branet Investments Inc., a commercial real estate development company in Lake Park, Fla. "But women have no problem admitting they need help."
Twenty years ago, Terry Neese founded her first personnel agency with $600 and a prayer that she would make it through the first month. Her hard work and prayer paid off: Today, Neese, from Oklahoma City, owns six businesses, including several employment agencies, an aviation firm and a wheat farm.
A former NAWBO president who recently made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, Neese recently created an acronym: GIPOGOOB.
"GIPOGOOB means 'get involved politically or go out of business,' " Neese said. "Business owners, especially women, have to realize that when you are in business, many contracts you get are based on politics."
While auto detailer Fair, 32, stays out of politics, she has to be diplomatically astute to deal with awkward encounters with men who just can't believe that she knows anything about caring for expensive cars.
To learn her trade, she apprenticed herself to a veteran auto detailer, spending about eight months learning how to properly clean cars inside and out. Convinced that it was the kind of small business she could run, Fair and her mother bought the business five years ago with money from outside investors. Today, sales are just under $500,000 and growing steadily.
"It's a very technical business and if you don't know what you are doing, you can ruin a car," said Fair, whose firm charges $165 for a complete car and engine cleaning.
Fair said her greatest problem is persuading her predominately male clientele that she knows what she is doing. "Men tend to think they know a lot about cars, whether they do or not," Fair said.