Last year the nation was deep in recession, with the numbers of unemployed and displaced workers rising.
"Layoffs," "downsizing," "restructuring" and "reductions in force" became embedded in the national vocabulary.
Even in the best of times, 50 percent of new businesses fail in the first year. Yet in 1991, women started businesses 1 1/2 times more frequently than men did.
Research by the 5,000-member National Association of Women Business Owners, based in Chicago, shows that, counted properly, there are 5.4 million women-owned businesses in the United States.
The number was seriously underreported by the federal government at 3.5 million, according to the business owners group.
The study of female entrepreneurs was conducted by the Washington-based National Foundation for Women Business Owners, the research arm of the association.
Some 11.7 million people work for women-owned businesses, the same number as for Fortune 500 companies, according to the study. The association predicts that this year women-owned businesses will add 350,000 workers and will create more jobs than Fortune 500 companies will.
Women have been going into business in unprecedented numbers over the last 20 years, according to the association. Their firms continue to expand and to create jobs, according to the group's research.
The study lists the top 10 states in which women-owned businesses are booming: California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey and Washington.
Women-owned businesses are likely to be more stable than those started by men and a "little less likely to demonstrate high growth," the study suggests. The research also shows that more than 40 percent of women-owned firms have been in business more than 12 years.
Enterprises owned by women span all economic sectors, including agriculture, construction, manufacturing, business, professional services and retail. The research also shows that 9 percent of firms owned by women have annual sales of more than $1 million.
To ignore women-owned businesses is to neglect one of the dec
ade's major social and economic changes, according to the group.
Bev Kennedy is not a member of the association, but she is one of those entrepreneurial women who started a business last year -- despite the odds.
"I knew there was a recession, but it was the right time for me," said Ms. Kennedy, president of Kennedy and Co., a public relations and advertising firm based in Highland Park, Ill. "I always look at the bright side. I knew it would work. I had a gut feeling. I felt, 'If I don't do it now, when will I?' "
Ms. Kennedy has a bachelor's degree in communications from the State University of New York and a master's in telecommunications from Syracuse University. She did not enter the paid labor market until 1975, when her husband, Bob Kennedy, popular host of a national TV show, "Kennedy and Co.," died.
Widowed with two young children, Ms. Kennedy worked in television, advertising and public relations for 16 years before starting her business.
"The first thing I did was my homework," she said. "I wanted to know everything about my business and the market conditions before I opened my own firm. I put together a good business plan and found a bank that would give me a line of credit. It was a relatively small investment."
Her research showed that certain businesses -- whether or not there is a recession -- can't cut back on public relations.
"And that's how wellness became my specialty," she said. "Retirement communities, for instance, have to continue to rent apartments. Fitness clubs have to keep membership up. Enlightened companies know the importance of public relations, but some companies, in hard times, immediately cut out PR. That's like slashing both wrists and your throat at the same time."
The business owner started with a staff of one: herself. Within one week she hired a consultant. In less than a year, she had a staff of four full-time employees who are eligible for health benefits and pensions.
Ms. Kennedy's enthusiasm, combined with the requisite professional skills, generates new business and the need for more workers.
"I'm hoping to hire more this year," she said. "The office next to mine is empty, and I'm thinking of expanding. There's an energy here and a kind of camaraderie that is wonderful."
Ms. Kennedy is thinking about joining the National Association of Women Business Owners. Another smart move.