Number of women-owned small businesses increasing

“Keep going.” That's the mantra of Araceli Rodriguez, a Latina woman who didn't let gender or race prevent her from becoming a successful small business owner.

In 2000, Araceli left her job in the finance industry to join the pallet manufacturing and distribution business her father started in 1989 — and she hasn't looked back yet. Today she is the owner of Chicago Pallet Services — a company that employs 70 people at two locations, one in Elk Grove Village and another in Bedford Park. The company supplies new, used, and custom shipping pallets to clients that include Fortune 500 and regional businesses such as Jewel-Osco, Coca-Cola and Amazon.

Araceli is just one example of a growing number of women in the United States who have become small business owners — a 114 percent increase over the past 20 years, compared to the 44 percent rise among all small businesses during the same time period. That amounts to an estimated 11.6 million small businesses owned by women, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners 2017 State of Women-Owned Businesses Survey.

Nearly half of those businesses — 5.4 million — are owned by women of color. And all of those women-owned businesses are making our economy stronger, too, contributing $1.7 trillion in sales and employing more than 9 million people in 2017.

However, even as more women own businesses, there are obstacles to overcome. One of the most significant hurdles is funding for women-owned businesses which continues to lag those of male-owned companies. Last year the average funded business loan for women-owned companies was $57,097, compared to $103,604 for male-owned businesses, according to the 2017 Biz2Credit's annual State of Women-Owned Small Business Finance Study.

Araceli's success is proof of how crucial funding for women-owned businesses is to achieving growth.

As a Fifth Third Bank customer, we identified her need for working capital lines of credit as well as financing for new equipment and real estate loans for both Chicago Pallet Services locations.

Since Araceli has taken over the business, it has grown from $3 million in sales per year to $15 million last year. She plans to expand her business even more over the next five years by purchasing new equipment which will allow her to keep up with the demand for recycling pallets.

Araceli wants women who aspire to be entrepreneurs to know there is no limit when you have the passion to make your small business succeed. As she says, all you have to do is keep going.

Why it's important for women to become small business owners:

Close the pay gap

The average salaries of women lag behind those of men. Entrepreneurship can work to close the gender pay gap by creating higher salaries for women.

Grow leadership

Business owners often are asked to serve on public and nonprofit boards and advisory groups. Increasing women business ownership can provide the path to more gender equality on boards and leadership positions.

Create more women-owned businesses

It seems simple but more women-owned businesses will create more women-owned businesses. As women become role models, others will follow.

Resources that are available to aspiring entrepreneurs:

A nontraditional path to funding

Younger women business owners may not have the credit score needed to secure a loan. That's why Fifth Third has invested $5 million with the Community Reinvest Fund, a nonprofit, that will extend credit to high-impact businesses that don't quality for traditional credit products. CRF will work with local community groups to deploy the $5 million for small business loans from $200 to $50,000.

Become certified

Get certified as a women-owned business through Women's Business Development Center, a nationally recognized leader in the field of women's economic development: or (312) 853-3477.

• Eric S. Smith is regional president, Fifth Third Bank.

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