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WASHINGTON -- Almost half of female business owners surveyed in Arizona expect their companies to grow over the next five years, according to a report released Friday.

While the No. 1 accomplishment cited by roughly 400 businesswomen in the phone survey was just making it through the recession, the overall tone in the AZ2013 Women-Owned Business Enterprise Report was upbeat.

"The vast majority of these women are extremely optimistic," said Louie Olivas, an Arizona State University business professor emeritus, who worked on the report.

It was released the same day as new figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a drop in the national unemployment rate. The bureau said that 236,000 jobs were created in February, lowering the jobless rate from 7.9 percent to 7.7 percent, the lowest rate in more than four years.

Despite the good economic news, the recession still appears to be fresh in the minds of women entrepreneurs in Arizona.

"When it hit, it hit us hard," said Teresa Ornelas, the owner of Great Impact! Inc., a promotional products company in Tempe.

Ornelas, one of the women cited in the report, said the recession forced half of her competitors to close, but she was able to identify the threats and make changes that let her keep her doors open. Now, she said, she expects her company to grow steadily over the next five years, like many of those surveyed.

Only about 9 percent of the women surveyed, representing companies across the spectrum of business, said they expected their business to shrink.

The results of this year's survey were slightly more cautious than a similar study in 2007. While 67 percent of women surveyed then said they felt their financial situations would improve in the coming year, that number dipped to about 58 percent in this survey.

But like their counterparts around the country, Arizona women who own businesses are seeing their companies grow faster than those run by men, Olivas said.

"The fact they have survived the recession speaks volumes," he said. It shows they were able to lower their overheard costs and come up with a creative plan to survive.

The survey by WestGroup Research was funded by Arizona Public Service and released by the Phoenix Minority Business Development Agency Business Center and the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Olivas said the study showed a general trend away from businesses like coffee shops and restaurants that have been the typical companies owned by women, and a move into industries like medicine and human resources that have been traditionally dominated by men.

About 20 percent of the women in the survey said overcoming negative perceptions based on gender remains a challenge, which Olivas said shows there is still a significant stigma for women.

Ornelas said she does not feel she has been hindered by her ethnicity or her gender.

"We face all the same challenges that all small businesses face," she said.

She does feel, however, that women are getting better at reaching out to one another to help each other learn new skills to creatively market their companies.

Cronkite News,

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