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A WOMAN'S PLACE, REVISITED // THIS IS NOT YOUR MOTHER'S CAREER

For decades, Niki Rysdale was a lonely pioneer.

Forty years ago, she did something women just didn't do: The Tampa woman became a registered architect and started her own business.

It was love of architecture and necessity that made her forge a path into what was a wilderness for women.

She had a child and needed job flexibility. Plus, she hadn't had much luck working in offices dominated by men. She still gets angry when she remembers how she lost her first job in the '50s.

"I was fired _ "let go,' they called it _ because they said I was distracting the office," she said.

What provocative garment was she wearing?

"Pants," Rysdale said, spitting out the word with disgust, "I guess." She's still not sure what exactly caused the stir. "I was married and had a child and wasn't the least bit interested in any of them."

So Rysdale learned to work alone, first at her own company and then as a consultant. Now, for the first time, she has a female partner _ she works with another woman architect.

Trailblazers like Rysdale are getting more company these days.

Women across the country are starting businesses at a prodigious rate, and they're not always choosing the enterprises of their mothers' era _ dress shops, interior design studios, restaurants. Instead, they are opening companies in fields where women have traditionally been strangers _ often unwelcome ones.

The National Foundation for Women Business Owners estimates there are 7.7-million women-owned businesses in the United States, employing 15.5-million people and generating nearly $1.4-trillion in sales. And women are starting companies in construction, manufacturing, transportation, communications, finance, insurance and real estate at a faster rate than their male counterparts. (See charts.)

"My God, it's an epidemic out there. We call it a tsunami," said Amy Millman, executive director of the National Women's Business Council in Washington, D.C.

The wave is washing over Tampa Bay, as well. Here, women are building houses and telephone networks, unclogging plumbing and chimneys, planning buildings and finances, raising cattle and cleaning up chemical spills. Indeed, there are few businesses, large or small, that women aren't exploring.

And the motivations for starting their businesses are just as varied.

Some find they can't survive or succeed working for men. Others leave college with the entrepreneurial spark burning bright. Still others stumble into starting businesses, often to their own surprise.

Many find being a woman an advantage _ clients remember them, they can get a few extra points when bidding on government contracts, and sometimes other women prefer to patronize a woman-owned business. Still, they face all the traditional challenges of business ownership, plus an additional one _ prejudice from men and even other women.

But it helps female business owners to know that they aren't alone anymore. "It's energizing, isn't it? I think it's a good thing for other women to read about," said Julie Weeks of the National Foundation for Women Business Owners.

They're financially sound

Women-owned businesses are as financially sound as the typical U.S. business.

Credit comparison

Women-owned All U.S.

firms firms

Pays bills within 30 92% 93.6%

days of due date

Low credit risk 59.5% 56%

(as measured by Dun &

Bradstreet credit score)

Low risk of failure 85.3% 86.3%

(as measured by Dun &

Bradstreet financial stress

score)

Source: National Foundation for Women Business Owners, Women-owned Businesses: Breaking the Boundaries; Dun & Bradstreet Information Sevices

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