WHEELING - Since taking over the full-time operation and ownership of Wheeling Coffee & Spice in 1981, Mary Ann Lokmer said she has never encountered an obstacle simply because she is a woman.
"I have never felt like I was discriminated against," she said. "In fact, when I first took over, other coffee business owners, who were all men, called to offer me their support."
However, a new study funded by American Express Open - a payment card issuer for small businesses across the nation - shows that West Virginia ranks 49th out of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in growing the number of businesses owned by women over the past 15 years.
Nationally, the number of women-owned businesses has increased by 54 percent since 1997. West Virginia saw its number of firms owned by women increase by 22.4 percent from 1997-2012. The Mountain State, overall, has an estimated 37,000 women-owned companies, which employ roughly 38,200 workers.
Ohio ranked 47th in the study with a 25 percent increase in the number of companies owned by women over the past 15 years. The state with the lowest percentage growth in businesses owned by women was Alaska with just 11 percent.
The states receiving the highest ratings in the study were Georgia and Nevada, which saw their percentages of businesses owned by women increase by 95 percent and 92 percent, respectively, since 1997.
Lokmer does not believe there is any particular obstacle for women wanting to start or run businesses in West Virginia - she believes anyone seeking to run a company in the Upper Ohio Valley has faced numerous challenges in recent years.
"I think our problems are more age related," she said. "So many of the men and women who may be in position to own businesses here now had to leave the area because it was hard here."
The study also notes that women-owned businesses are "standing toe-to-toe with competitors in a broad range of industries, including construction and transportation, where women-owned firms are just as likely as all firms in those sectors to generate more than half a million dollars in annual revenue."
"Even as women-owned firms continue to grow in number at rates exceeding the national average, enterprises at the $250,000 to $499,999 revenue mark are at a turning point in their development," said Susan Sobbott, president of American Express Open. "In order to further advance and grow these businesses, new management tools must be implemented."
In a related matter, a U.S. Senate panel this week heard from roughly 20 women executives about how to create more business opportunities for females. Senators stressed the importance of increasing access to capital for women-owned businesses and ensuring that businesses can continue to rely on the most skilled work force in the world.
Other issues that arose in the hearing included how to apply flexible work schedules, sick leave and on-site child care programs that can help make businesses owned and operated by women more competitive.
"When women are able to compete and succeed in the business community, it strengthens our entire economy," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "This meeting brought together women leaders from around the country to discuss how we can support women in the workplace and ensure that women-owned businesses have access to capital and other tools they need to grow and thrive."