CRYSTAL CITY, VA.
When businesswoman Debbie Mancini needs inspiration, she thinks of the rows of tidy red-brick homes in her childhood neighborhood of Worcester, Mass. Many of the houses were built by her grandmother, Mary, an Italian immigrant who ran a booming construction business in the 1950s.
"She was a very take-charge kind of woman," recalls Ms. Mancini. "She would go to the bank and negotiate credit, and she employed my father and grandfather."
The formidable role model gave Mancini a confident edge last year, when she quit a 10-year recruiting career in corporate America and launched her own firm.
With or without grandmothers in hard hats, millions of US women like Mancini are choosing to "be their own boss" in order to avoid wage discrimination, glass ceilings on promotion, and the lack of freedom many say they face in the corporate world.
The past decade has seen an explosion in female-owned companies, with their numbers almost doubling and their sales and employment tripling. Women now own 8 million firms - more than a third of all US businesses. They employ 18.5 million people - 1 in 5 US workers - and produce $2.3 trillion in annual revenues.
"We have had this gigantic rush," says Sherrye Henry, assistant administrator in the Women's Business Ownership office at the Small Business Administration .
A major force propelling the trend is a desire by midcareer women like Mancini to leave behind discrimination and other frustrations in the workplace. Most women business owners are in their 40s and 50s.
A recent survey of 650 female entrepreneurs found that the No. 2 reason for women starting their own firms was concern about the "glass ceiling." This was followed by dissatisfaction with the work environment, according to the survey, released this year by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners (NFWBO).
"Women get discouraged by the wage differential, or no promotion, or 'last hired, first fired,' " explains Ms. Henry.
Mancini, for example, learned at one company that a male colleague in an identical job was being paid significantly more than she was "because he was married and had a family." She pointed out the disparity and her salary was raised, but the experience troubled her.
Since quitting her job to start her own technical-recruiting firm early last year, Mancini has doubled her income while doing the same work as before. "This is the best thing I've ever done," she says.
Another motivation for Mancini and other women who turn to self-employment is to gain flexibility and avoid being penalized for taking time off to balance work and family. Indeed, more than half the women entrepreneurs in the 1998 survey said a desire for flexibility prompted them to leave their jobs - most are married and have kids.
"My old company had a policy where they wouldn't allow people to telecommute [work from home by phone or computer]," says Mancini, who recently married and is eager to start a family. "Most women had kids and put them in day care or quit."
For Mancini and many other female business owners, such restrictions didn't make sense given advances in telecommunications technology. Today, almost half of all women-owned businesses are home-based.
"I want to do what everyone in my family has done and stay home with my kids," says Mancini, sitting in her "office" - a bedroom of her Crystal City, Va., home.
Despite the advantages, women confront difficulties in running their own firms, although these have lessened over time. For years, a major problem has been discrimination in obtaining bank loans. Yet by 1996, only 23 percent had to finance their enterprises on credit-card debt, compared with half in 1992.
Moreover, while companies owned by women are still concentrated in services and retail, the fastest area of growth for women's firms during the past 10 years has been in more lucrative, traditionally male-dominated sectors such as construction, transportation, and communications.
Finally, most firms owned by women remain small, with less than 10 percent showing revenues of more than $1 million.
Nevertheless, women who have made the leap into self-employment are largely satisfied with their choice. Some 58 percent of those with private-sector experience say "nothing" could attract them back to a position in a company owned by someone else, says the NFWBO survey.
Mancini, whose technical-recruiting business is flourishing, knows she made the right decision. "I even got my husband his job!" she says with a staccato laugh.