For Tama Holve, being a woman business owner is no longer about trying to fight the "old boys club."

Rather, the longtime owner of Studio City-based Willett Travel said she's more focused on taking advantage of the "old girls network."

"There's a lot of whining that goes on among some women to the effect that 'Women just can't make it on their own in business,' " Holve said. "That's nonsense. We women are great social networkers and there are enough women in business now that I've benefited many times over from what I call the 'old girls network.' "

Holve, who worked at the travel agency before teaming up with another woman partner to buy the firm 18 years ago, is indicative of a newfound confidence among women business owners as their numbers have multiplied. No longer are they the pioneers struggling to survive amidst a world dominated by male-owned businesses and corporations.

A sign of just how far women-owned businesses have come in Los Angeles County can be seen in data released late last month from the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2002, there were 265,919 businesses in L.A. County majority-owned by women, up 33 percent from the previous Census Bureau business survey in 1997. Similarly, the number of women-owned firms with payroll employees jumped 35 percent to 35,762.

What's more, women-owned firms are now spread widely across a variety of industries, including manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, professional services, administrative support services, health care and arts and entertainment.

One factor behind the increasing numbers of women-owned businesses may be that more women are starting companies earlier in their careers.

"For a long time, many women-owned businesses were started by women who hit the glass ceiling in their corporate careers and decided to strike out on their own. Now, in addition, I'm seeing a lot of younger women starting their own businesses," said Helen Han, president and executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners.

"These younger women are looking for more of a balance in their lives. It's also much easier for a woman to start a business now than it used to be," she said.

Twenty years ago, Han said, it was still common for banks to force women business owners to sign papers saying they wouldn't become pregnant during the term of the loan or to require a co-signature from a spouse.

Nowadays, men are more willing to go into business with women as full ownership partners, said Janice Bryant Howroyd, chief executive of Act 1 Group, a staffing firm that's the largest woman-owned business in L.A. County.

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