Women business owners rely on networks and contacts to take their companies from concept to success, and along the way they take time to help their sisters.

A desire to help working women like herself pointed Cindy Monroe in the direction of what is now a $643 million direct-selling company.

Creating a new business outlet for busy moms while also appealing to working women who can't shop during the day eventually landed Monroe on Forbes' list of "8 Self-Made Women To Watch In 2015," alongside Sandra Bullock and Jessica Alba, where her worth was estimated at $200 million.

The founder, president and CEO of Thirty-One Gifts has built her personalized purse-and-bag empire by understanding and appreciating what women want and need. As noted on the company's website, "Thirty-One was founded on the simple premise of empowering women by giving them the opportunity to own their own business."

Monroe's success has been enhanced by also being able to tap into others' expertise to help her develop as a woman business owner.

As Thirty-One Gifts looks to grow well past the billion-dollar revenue mark, Monroe put together an advisory board two years ago to guide her into unfamiliar territory.

"That has really been one of the best business decisions I've made," says Monroe, who cites Janet Meeks, recently retired CEO of Mount Carmel St. Ann's Hospital, and Kerrii Anderson, former CEO of Wendy's Corporation, as members. "I've surrounded myself with really smart people. They help me with, not only ideas about growing the business, but stabilizing the business."

Monroe started Thirty-One Gifts 12 years ago when she noticed a need in the market for personalized boutique items. "For me, I was like, I'm a working mom and these boutiques are closing at 6 o'clock, so, how would this work in the direct selling space so I could just attend a party or visit a website and buy something after hours?" From that initial concept she held her first party, and now she's heading up over 116,000 consultants in the US and Canada.

This kind of success is becoming more common as women increasingly operate their own businesses. From 1997 to 2015, American Express OPEN estimates the number of women-owned businesses in the US grew from 5.4 million to 9.4 million-a jump of nearly 74 percent. Those companies employ 7.9 million and enjoy annual sales of almost $1.5 trillion.

In Ohio, the growth rate is less robust, but women-owned businesses have still risen 43 percent from 205,044 in 1997 to today's estimated 292,400. Women-owned businesses in Ohio employ 288,100 and bring in $51.2 billion annually, according to the American Express OPEN report released in May.

Columbus CEO talked with a wide range of women business owners in Columbus about their experience and the importance of networking.

"Behind all of our products are the women who have the opportunity to start their own business," says Monroe. "I think that friends love to support other friends and they would rather buy from a girlfriend who's trying to help pay for her kid's summer vacation or private school or save for college, versus just a big-box store."

Not always easy

The challenges women business owners face, past and present, are similar, often starting with balancing motherhood and career.

"Women of my era-I came up through the 1970s and '80s-we were told 'You can't have it all. You have to decide what you want,'" says Jaron Terry, owner and president of Jaron Terry Communications, Ltd., in Hilliard.

"I remember being in high school and my girlfriends sitting around the table saying, 'Are you going to be a nurse, a teacher or a secretary?'" says Terry. "And I didn't want to be any of those!"

Terry instead joined the Women's Army Corps, where she chose to be a communications center specialist, then later joined corporate America, where face time ruled.

"You weren't there unless they saw you sitting there," says Terry, who was at Price Waterhouse when her son was born. "It was very difficult packing a day's worth of bottles and diapers, getting him to daycare, getting downtown and parking, getting in the office, getting all the work done, and getting back to pick him up. And then you add traveling and you haven't seen your baby in five days-that's crazy."

So Terry took control of her life, balancing work and motherhood in a way that suited her.

"I didn't want to be a stay-at-home mom or a working mom-I wanted to be a hybrid mom," says Terry, who's celebrating 20 years since she opened her communications business. "Having a home-based business allowed me to do that."

"When I started my business, I sent five letters and that's it. All of my work has come through referrals. It's always someone I know who knows someone," says Terry. She networks through a variety of organizations, including the Public Relations Society of America Central Ohio Chapter, where she has held offices from president on down.

Michelle Kerr says her drive to go shoulder-to-shoulder with men ruined her first four years with her daughter.

"When I started, I was in technology and automotive, and you can't imagine anything more male-dominated," says Kerr, the founder, chairman and president of Lightwell in Dublin. "If a man worked 50 hours, I worked 60. I traveled 100 percent of the time. I was a horrible mother the first four years of her life. And most of that was I felt like I had to behave as a man."

Kerr initially didn't realize the power of women helping other women. But after the life-changing event of selling a majority of her company in 2004 at the age of 32, Kerr joined the Women Presidents' Organization.

"It was a really critical thing for me. It allowed me to surround myself with like-minded people," says Kerr, who joined the Columbus chapter. "It's critical that women come alongside women and help them understand it's OK to have the fears they have."

And once Kerr started to have access to women-oriented resources, she started to receive a different message about her work/life balance.

"I got 'It's OK to be a mom.' And 'It's OK to leave a business trip if your child is sick,'" says Kerr. "Today I think women are much more self-aware. You've got women like Cheryl Sandburg that are saying, 'It's OK to be a woman and go on maternity leave and to leave the office at 6 (p.m.). You don't have to be a man. You've got all these other qualities you can bring to the table.'"

Seek and offer help

But first, women need to accept they don't have to do it all.

Darla King, president of King Business Interiors Inc. of Columbus, says it's time to strip that Superwoman title and let women be human.

"There's a lot in our DNA that says we have to keep the house clean, do laundry, take care of the kids and work-all those things are what we're supposed to do," she says. "Stop the guilt! Get a cleaning lady. Go support another woman-owned business to help where you need help."

Savvy women business owners know you can't be expert at everything when you're starting and running your own business. But you can ask for help and share your expertise at the same time.

"I had a 'Come to Jesus' moment with myself," says Elizabeth Blount McCormick, co-owner and president of UNIGLOBE Travel Designers, of trying to wear all the hats, from marketing to IT. "I realized there are experts in their respective fields and I needed to tap into my network."

In a perfect example of contacts paying off, McCormick's company was just awarded a national three-year contract to serve 100,000 members of Novation, a leading healthcare services company. One of three local health systems she works with recommended that McCormick pursue work with Novation, which McCormick calls "a game changer for my business."

As she has benefitted from her contacts, she believes in doing likewise. "Extend your hand to someone else along the way," says McCormick, a mentor who also serves on the Columbus Chamber Small Business Council and is a member of the Women's Presidents' Organization and National Association of Women Business Owners.

"You have to be willing to put yourself aside and help someone else," she says. "People will say, 'What can I do for you?' and I say, 'Nothing, what can I do for you instead?' Having that selfless manner is important."

All the women interviewed were emphatic that women should pay it forward to other women, and it's a responsibility they take seriously.

"I had a mentor, her name was Linda Marous (general merchandise manager, Bath and Body Works, corporate office), she was a huge influence on my life," says Tara Abraham, founder, chairman and co-CEO of Accel Inc. "I believe it's a responsibility we, as women business owners, have to the younger generation."

Not a level field

One of the biggest challenges for women business owners can be having to prove themselves against men.

"As the woman running the business, I always had three strikes against me," says Farah Majidzadeh, owner of Columbus-based Resource International. She had an accent, she wasn't an engineer (she had a nursing degree), and she was a woman.

"There were times I would go in my closet and cry, then I would wipe my eyes, go back out, and start again," says Majidzadeh, adding she had to work twice as hard as the men to get to the same place. "I had to be two or three steps ahead of the guys to be shoulder-to-shoulder with them."

Majidzadeh started her engineering consulting firm from her basement 42 years ago in order to balance her family of four children and work. Her husband, Kamran, was a civil engineering professor at Ohio State University.

Like many businesswomen, Majidzadeh says speaking up is the only way to get ahead.

"You must defend your capability because otherwise you just will not get anywhere," says Majidzadeh.

Majidzadeh says women cannot be concerned that their assertiveness may earn them that unfortunate five-letter label.

"Guys are very aggressive. And rewarded for it. Our aggressiveness is always labeled a 'bitch,'" says Majidzadeh, who says that men must change their attitude towards women.

Kerr agrees, adding that there are many men who support women-but, ultimately, women shouldn't be scared to use their voice.

"It's something we (as women) have to get over. We have to be assertive. And we have to do it in an effective way," says Kerr. "Someone may say, 'Oh, she's a bitch,' OK, fine, I'm a bitch, but if (as a woman) you've got something to say, you have to raise your hand and say it. The only way to push the envelope is to continue to be assertive."

Speaking up becomes even more important when you need money. For Abraham, her biggest challenge when starting Accel, a New Albany packaging solutions company, was access to capital.

"I didn't have a lot of credit so I had to borrow money from my parents; I had to have a cosigner," says Abraham. "I really used very creative funding in the beginning to make sure I had enough cash flow for the company to be solvent through the early stages of the business."

Venture capitalism existed, says Abraham, but, "I didn't have access to it unless I would have brought my husband to the forefront."

King says that's all changing.

"They had those conversations 'man to man,' (years ago) but, today, it's much more open," says King. "I love it when it's 'What do you need from us?' instead of 'Is your husband going to sign for this?'"

Besides, says Abraham, a former Bath & Body Works employee, once a woman has success, she'll notice a change in attitude about capital.

"After I was solvent, then the banks came crawling," says the woman whose marquee client going into business was Les Wexner. But, she says, until then, "I did lean on family and friends."

Success resources

Every woman interviewed cited networking as a key component to their success.

NAWBO fits that referral bill for many women, says King, the current NAWBO president.

"We have these roundtables of six to nine women; women want to help women and they want to have a voice," says King. "And I think that's where NAWBO comes in strong because it is women to women."

Beyond just networking and nurturing, the hard business doors are opening, too, says Abraham.

"There's money out there to be had," says Abraham, who has filled multiple positions in the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, the largest third-party certifier of businesses owned, controlled, and operated by women in the US. "I sit on a publicly traded bank board and I know they want to invest in women."

Inna Kinney, founder of the Economic and Community Development Institute in Columbus, says the resources for women interested in starting a business-or helping them run one they currently own-are greater than they've ever been.

And a one-stop shop like ECDI can be a huge help.

"We're trying to put (women) on equal footing," says Kinney. "There's a reason why ECDI exists, and why we operate a women's business center; we know women entrepreneurs. We have professional advisory members who provide other women with training and meet them where they are."

ECDI helps to remove barriers that exist for women business owners. It can help identify resources for capital or education. Whatever the obstacle, ECDI is designed to help find a resource to overcome it.

Certification also helps removes barriers.

"Certification (as a woman-owned business) allows women to have the same access to contracts male-(owned) businesses do," says Kinney, particularly in dealing with government contracts.

"In our business, to sell to the state of Ohio, city of Columbus, OSU-they require it," says King.

But there is also a flipside.

"The one thing I never want is to get business because I'm a woman," says Kerr. "I want equal opportunity, but don't give it to me because I'm woman-owned. I would never hide behind that certification."

Steph Greegor is a freelance writer.