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Tapping into pocketbook power

Ellen T. Fisher proved her knack for getting female entrepreneurs together. Now, on to the Internet.

The next time they attend a conference, business women might want to scan the crowd for a small, curly haired figure wearing a hat.

That would be Ellen T. Fisher of Havertown, a standout at making connections. A quarter-century ago, she created Women's Yellow Pages, a must-have directory for female entrepreneurs who wanted to find one another.

Now Fisher is branching out. Her next challenge is tailoring information for women as they flex their buying muscle. Look for her to come up with some new Internet products soon.

"There is so much out there right now," Fisher said, "the choices of what women can buy and do. The future is going to be about creating filters, and buying recommendations, and creative personalization."

A quick mind behind a soft voice, Fisher has the personal thing down pat. At age 24, she grasped that to succeed in business, women needed one another.

But when Fisher went looking for a list of female-owned businesses in the Philadelphia area, she discovered there wasn't a list.

So in 1982, working with index cards and two associates, she created her own directory. It cost $45 to be listed for a year, and 200 businesses signed up.

The Women's Yellow Pages was an instant success, she said. It has grown since. The 2007 edition has 700 listings, with a sign-up fee of $195.

"I'm one of the few who made money the first year in business," Fisher, 49, said. "I better make money. I have a daughter going to college next year at Bryn Mawr."

Fisher can be counted on to add a personal twist to almost any business topic. But the reverse is true; she has learned that she can engage businesswomen by revealing her personal side.

When she recently wrote online of her daughter driving, and getting into college, of her father's health issues - and even about the death of a treasured house cat - she was deluged with responses from colleagues.

"I found the things that we're more vulnerable about, people responded to and connected with," Fisher said.

" 'I can't believe it happened to you; it happened to me, too,' " her colleagues would say. She's thinking of compiling the stories into a book.

This common ground of shared interests and empathy is fertile ground for doing business, Fisher said.

"Women like to be referred by and to other women," Fisher said. "We go to a lot of big events. We find the biggest supporters of using women-owned businesses are women themselves."

She says 80 percent to 85 percent of household purchasing decisions, and 88 percent of car-buying decisions, are made by this country's women. They research purchases on the Web, and want useful information, Fisher said.

"We're looking at how we can [provide] that, in a cost-effective way that works," she said.

If the past is any guide, Fisher might be on to a growing market.

There are about 10.4 million female-owned businesses in this country, according to the Center for Women's Business Research in Washington.

Between 1997 and 2006, their numbers grew by 42.3 percent, nearly twice the 23.3 percent growth rate for all U.S. firms, according to data from the center.

The one weak spot is that female-owned businesses tend to be under-capitalized compared with others, but Fisher said that is somewhat offset because women tend to stay in business for the long run.

The future, Fisher says, will hinge on how women use technology. She has followed up the yellow pages with an online newsletter and calendar of events, which she sees as ways to support those listed in her directory.

"A lot of people think that this whole women's thing is a fad," Fisher said. "But I believe it's a possibility for immediate and long-term growth for profit."

For Information

Women's Yellow Pages is available online and in libraries. Consulting it is free. For more information, call Ellen T. Fisher at 610-446-4747 or visit