Women-owned businesses are proliferating faster than small businesses overall in 50 metropolitan markets, according to a recent study.

In 10 of those markets they're growing almost twice as fast, according to the National Foundation for Women Business Owners, which conducted the study.

"This is a fantastic growth market that banks need to focus on," said Sharon Hadary, executive director of the National Foundation for Women Business Owners.

The study counted women-owned businesses formed in the decade through 1996 in 50 major markets. Nationwide, the number of women-owned businesses increased 78%, to eight million. In the same period, the number of small business overall rose 47%, to 21.9 million.

Thirty-six percent of all small businesses are women-owned, the study found. And about half the companies owned by women are in the 50 largest metro areas.

But the growth was most dramatic in 10 of those markets: four California cities and New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Tampa, and New York's Nassau and Suffolk counties. In those markets, the number of women-owned businesses increased on average 84.5%; the small-business total in those cities rose 46.4%.

The study of women-owned businesses was compiled using information from the U.S. Census Bureau on business growth. The numbers of women-owned exclude partnerships between men and women.

The nearly eight million women-owned businesses in the country employ more than 18.5 million people and generate $2 trillion in sales, according to the Maryland-based trade association.

"The businesses are becoming more substantial, and that's good news for banks," Ms. Hadary said. "Loans to women-owned businesses are very viable investments."

Banks such as Wells Fargo & Co., BankAmerica Corp., and Banc One Corp. have created programs to increase their loans to female entrepreneurs.

"Bankers are beginning to recognize that women-owned businesses are an important segment of their market," Ms. Hadary said.

The areas with the largest concentration of women-owned businesses are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington.

But the cities with the greatest growth in the number of women-owned businesses are Portland, Ore., Seattle, Phoenix, Houston, and Nashville.

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