At the age of 5, Melinda Wittstock made $100 charging her neighbors a dollar each to watch her do cartwheels through a sprinkler. At age 9, she started a neighborhood newspaper because she wanted to report the news in her neighborhood, and she liked asking people questions.
Now, Wittstock is following up a long career in the media industry by creating an innovative crowd-sourcing news platform while leading her second start-up company, NewsiT.
Wittstock founded her first start-up, Capitol News Connection, in 2002 after working as an anchor and producer at MSNBC, CNBC and BBC World. "I started getting that itch," Wittstock said. "As an anchor I always had more producer in me than my bosses probably would have liked. I had always created a lot of programs, so for me it wasn't a stretch at all [to start her own company]."
Now in her mid-40s, she is among a growing number of women entrepreneurs who are having an increasingly greater role in America's recovery. Women like Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, Buzzcar founder Robin Chase (who is also co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar), and iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner are changing the public perception of what a successful entrepreneur looks like.
Though Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates may still be making headlines, increasingly women are in leadership roles and in start-up businesses, studies show. Women like Yahoo! CEO and President Marissa Mayer are helping to highlight this fact.
A 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce showed that between 1997 and 2007, the number of women-owned businesses grew by 44 percent, twice as fast as firms owned by men -- and they added roughly 500,000 jobs.
A report by the Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute in 2009 argued that women will create between 5 and 5.5 million new small business jobs by 2018, more than half of the new small business jobs anticipated and roughly one-third of the 15.3 million total new jobs anticipated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics by 2018.
From 2009 to 2010, the percentage of women involved in start-ups increased from 5 percent to 5.6 percent, while their male counterparts saw a decrease from 8.8 percent to 6.7, according to a 2010 study by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM).
Studies like these signal a significant shift in an enterprise that has long been predominately male. Evolving hiring practices and developing communities are among the factors helping women to achieve success in new ways.
Colleen DeCourcy is the founder and CEO of Socialistic, an advertising consultant company she started in early 2011. DeCourcy sees a profound difference between traditional industry and the start-up world. "Most industries follow a male-dominated structure," DeCourcy said. "Like hires like. In the start-up world though, you don't need approval -- you need an idea and you need funding. You don't even need funding if your idea is good enough."
DeCourcy also believes that developing support systems has been critical. "The networks haven't been in place as long. We weren't being referred for the same jobs as we are now."
Springboard Enterprises runs a start-up accelerator program for women that Wittstock participated in. The forum supports women entrepreneurs, connects them to investors, and hosts an active alumni base. "We have built an incredible network of folks that support us -- women who have, as we say, 'been there, run that,'" said Katie Gage, the Forum's manager of programming.
The forum was very helpful as she entered the start-up world, Wittstock said, and while speaking with several other alumni, she saw an interesting pattern: Many of them led long careers in their industries before starting their own businesses.
Wittstock had been in the media industry for 13 years before she started her first company, and DeCourcy left her post as global chief digital officer at ad giant TBWA to start Socialistic.
In a field where the popular perception of a successful entrepreneur is a young, white male, Wittstock and DeCourcy break the mold. "We see pictures of the young Steve Jobs and you see Mark Zuckerberg all the time," said Donna Kelley, who leads GEM's U.S. team. "There is a real celebration of young males in the media that we don't get with women."
This perception is beginning to shift, however, with the emergence of women like Wittstock.
Portions of the 2011 GEM report released exclusively to The Huffington Post confirm this trend. In the 18-24 age range, twice as many men as women are starting and running new businesses. But while the rate of male entrepreneurs peaks in the early career stage (25-34) then begins to drop off, the rate of women stays consistent and eventually passes the rate of men in the 55-64 range.
But what are the possible causes for these contrasting patterns?
Wittstock thinks women's empathetic tendencies are a contributing factor. "Women with deep domain expertise understand very well the real pain in their industries," Wittstock said. "Guys come up with a solution to get from point A to point B. They create a business, then it gets flipped and sold to Google."
Then again, it could just be simple gender psychology. "We're coming up with different business models that don't fit the [venture capital] pattern," Wittstock said. "Maybe it's the female brain."