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As a business owner for nearly three decades, Frederiki Kontras has to chuckle every time someone insists on speaking to the person in charge.

"I tell them I'm one of the owners, but there are still some people who seem skeptical and want to talk to my husband," she said. "It's still a man's world, but things are changing for the better."

One of the most dramatic changes can be quantified with data: the number of women-owned businesses has more than doubled since 1987, according to a study launched last year by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners. These 9.1 million enterprises represent 38 percent of all businesses in the United States, employ 27.5 million people and rack up more than $3.6 trillion in annual sales.

Women-owned businesses were much less common back in the early 1970s when Kontras and her sister opened a small restaurant in Niagara Falls. Several years later, she and her husband opened Bailey Seafood, a take-out fish market 3316 Bailey Ave. near LaSalle Avenue. The company is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and has plans to expand.

Kontras participated in a small business conference a week ago that attracted about 200 people. The summit, sponsored by the city in conjunction with the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Partner America initiative, included a panel discussion on challenges facing women-owned companies.

Rose Mary Ginwright, a business consultant who moderated the session, said that while significant strides have been made in recent years, women-owned businesses continue to face formidable challenges.

"It's still harder for women to obtain financial assistance or even training," said Ginwright, who heads En Ami Inc., a Buffalo consulting firm. "Without question, things are getting better. But we have a long way to go."

In recent years, a growing number of economic development agencies and business advocacy groups have launched special initiatives aimed at helping women-owned businesses. Much of the focus has been on helping the enterprises to find start-up capital and loans to finance expansions.

The U.S. Small Business Administration said the number of SBA-backed loans given to women-owned businesses in the Buffalo area has increased from 11 percent in 1989 to nearly 20 percent last year. During the same time period, the amount of loans approved for women-owned enterprises increased from about $2.6 million to $15.1 million.

"The climate has never been better for women-owned businesses," said Robert C. Novak, the SBA's deputy district director. "We're seeing our loan numbers increase both nationally and in the Buffalo area."

Kontras is hoping Bailey Seafood will be approved for an SBA loan to assist with an expansion that will include the construction of an addition and the introduction of a more diversified product line. If all goes as planned, the business could add between 10 and 15 workers to its payroll. Kontras operates the business with her husband, George Kontras, both of whom are Greek immigrants. The couple's son, Michael Kontras, and daughter, Maryann Zambiyadis, are also actively involved in the business.

Zambiyadis has been weighing fish and performing other tasks in the shop since she was 12 years old. She plans to make the family business her career. She currently manages the fish market's dozen employees and handles many of the financial tasks.

"I think it's definitely harder for women who are running businesses," she said. "Some people still perceive you as not being as strong. You have to believe in yourself 100 percent."

Susan McCartney, director of the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State College, said one of the looming goals in business advocacy circles involves increasing the number of government contracts that are awarded to women-owned businesses. McCartney said procuring government contracts is a highly sophisticated process.

"A lot of it has to do with image. You have to look incredibly professional when you're dealing with government agencies," said McCartney. "And many agencies won't do business with you unless you've been doing business for a long time."

Federal agencies have set a goal of awarding $35 billion in contracts to small and midsized businesses, according to George A. Cloutier, a Massachusetts business consultant who chairs Partner America. But when Cloutier asked those attending last week's conference how many had landed federal contracts, only a few hands went up in an audience of 200 people.

Ginwright cited the need for more aggressive outreach programs to make women business owners aware of government contracts and help them with the red tape.

"There's a lot of stuff out there, but it's almost a hidden secret," said Ginwright. "In some ways, it's still like a men's club."

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