Terri Jill Cummings always knew she wanted to be an architect, viewing homes as big sculptures, as “usable art, practical art.”

That it was a predominantly male occupation (men outnumbered women 15 to 1 at her engineering school) did not intimidate her. Neither did starting her own business, TJC Architect, nearly 22 years ago.

“I always wanted to be my own boss and have my own business,” said Cummings, of the Linwood-based and owner-operated firm that custom designs new homes and renovates existing ones. “It’s harder than working for somebody else, but it’s also more fulfilling.”

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Cummings is one of an estimated 225,000 female business owners in New Jersey who are contributing $43 billion to the state’s economy, according to a study from American Express OPEN released last week.

Nationally, this gender segment of business owners has grown more rapidly than overall ownership — 54 percent for women from 1997 to 2012, compared with 37 percent for all business owners, the study estimated. New Jersey ranked No. 11 among states in the number of women-owned businesses.

“There’s a lot of people looking at this as a large growth area,” said Joseph Molineaux, director of the Small Business Development Center at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. “Women have always been entrepreneurial because they tend to be problem solvers.”

More than half of the center’s clients are now women, Molineaux said.

Women-owned businesses still face challenges as they become a larger part of the overall economy. U.S. Census Bureau data indicates they are more likely to have fewer employees and earn less revenues than male-owned firms.

Alice Bredin, a small-business adviser to American Express Open, said women-owned firms that are growing tend to stall when revenues reach $250,000 to $500,000.

While many factors could be involved, Bredin said that threshold often reflects a point where business owners would need financing to continue growth.

“It’s not just the access to capital on the bank side, it’s really as much not having had experience in pursing financing before, not having as many peers to rely on,” Bredin said. “I really feel that’s going to be changing as we see some women-owned small businesses in the economy. I think women are going to be able to help each other, encourage each other to look for financing.”

Estimating business ownership through gender, race and ethnicity is a tricky and imprecise undertaking and one the U.S. Census Bureau publishes every five years through its Survey of Business Owners.

One drawback is the data is several years old by the time it’s published; the Census Bureau’s 2007 survey of women-owned businesses was released in December 2010 and missed the recession’s actual impact on businesses.

Likewise, the American Express OPEN study uses those census estimates from 1997, 2002 and 2007 as a base to try to project business ownership among women in 2012.

The Census Bureau estimated there were 5,856 Atlantic County businesses owned by women in 2007, a 31 percent increase from 2002. Cape May County had 3,051 firms, a 37 percent increase. Cumberland County had 1,849, a slight drop.

Tina Conklin and Terry Raphial own Wedding Belles Boutique off Tilton Road in Northfield.

In 2005, the two longtime wedding planners bought the existing bridal shop business, which was in Linwood, outgrew the space in five years and moved to a larger location in 2010.

The business currently has three employees and is planning to hire more, Conklin said.

“From our customer service and mostly referrals is how we grew our business,” she said. “I would say the key is good customer service, making people feel beautiful and comfortable and giving them a good product. They feel really comfortable with us. We make it the most special day of their life, the wedding day is so important.”

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