Gloria Bohan got interested in the travel industry on the first anniversary of her wedding. While on a cruise ship, the same one she and her husband had taken on their honeymoon, she noticed the service wasn't as spectacular as it had been the year before.

"As a bride, they treated me really well," she said.

Inquiring about the policies, she got to know a few travel specialists and became interested in opening an agency of her own.

That was 18 years ago. Bohan turned her dream into Omega World Travel Inc., thanks in part to some money she had saved and a small loan from her father.

"I was never thinking it would be that big a move for me," said Bohan, a school teacher at the time of her decision. "I was just fascinated by the business and the opportunities it offered, to be creative, to learn a lot."

While money was not her primary reason for going into business, today Omega Travel boasts revenue of $250 million annually, the highest of any woman-owned business in the Washington area, according to surveys of area businesses.

Bohan's success is being replayed in different versions all over the country. The number of women-owned firms grew by 57 percent from 1982 to 1987, according to Census Department figures released last week. And while Omega Travel's revenue and its 500-person payroll make it larger than most women-owned companies -- 85 percent are sole proprietorships with no employees -- it is a service company, the largest industry group for women business owners.

Like Bohan, many women start companies for reasons other than money.

"I get very consistent messages from around the country," said Lindsay Johnson, the director of the Office of Women's Business Ownership at the Small Business Administration. Johnson sees women going into business in pursuit of greater independence, flexibility and the chance to make a difference.

"What spurred {many women} into business was the whole idea that, by owning their own business, they had a certain level of control over their lives more than they had before," Johnson said. "That always gives me a giggle because the last thing in the world a small business provides you with is flexibility. You can't plan anything else."

Ilene Morris, president of the local chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), said she started her financial analyst firm to create a work environment and a business ethic that met her personal standards.

"I never wanted to start my own company," she said. But she found her employer's "values were not something I could live with," she said. "I was looking for an atmosphere that I couldn't find anywhere else. The philosophy at the firm I was at before was: How can I make money for myself and then I'll worry about the clients later."

Whatever their motivations, the numbers show that women are finding ways to become business owners. In Washington, they're doing it faster than in other places. The Census Department ranked the Washington area fourth in the nation in the number of women-owned businesses. Traditionally, women have had an easier time starting businesses here because the federal government buys so many services. In addition, women get help from federal programs established to help women and minority-owned firms.

Once in business though, many women are not necessarily having an easy time there. Despite efforts by the financial industry to eliminate lending discrimination against women, problems still exist, Johnson said.

"The most important thing is that the numbers still reflect problems of access to credit," Johnson said.

The SBA identified women-owned businesses as the fastest growing sector of the economy and set up the office Johnson heads to help women find access to loans, information and networks.

And Morris said that, through organizations such as NAWBO and the Network of Entrepreneurial Women, women in business are learning how to use each other as resources -- both for help over hurdles and for business referrals.

Morris predicted the number of women-owned firms will grow even faster in the coming decade -- even if a recession is in store.

"We're going to see a large percentage increase because we're in a recession and all the companies are laying off," Morris said. "So women are going to be starting businesses as a way to go on."

But a tough economy will make keeping these businesses going all the more difficult.

The small consulting, advertising and public relations firms that make up the bulk of women-owned firms will be among the first companies to feel the pinch as their customers move to cut their own expenses. And service companies, especially in Washington's competitive market, have narrow profit margins anyway.

But Morris isn't worried: "While things were good we didn't have access," she said. "So now things are bad and we're used to doing things on our own anyway."