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WBC Offers Services and Resources to Women Business Owners

Welcome to the first in a series of articles on our women's business centers. Each month, we will highlight one of our centers, introduce you to some of the people who work there, and tell you about the wonderful work these centers are doing.

First, a little history, based on an article by Lavan Alexander, district director of the SBA's Dallas-Fort Worth District Office.

It's a little-known fact that the SBA was actually started by three Texans. The agency was the brainchild of Congressman John William Wright Patman, a popular representative from Texarkana (re-elected 23 times, serving from 1929 to his death in 1976). Patman chaired the Select Committee on Small Business and was a member of the Committee on Banking and Currency. He was concerned with the difficulty small businesses reportedly had getting loans. Between 1951 and 1952, he came up with a plan for an agency that would help small businesses - and make sure they would be viable for defense-related production (remember, this was just after WWII and during the Korean conflict).

Congressman Patman wrote his plan up and presented it to Sam Rayburn, an even more popular representative from Bonham, Texas (first elected in 1912 and re-elected 24 times), during one of his 10 running terms as Speaker of the House (still a record). Rayburn saw the value in the proposal and pushed the bill through the 82nd Congress in 1953.

That same year, President Dwight Eisenhower, a strong proponent of small business people, signed the legislation that established the U.S. Small Business Administration on a trial basis (the SBA became permanent in 1958). It may surprise you to know that, although he was raised in Abilene, Kansas, Ike was born in Denison, Texas.

So it seems fitting that we should begin in Texas to introduce you to our WBCs, beginning with the Fort Worth Women's Business Center.

If you want to know how to do a lot with next to nothing, ask Catherine Simpson, director of the Ft. Worth Women's Business Center. She's the only full-time member of the staff-but she's been blessed with a staff of three hard-working and devoted part-time employees plus an amazing number of volunteers, all of whom love working at the center.

All told, Catherine's "staff" numbers about 150 people. Her paid staff includes Debi Jones, Gloria Martinez and Jackie Eubanks. Debi does the newsletter and handles the accounts, reports, registration for the annual Expo, ad development and all computer classes. Gloria serves as receptionist and clerical support, while taking care of the WBC files and managing meeting and Expo exhibit arrangements. Jackie is in charge of the mentoring program, Workforce Commission and area library workshops, as well as the Texas Rehab Commission and Commission for the Blind Counseling Program, plus the seminars for the Expo. The rest of the "staff" are dedicated volunteers.

The Fort Worth Women's Business Center is part of the Fort Worth Business Assistance Center, a non-profit funded and supported by many agencies. The BAC was established in February 1995 to make a broad range of business support services available in one convenient location. It includes an SBA office and several SBA resource partners, including SCORE, a small business development center and business information center, as well as the Fort Worth Economic Development Corporation, the William Mann Community Development Corporation, and several more.

Running the women's business center is really more than a full-time job, and Catherine has little or no time for extra-curricular activities. But this is her passion, and she willingly dedicates her life to running the center and maintaining the level of respect and rapport it has earned throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Her hard work has helped win strong community support for the center. One of the most recent and largest donations is a brand new home, a gift of the city of Fort Worth. The building is a historic landmark, the Guinn School, one of the last African American schools to close during desegregation. Although unused for a number of years, the framework of the building was still in excellent condition, so only renovation was necessary. Because of the building's history, Catherine decided to retain certain features, such as the lockers in the hallway. To help furnish the center's new location, the WBC will "sell" the lockers for $100 apiece. Investors will have their names printed on "their" lockers.

The Guinn School Small Business Assistance Center will soon house 14 or more partners committed to support small businesses. The WBC will move in on March 30. The grand opening celebration is scheduled for June 19, a big community event with the mayor, city council, senators and members of Congress, along with many of center clients.

The Fort Worth WBC's primary community is the Dallas/Fort Worth "metroplex," but the center reaches out as far as Waco, Texarkana - from which hailed a quarter of those attending Entrepreneurial Expo 2001 - and even Oklahoma. Through its Web site, the center reaches out to people all over the state.

Catherine attends many local business events and also visits rural areas. Being a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners and the Women's Business Council helps her reach a lot of women in different areas. She stays on top of the many activities going on throughout the metroplex and posts event information in the monthly BAC newsletter.

The Fort Worth WBC provides free one-on-one counseling, seminars and workshops, a topical "picnic lunch" series, a computer lab with Internet access, and the annual Entrepreneur Expo. There are two mentoring programs - one for less experienced entrepreneurs and one for those who have been in business for over 10 years. Classes cover computers, government contracting, dealing with the Internal Revenue Service, FastTrac and more. The most recent additions are classes in finance, teaching clients how to prepare their cash-flow projections and finance their businesses. The WBC also collaborates on events and seminars with other agencies and organizations.

Catherine feels that her center's best program is Project NEW (Network to Empower Entrepreneurial Women). Developed by the Kauffman Foundation, it was given to the center after its participation in the pilot. Project NEW is a 10-week course that teaches, "A to Z," how to start a small business. Clients graduate with a business plan.

The Fort Worth WBC has a great working relationship with the SBA district office. "We're the collaborative queens," laughs Simpson. "The SBA staff is as much a part of the center as we are." Lavan Alexander, the SBA district director, is the keynote speaker at Project NEW graduations and admits he cries each time - and the ladies love him. "Project NEW," he says, "is definitely one of the center's most unique and interesting programs and their graduation is something to behold."

In addition to the SBA, the Ft. Worth WBC has numerous other resource partners, as well as an advisory council of almost 30 women - mostly business owners, high-powered loan officers, or buyers for large corporations. To facilitate better lending opportunities, the center hosts "receptions" for bank loan officers. Held on a regular basis, these meetings are set up like roundtable discussions to ascertain what type of loans each bank does or doesn't do, whether it works with the SBA, and what loan officers want from center clients. Catherine then incorporates that into an outline of a business plan. The center has found these meeting to be very helpful in finding the best loan resources for their clients.

Local banks and chambers of commerce refer clients to the center. It also draws clients through the media; the WBC is featured in the press about twice a month. Local reporters all know Catherine; they all have her cell-phone and home phone numbers. And they use them. "Sometimes," she says, "they'll be working on some off-the-wall story and they'll contact me to ask if the center has a client that can relate to that particular topic. Just a few weeks ago, Channel 11 was doing a story on women-owned small businesses. They contacted me and came out an hour later to shoot a piece with me and the center!"

Catherine volunteers to do shows like that all the time. She admits that sometimes it drives her crazy because "I have to jump for them to get them what they need. But it's worth it because, they don't have to search, they're thrilled, they get their story, and the center gets publicity."

It's that kind of dedication and enthusiasm that has made the Fort Worth Women's Business Center a magnet to women entrepreneurs throughout the region and a star deep in the heart of Texas.