As the U.S. Small Business Administration’s assistant administrator for women’s business ownership, Erin Andrew is the director of the SBA’s Office of Women’s Business...
Office of Women's Business Ownership
The Women’s Business Development Center in Chicago is, according to co-founder Carol Dougal, "a small organization that lives and works large." Founded by Dougal and Hedy Ratner in 1984, this center has helped thousands of women achieve success — but it also helped a number of SBA women’s business centers as well, back in the early days of the Women’s Business Center Program.
Dougal, Ratner and a part-time secretary started off in "a crunchy little office," says Dougal. "And if I remember correctly, we paid the rent spasmodically and we did not pay ourselves regularly either, so we had the same kind of start that most of our small businesses do." To leverage the few resources they had, they networked with other women’s organizations. They got volunteers to help with the counseling and training. Then as now, the primary issues were essentially the same: how to start a business and access to capital.
Sometime in their third year of operation, they found that there was no adequate way to certify a business as woman-owned. They contacted May Foster Thompson, who was doing certifications of minority-owned businesses; Thompson had her hands full. "But we don’t want to do it!" they said. "You have to do it," she told them. And they did, possibly the first organization in the country to formally do so. It would be the first of many trails they would blaze. "Each activity that we moved into," recalls Dougal, "was generally because there was a powerful need in the marketplace that was not met by anyone else, and we’d say to ourselves, ‘Oh no! Now we have to learn to do this!’"
It was about their fourth or fifth year, recalls Dougal, that they became involved with the Small Business Administration. Impressed with what Dougal and Ratner were doing, the SBA contracted with them to help some of the early women’s business centers, first in Illinois and later in Florida, Boston, Philadelphia and Ohio. Most are still going strong.
As the WBDC grew, so did its founders’ goals. "We wanted women to want to become rich and powerful!" says Dougal, and some did. "Some wanted merely to support themselves as best they could with some degree of control over their lives," something she finds is still true. "The reason [we wanted women to become] rich and powerful is that it creates jobs. Women tend to hire women. Women tend to provide opportunities for other women …"
By their sixth year, Ratner and Dougal realized that they needed a more formal approach to access to capital. To make local lenders sit up and take notice, they put together a collateral pool that women—who tend not to have much collateral—could use when applying for a loan. The pool consisted of money borrowed from Chicago Community Trust, and the Amoco and McArthur foundations. "There were over 30 loans that would not otherwise have occurred," a record of which the WBDC founders are proud. Eventually, the SBA introduced the Low Doc and the Microloan programs, and they were able to dissolve the collateral pool.
The center was in its ninth year when it finally applied for and got its own Women’s Business Center grant from the SBA. Two years later, it was licensed as an intermediary for the SBA Microloan Program, providing direct, small loans and follow-up technical assistance. "Technical assistance is what makes the difference between a person repaying and knowing what they’re doing. Just giving a loan to an earnest but inexperienced business owner does not always do her a favor," says Dougal. "You’ve got to help them; you’ve got to be with them."
Throughout almost its entire history, the WBDC has sponsored its annual Entrepreneurial Women’s Conference. Through careful planning and underwriting by sponsors, Ratner and Dougal are able to offer the conference at a very low cost to the participants. In its 15th year, they expect more than 2,500 participants — a hundred times the 25 that attended the first one — and more than 200 booths at this year’s conference. Formerly a one-day event, it will be three days long.
Now it its 16th year of operations, the WBDC has a budget of just over $2 million. About a third of that is government funding — city, county, state and federal. The center has grown dramatically, employing 26 people: Ratner and Dougal share the position of president. Mary Ann Angle and Linda Darragh are vice presidents, each covering specific functions. Mia Delano, LaVerne Hall, Carolyn Mcveigh, Deborah Minor-Bennett, Kristin Johnson, Sarah Shifrin and Virginia Uqdah manage programs and other functions. Jill Kaplan and Calton Clark are program assistants. Heather Parish is a business specialist; Sylvia Winn a business counselor. Kelly Smith is a finance specialist. Administrative assistants Patricia Blackburn, Jennifer Carpenter, Chase Clark, Ellenie Girma, Kenisha Kelly and Betty Person (also the receptionist), administrator and bookkeeper Janice Bailey, and executive assistant and office manager Tony Shepard keep things moving. Arlene Strong is this summer’s intern. In addition, the WBDC depends on some 350 volunteers to help run its programs, and train and counsel clients.
Dougal and Ratner credit the center’s success largely to their wonderful working relationship. They both credit a higher power as well. "Hedy and I work very well together," Dougal says. "We do disagree, but we disagree privately and we always come to consensus."
Asked what is unique about the WBDC, Dougal replies, "I would say that it is courage. We are not afraid to try things. We’re not afraid to admit to someone that we don’t know what we’re doing. We are not afraid to continually ask questions. You cannot succeed if you are afraid to fail — and we’ve had failures, but they were not enough to crush us." They are, in fact, embarking on a new venture, a direct-lending program, "again kicking and screaming" says Dougal, but they are doing it because there is such a need in the marketplace.