By Nina Polien Light | Photo by Gery Petrof
“I came to Cleveland in January 2015 to see what the climate would be like for a WBC,” Conrad, director of the Women’s Business Center of Northern Ohio, says. “The response to the idea was so overwhelming, we launched an office here in October 2015.”
Like the 110 WBCs across the country, including the Columbus location, the local office is funded by the Small Business Association and matched with local support, with the goal of leveling the playing field for women entrepreneurs. Ohio-based Economic and Community Development Institute, which was founded by a female immigrant who watched her father achieve the American dream, is the local group’s parent organization and serves as a microlender.
“WBC houses our training and coaching programs,” Carrie Rosenfelt, executive director of WBC of Northern Ohio and ECDI, says. “The idea is to move people through a continuum of our services. They usually want training, education, and coaching. As their business plan is buttoned up through the Women’s Business Center, they move to the ECDI side for microlending.”
Members are encouraged to take advantage of WBC’s many programs. Think-Tank-Thursday sessions feature local experts speaking about how to drive sales or marketing. A recent program covered how to deliver an effective presentation. “Networking is a huge component of Think-Tank Thursday,” Conrad, who runs WBC’s day-to-day operations and manages client services, says. “We always spend time at that venue doing introductions and a lot of business deals happen across the table there.”
Also popular are one-on-one coaching appointments specific to individual businesses, a four-week Small Enterprise Education Development series, Entrepreneurial Readiness workshops, and a quarterly book club. Members may also use WBC office space and conference rooms and take advantage of complimentary copying, printing, faxing, and scanning.
“What differentiates us is that we can provide access to capital,” Rosenfelt says, adding bankable women are always encouraged to explore that route first. “Although our training, coaching, and mentoring is amazing, without linkage to capital it’s hard to get a business off the ground. The SBA knows women face somewhat unique barriers in getting off the ground and growing their businesses, so this is a network to launch and grow those businesses.”
Women’s reasons for launching a business vary. Some find themselves at a crossroads in their lives, perhaps because of a divorce, being downsized from a job or simply longing for a more fulfilling career. “Their passion, drive, and desire for what they want to do is huge,” Conrad says. “Most women go into business for different reasons than men. They have a story and passion that drives what they want to do.”
Of course, much of that motivation stems from the fact that, in general, women do not have the same earning power as men. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, women in the Cleveland market take home 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. And while the number of female-owned firms increased 42 percent between 2007 and 2016, according to the 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, Ohio still lags behind the national average. Only 27 percent of businesses in the Buckeye State are owned by women, compared to 38 percent nationally.
Women who join the WBC understand the path to financial security starts with believing in themselves and reaching out to other like-minded women. “It’s really fascinating to see the women interact with each other,” Rosenfelt, whose WBC duties include fundraising, marketing, community outreach, and training, says. “That’s when the magic happens. They all have one thing in common—trying to start or grow a business.”
WBC dues are minimal. Membership stands at 292 and represents mostly women, although the organization serves men, as well. The demographics skew toward more mature women but range from college students at Cleveland State University to an 80-year-old. About a quarter of the members are involved in food-related businesses and enjoy the WBC’s proximity to the Cleveland Culinary Launch Kitchen. Others are starting or expanding ventures in biotechnology, social media, web development, web support, branding, retail, trucking, and other areas.
Part of the group’s mission is to build confidence and offer a support system. Conrad acknowledges that striking out on their own can be daunting for some women but insists it is achievable.
“Feel the fear and do it anyway,” she says. Starting a business “is a scary endeavor no matter who it is. It’s an opportunity to gain the world, but you’re risking everything to do it. So surround yourself with bright people and take advantage of the resources in the community, join WBC, and build your network around people who have the same passion as you do and who can help you get there.”
For more information: wbcohio.org