Educating entrepreneurs: Women's Business Center offers basics as well as individual counseling services

July 11, 2005

Joann Robinson was unhappy working in corporate America, so she started her own business, Balloons by Design, which delivers balloon bouquets and does on-site balloon decorations.

The Indianapolis woman had been in business for about a year when she sought assistance in January from the new Central Indiana Women's Business Center. Since then, with CIWBC help, Robinson has gone from having about 15 customers to about 50.

Robinson is one of many women who have benefited from the services offered by the CIWBC, which was officially launched in January. One goal of the center, which is funded by a grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, was to have 160 people go through its workshops by the end of the grant year in mid-September, and 462 people have already done so, said CIWBC Director Sharon O'Donoghue.

The CIWBC is a program of the Indianapolis Neighborhood Self-Employment Initiative, a not-forprofit that helps people start and grow businesses. The center offers business training classes and workshops, one-on-one business counseling and Internetbased instruction.

"Training has been our focal point, because when people come in and we do an assessment, we generally find out training is what's needed," O'Donoghue said. The center takes budding entrepreneurs through a process that covers: the business idea its market viability

understanding the product or service in the context of the existing marketplace

business development, focusing on sales strategy and marketing

The CIWBC helps clients test the viability of a business idea prior to the investment of startup costs. "What we really teach is fiscal responsibility, because if you get a loan, you don't want to be shut down in three months," O'Donoghue said.

Over 80 percent of the program's clients are women, and about 79 percent of those women are minorities, O'Donoghue said.

The CIWBC didn't exist when Robinson started Balloons by Design, so her initial training came from the Neighborhood Self-Employment Initiative.

When she started working with the CIWBC in January, she was having difficulty deciding which type of small-business loan she should get. O'Donoghue helped her narrow it down to one that fit her needs.

Robinson, 47, also needed help advertising her business. The CIWBC taught her about "non-retail-store opportunities," such as renting booth spaces in schools and shopping malls to market her business.

As her business has grown, she's sought advice on how to deal with that, since she's had to turn away some customers because her vehicle isn't big enough. O'Donoghue put her in touch with someone in the car business who is helping her get a van.

"She's been my mentor as well," Robin- son said of O'Donoghue. "I actually think everyone [at the center] is open to speaking with you at any time. I really recommend it for anyone looking to start a business."

Customized counseling

Sharon D. Wells was already a published author when she went to the CIWBC for help in growing her business, Inspirations to Inspire. She sells Christian-motivation Tshirts and apparel, and does custom orders for T-shirts, tote bags and the like. Wells, 47, also wrote a children's book, "God Made Us Special," about her grandson with osteogenesis imperfecta, or "brittle bone disorder."

Although her business is 3-1/2 years old, Wells took the center's Business Beginnings class, which teaches things such as how to do a cash-flow sheet and how to market a business. "It helped open my eyes to a lot things I had not done and things I needed to change," she said.

Wells also got some one-on-one counseling from O'Donoghue, who gave her pointers on how to do a workbook to go along with the children's book, and suggested a Christian day-care center Wells could approach with the books.

"I strongly recommend the program, not just to women but men as well," Wells said. "I can honestly say I gained a lot of knowledge and personal growth from going through the program."

Seeking solid footing

The CIWBC, which has 3-1/2 full-timeequivalent staff members, is working on getting a client database in place to be more efficient and effective, O'Donoghue said. It's also trying to create awareness among, and integrate itself with, local business and professional organizations for women.

The center's first goal is to become financially self-sustaining, since the SBA funding isn't intended to be permanent. Its second goal is to align itself with people who are returning to society from situations such as prison. "Sometimes self-employment is the best option for them," O'Donoghue said.

And finally, the CIWBC is planning to offer more in-depth services to business owners in the same industry. For example, if the state passes new regulations for day-care centers, the CIWBC can hold a forum where government officials explain to center operators how the new rules will affect them.
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