Feds OK women’s biz centers: Program wins affiliation with SBA; details on set up, funding to come

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After a 19-year run as a pilot program, a national initiative aimed at helping women start businesses finally has earned a seal of approval from the federal government.

As an official U.S. Small Business Administration program, the Women’s Business Center concept gains the stability that supporters had been seeking for nearly two decades.

And that’s good news for women like Krista Bermeo, an Indianapolis artist who makes melted glass jewelry in her namesake Fountain Square studio. Bermeo sought help from the Central Indiana Women’s Business Center in 2005 and still has regular contact with her business counselor there.

“I just loved them immediately. They were so empowering,” said Bermeo, who quit her job in pharmaceutical research to start the business. “They were the first organization to really listen to me.”

The local center is one of 99 nationwide that provide business-plan coaching, workshops and counseling to would-be entrepreneurs. Although intended to address the needs of female small-business owners, the services also are available to men.

Local organizations apply to the U.S. Small Business Administration to get funding for Women’s Business Center programs. In Indianapolis, Neighborhood Self-Employment Initiative took up the charge in 2004 because the effort matched its existing mission: helping to get very small businesses off the ground. NSI already worked with economically disadvantaged clients, including many women.

Pilot no more

The program was considered temporary-until this spring, when research showed that Women’s Business Centers nationwide returned $15 in business revenue for every $1 dollar invested. Federal lawmakers made the program a permanent part of the U.S. Small Business Administration in May.

“This step forward puts the centers in a stronger position to be a real partner at the local level in helping women entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses,” said Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a member of the Senate Small Business Committee.

The change puts the program on par with other SBA efforts, such as SCORE and the Small Business Development Centers. SCORE-which used to stand for Service Corps. of Retired Executives-offers business coaching from, well, retired executives. In Indiana, the Small Business Development Centers help advise small businesses with an eye toward those with high-growth potential.

“In our dealings with the SBA, we have often been treated as a stepchild because of our ‘demonstration project’ status,” said Ann Marie Almeida, CEO of the Association of Women’s Business Centers in testimony to Congress. “With the passage of the legislation in May, we finally feel recognized for the hard work … over the past 19 years.”

Locally, the change brought a cheer.

“It gives us legitimacy,” echoed Sharon O’Donoghue, director of the Central Indiana Women’s Business Center and interim executive director of NSI. “People know now that our programs are here to stay.”

But now comes the hard work of deciding how many centers should exist, how to set up oversight and how to divvy up funding, which will be set by the appropriation bills that Congress is debating. Draft rules are due Jan. 20.

Local expansion?

In the meantime, the local center is reviewing plans to see if the two Indiana WBCs-one based in Indianapolis and the other in Fort Wayne-should pursue growing into a statewide network. It already has come a long way.

NSI started in 1997 to help disadvantaged people in Marion County start micro-enterprises. It advised a range of clients, from those starting side businesses to boost household income to those seeking full-time endeavors. By 2004, it had one employee, 100 clients and a $65,000 annual budget.

That fall, the Indianapolis not-for-profit won a five-year federal designation as a Women’s Business Center, funding the program through 2009. It has received top-tier funding of $150,000 per year ever since.

The designation made NSI the home of the women’s business program for 10 central Indiana counties. While NSI maintained its previous training-one 20-hour “Business Beginnings” class it offered six times a year-the WBC funding meant it could roll out new courses. New programs included counseling for existing businesses and career-specific courses in child and elder care.

With the money, NSI grew exponentially. It now has a $475,000 budget, six fulltime staff positions and offers an array of seminars that served 1,100 people in 2006. Another 700 clients-with some overlap-received business counseling last year.

“Today we’re this integrated, multifaceted, holistic program,” O’Donoghue said.

Despite the growth, the core of NSI’s client base hasn’t changed, even with the WBC designation. Before the federal grant, NSI’s clients were predominantly women and minorities from Marion County. Now about a quarter of its clients come from other counties, but the demographics remain the same.

Clients rave

Many clients of the local WBC said they’re excited the program is around to stay because it was the first place they found the kind of help they needed. Existing counseling like SCORE and the SBDC wasn’t always a good fit for the smallest of small-business owners, who sometimes felt their ideas weren’t big enough or polished enough to merit attention.

Until they found the Women’s Business Center.

Arnita Williams in May launched Avodah Business Communications Inc., which writes business plans and grant applications for clients. Williams had the idea and the skills for years but got the courage to start the business through NSI/WBC seminars.

“The fear of beginning stifled me,” she said. “[The class] gave me the extra push to get started,” she said. “They took me seriously.”

Lynn Jenkins took several classes before launching her bimonthly magazine, Indiana Living Green, this spring. She already knew a lot, but the classes were “very helpful in laying out what I should be doing step by step.”

Leslie Turner polished her business plan in the classes before starting Indianapolis-based modeling agency LModelz LLC in 2005.

“If you’re creative like me, you get caught up into just being creative,” she said.

Turner likes that NSI checks in monthly via a newsletter to let her know there are more classes available. She recently provided a model for a photo shoot for People magazine, a highlight trumpeted in the NSI newsletter.

“It reminds you that they’re there if you need them,” she said.

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