Diane Peel of the 99 Gallery, left, and at right, Alice Kitchel of Business and Professional Women
Aspire Luncheon Inspires Women to “Change the Story”
By JEANNE DICKINSON Special to ASPIRE! [ with media added]
Newport, VT—The Eastside Restaurant on Wednesday, November 30th, was the scene of a lively exchange of data, fresh ideas, and good food as veteran businesswomen and entrepreneurial wannabes came together to consider the current situation of women owned enterprises in VT and the potential for growth in that sector. Organized by the newly appointed project director, Diana Mara Henry, the Aspire program received a $92,000 grant from the USDA to help women needing a leg up to either create or expand a business idea.
Guest speakers described the importance of women owned businesses in the Vermont economy and the need for such a program to help more women take the leap into entrepreneurship. The Aspire program was hatched to help fill that need.
Joe Patrissi, director of NEKCA, and Diana Mara Henry, an early photojournalist of the women’s movement, traced the roots of the program. Joe’s mother was an inspiration to him of the power and acumen that women possess to be successful in the business world. Diana’s entire life has been dedicated to promoting the equality of women. The idea for the Aspire program was conceived and John Perry wrote the grant.
Jenny Nelson, who worked for Bernie for 18 years and married a farmer, has demonstrated that women can be successful in business ventures, even while putting family first.
Meg Smith, director of the Vermont Women’s Fund, started out at Gardner’s Supply. The Women’s Fund was founded 22 years ago, in 1994, to support women and girls around the state, “with a special focus on the economic and social well-being of young women and girls, ages 15-25.” The Women’s Fund has granted over $1.7 million in seed money for pilot programs and funding for established organizations. In collaboration with the Vermont Commission on Women and Vermont Works for Women, “Change the Story VT” was launched as a multi-year plan involving business, government, and education to improve women’s economic well-being.
Tiffany Bluemle of Change the Story, keynote speaker, painted a picture of the current place women’s businesses hold in the Vermont economy. Her data came from a report developed by “Change the Story VT,” that itself was based on information from the 2012 U.S. Census Survey of Business Owners and released in 2016. Vermont Works for Women started out supporting non-traditional professions and prison populations.
Some of the conclusions in the report follow.
Women own 1/3 of all privately held firms, generating $2.2 billion dollars annually, and supply 36,326 full-and part-time jobs. The 7.25% of working age women owning a business as their primary occupation is almost twice the national average of 3.9%. They employ 12% of the workers in such firms, but only generate 9% of all privately owned business revenues.
Of women working full-time, 43% can’t meet their basic needs. Five times more female-headed households live in poverty than married couples.
82% of women’s businesses earn less than $80,000 annually, compared to 60% of men’s businesses. Male-owned businesses are twice as likely to have employees than female-owned businesses.
The rate of growth of female-owned businesses vs. male-owned businesses in VT was 12% below the U.S. rate, but growth in money generated from such companies was 10% greater than the national average between 2007 and 2012, at 29%. Revenues from such companies were 51% higher nationally, however, than in VT. All told, the average annual revenue from female-owned businesses compared to male-owned businesses in VT was $.19 to every dollar!
Why the disparity? Theories abound. Women may be more conservative in risk taking concerning borrowing. They may have more limited access to capital and government contracts. There could be a lack of child or elder care in their families. Fewer female role models exist to pave the way.
One of the most interesting results of the report was that women-owned businesses are underrepresented in nine of the ten highest grossing sectors: wholesale trade, manufacturing, retail trade, information, accommodation and food services, transportation and warehousing, finance and insurance, construction, and professional, scientific, and technical services. Only in health care and social assistance do they garner 69% of that market. But, even there, the revenue gap for female-owned businesses is $60,553 annually on average vs. $488,459 for male-owned businesses. Women own 53% of companies offering educational services, but earn on average $24,900 annually vs. $40,347 for men’s businesses.
If women chose business ownership at the same rate as men, 10,500 new businesses would be added to the VT economy. If 1 in 4 of the 20,786 women-owned businesses without an employee hired one person, 5,200 new jobs would be added.
Tiffany said that the questions that women need to be asked are: “What do you want to do?” and “What do you need?” Advisors and support was the recommendation.
Jane Campbell, executive director of the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, talked about how the 760+ businesses in her organization strive to operate in a responsible manner for the people, the planet, and for profit. They sponsor 10-12 networking and educational opportunities a year. They’re involved with “Local First Vermont,” which promotes buying from locally owned independent businesses. They partner with the “Vermont Intern Program” which gives students and recent graduates paid internships in an effort to keep our young people in VT. Teaming with “B Lab,” members can measure their socially responsible business practices against thousands of other businesses by free access to the “B Impact Assessment.” Participants in Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility can access additional resources offered by other members and offer their own as well.
Additionally, VBSR tries to influence public policy. They’ve been instrumental in promoting paid sick leave of up to three days a year, raising the minimum wage, marriage equality, GMO labeling legislation, creation of the Sustainable Jobs fund, net metering establishment/expansion, Farm to Plate legislation, the establishment of Efficiency Vermont, and support of the Working Lands Initiative, among other things. Currently they are working on “Ban the Box”–which asks about previous incarceration on job applications, improved childcare, and the status of individual contractor vs. employee.
Amy Robinson, from the Micro Business Development Program at NEKCA, was the next speaker. Since 1998 they have helped low and moderate income Vermonters launch or expand over 1,600 micro businesses (which employ fewer than five people and generate less than $250,000 in annual revenue) and access over $12 million in financing for their businesses. They offer training, technical assistance, and support networks to start a business, including feasibility assessments, market research and analysis, business plan development, and loan application assistance.
The Aspire Program luncheon was an informational session about the status of women-owned businesses in Vermont, existing supports, and the process for procuring an award through Aspire. Interested applicants are encouraged to submit a one-page description of their business idea along with their resume. Ten grants of $2,000 each will be given to those successfully picked. These aspirants will then be provided with a circle of support involving two to three volunteer businesswomen, who will meet with them weekly for an hour for three months, providing technical assistance and consulting. This could include the development of a business plan, marketing strategy, web design, etc. The deadline for this first level of awards will be about the middle of February. Contact Diana Mara Henry at 802-334-7054 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with a proposal.
The second level of grants will be for $5,000. Applicants will need to have a business plan and be prepared to pitch their idea to a panel of judges.
This is a great opportunity for women who have been thinking of starting their own business and perhaps are daunted by the steps involved. Through Aspire they can approach the idea gradually, with lots of support. It is also an opportunity for experienced businesswomen to offer their expertise through volunteer mentoring and the judging of applications.
Attendees came from diverse backgrounds. Eleanor Leger of Eden Specialty Ciders was on hand. Tanya Sousa, writer and publisher, offered writing workshops, book club presentations, readings and story telling. Carol Westinghouse, of Informed Green Solutions of East Burke, formerly worked with industry administering OSHA programs in VT. Now she promotes clean indoor air quality through informed purchasing decisions for cleaning products and building materials to minimize off-gassing, exposure to carcinogens, etc. She is available for grant writing and consulting. Vermont Salt Caves, out of Montgomery Center, offers an opportunity to de-stress in an underground salt cave with salt lamp illumination, zero-gravity chairs, and “an atmosphere charged with negative ions.” Salt Cave Halotherapy can treat respiratory issues, skin conditions, and depression according to her handout. Linda Beaumier of Brownington was promoting her sewing skills. Sandra Synder’s business card (Westfield) mentioned nutrition education, home use planning, Reiki, and Huna practice. Numerous other women were equally enthusiastic about their business ideas.
Hats off to Diana Mara Henry for allowing these women an opportunity to network, the Passumpsic bank for helping to host the event, the East Side Restaurant for a delicious lunch, and all the others who helped promote the importance of Vermont business women in Vermont’s economy.