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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    Where women entrepreneurs grow their business

    Susan Hackett, left, program coordinator, and client Nikole Dagrosa, owner of Jake’s Diner in New London, on a Zoom call with a Women’s Business Development business advisor Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, regarding the WBDC/New New London Small Business Municipal Grant, for up to $10,000, while at the WBDC office in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Linda Fecteau, childcare business program coordinator, works at her desk Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, at Women’s Business Development Council in New London. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    Visitors walk around the new offices of the Women's Business Development Council during an open house and reception for the New London/WBDC Small Business Grant Program on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A podcasting space shown on Oct. 11, 2023, is available for clients at the Women’s Business Center on Bank Street in New London. (Lee Howard/The Day)
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    Many women go into business because of a skill or passion they want to explore, said Brenda Thickett, chief operating officer of the statewide Women’s Business Development Council, which has offices in New London, New Haven and Stamford.

    In New London, at its 3,000-square-foot Women’s Business Center offices on Bank Street where Liberty Bank once was located, the WBDC (wbdc.org) offers several services for women and men, though about 95% of its clients are female. Services, many of them free, include one-on-one business advising, networking, business-related online classes and grant programs. The office has a podcasting area in the former bank vault and a conference space with a screen to access online conferencing services.

    “Most people go into business because they love making candles or being a therapist,” Thickett said in a Zoom interview last month. “Most people don’t go into business because they love the business side. We focus on thinking about the business side.”

    It seems hard to believe now, but only 35 years ago it was nearly impossible for women to secure business loans for a commercial enterprise without having a male relative co-sign. But in October 1988, H.R. 50/50, a federal law, gave women the right to go into business by themselves, and they have opened hundreds of new enterprises locally ever since. In fact, nationwide statistics show that women own 42% of all U.S. businesses, generating 9.4 million jobs and $1.9 trillion in revenue.

    The WBDC, established in 1997 as a nonprofit providing financial education and entrepreneurial service, has worked with more than 15,000 clients since it opened, leading to the opening or expansion of more than 12,500 businesses, according to its website. Two satellite centers are opening this year in Torrington and Waterbury.

    The first Women’s Business Center In New London opened on State Street in 2018, and last year about 500 clients received services at its new expanded offices at 61 Bank St., said Thickett, and six were awarded grants totaling more than $52,000 in one program alone.

    A New London grant program offers up to $10,000 to women-owned businesses in the city, and has already given 26 grants totaling almost $24,000, according to JoAnn Gulbin, marketing and communications director for WBDC. Grants go to projects that will have a significant impact on business growth, she added.

    Hope Lee, owner of the New London salon Lashes by Lee that includes the Crisp Serenity candle bar owned by Leslie Manrique-Rivera, said she recently won a $10,000 grant from the WBDC to grow the education portion of her business starting next year. She said in an email that WBDC also has helped her business with training, mentorship, networking, resources, counseling, market research and policy support.

    “I have faced limited access to funding, gender bias when dealing with contractors, networking challenges, work-life balance, market access difficulties, mentorship gaps, confidence issues, and legal hurdles,” Lee said. “These obstacles highlight the need for targeted support and initiatives to empower women entrepreneurs and level the playing field. The WBDC helps you navigate through these issues and connects you with the right people, bridging the gap.”

    Shellena Pitterson, owner of Orchid Maids in Norwich, which has received grant funding from WBDC, said she doesn’t see being a woman as an obstacle to doing business today.

    “In fact, it’s a blessing. Because of my status, I am able to benefit from the programs out there to assist women in business and in turn support to my community,” she said in an email.

    From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays at the Women’s Business Center, the offices are open as a co-working space where entrepreneurs can tweak their business plans while having experts near at hand to proffer advice. The center also offers Coffee & Conversation networking events on at least a quarterly basis where women entrepreneurs can share stories and get to know one another.

    “The best advice I have received and shared is to be confident, persistent and proactive,” Lee said. “Embrace challenges as opportunities for growth and never underestimate your worth or abilities.”

    “If you have a dream or an idea, go for it,” added Pitterson.

    Women have other options to get business advice and receive mentoring, such as the local SCORE group that offers free coaching services, or the 140-member Southeastern Connecticut Women’s Network that started in the 1970s, when professional women were excluded from male-oriented clubs.

    But Thickett said the WBDC offers many services under one roof, all geared toward female entrepreneurs in a supportive, nonjudgmental environment.

    “We have people with different areas of expertise,” Thickett said.

    Many businesses start as a basic idea without any concrete scheme of how to carry it forward, Thickett said, so meeting with experienced entrepreneurs can help jump-start the process of developing a solid plan. The Women’s Business Center also offers a wide range of classes covering everything from marketing to bookkeeping to accessing capital to business planning.

    “I’ve taken many online workshops with WBDC including marketing, branding, QuickBooks and more,” Trish Reyburn, owner of Blissworks yoga studio on State Street in New London, said in an email. “And I’ve taken advantage of their professional counseling with experts in their field including social media, financials, and business coaching.”

    Thickett said the WBDC can help businesses at any stage of development, but most of the entrepreneurs seen locally tend to be small, often one-person operations. More than four-fifths of the businesses the WBDC meets with statewide are already up and running, with the rest in earlier stages of development.

    “The best business advice I have received is stay true to my vision of Blissworks and make sure each decision I make is in support of that vision,” Reyburn said. “It’s been helpful to keep me on the right course.”

    To help all the businesses it supports, the center offers several different grant programs, including an equity match grant for owners who have a specific proposal in mind to expand their business.

    “We won’t fund operational costs,” Thickett said. “They’ll have to explain what the investment is and how they will use the funding to grow their business.”

    This year, Blissworks received a grant through the City of New London and WBDC, which has helped with a re-branding effort as the studio’s mission evolved into a holistic health center.

    Some of the recent funding is related to COVID-19, particularly a program to encourage more women to open childcare businesses. Thickett said $5 million of the more than $7 million handed out in grants so far statewide has gone to businesses related to childcare, entities that often have a hard time accessing outside capital.

    Women, she added, have a particularly difficult time managing all the nuts and bolts involved in running a business, because they are also often the primary caretakers of children. Many women feel they have to run their business around their children’s schedules: One in three female business owners are also mothers.

    “The three biggest obstacles I have faced as a women-owned business owner is confidence, time management and finances,” said Amy Moncy, owner of the speech and language service Talk and Play LLC in New London, which has received both funding and advice from the Women’s Business Center. “The WBDC provides a welcoming and supportive environment to ask questions, share vulnerabilities and build on your strengths as well as identify your weaknesses.”

    Thickett said women need encouragement to emerge as leaders, a key to being a good entrepreneur.

    “The biggest obstacle I’ve faced as a woman-owned business is actually facing up to my social conditioning as a woman to stay behind the scenes rather than in the lead,” agreed Reyburn of Blissworks. “I continue to work through that by speaking my truth and giving honest feedback to my staff members.”

    “It’s always overwhelming,” Thickett said. “It’s easy to burn out as an entrepreneur because you have to do everything. So you have to learn to delegate and outsource to focus on the important part of the business.”

    WBDC in New London is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday. Statewide, the organization claims to have helped develop more than 29,000 jobs for the state’s economy, and locally the business center now accounts for 20% of all WBDC activity in Connecticut, up from 13% just four years ago.

    “Don't be afraid to seek mentorship and support, network effectively, and continuously educate yourself in your industry,” Lee, the New London salon owner, said. “Also know when to let go of some of the workload and hire the expert in that particular field to do that job, so you can focus on what you’re in business to do.”

    “WBDC has been such a great support for my business,” said Reyburn. “Even though Blissworks is going on 20 years in New London, I’m still learning how to better run an efficient business.”


    Women’s Business Development Council Grant Programs

    Equity Match Grant Program offers grants of up to $10,000 to qualified women-owned small businesses in Connecticut for a clearly defined project that will have a measurable impact on the business, its growth, and profitability.

    WBDC Child Care Business Opportunity Fund offers grants to childcare businesses and their employees through three types of grants.

    Start-Up Grant Program offers up to $5,000 for family homes, $10,000 for group homes, and $25,000 for centers to be used for start-up and operating expenses.

    Expansion Grant Program offers up to $25,000 to create additional childcare slots, maximize enrollments and/or create new revenue streams.

    Emergency Facilities Grant Program offers up to $25,000 for urgent facilities projects to remain open and safe.

    New London/WBDC Small Business Grant Program offers grants of up to $10,000 to qualified small businesses located in New London.

    SOURCE: WBDC website

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