Women cite education, STEM as drivers of progress
A panel of eight women business leaders and entrepreneurs in Fairfield and Westchester counties shared the hardships and joys of achieving success recently in Rye, N.Y.
Among the messages was out with the dolls and in with the moon launch for young girls.
The Women with Drive luncheon hosted by Westfair Communications and the Fairfield County Business Journal — privately held and woman-owned — offered hundreds of women opportunities to network and ask questions on topics ranging from social media as a marketing tool to managing stress. The event, held at the historic Wainwright House on Stuyvesant Avenue, was sponsored by Mercedes-Benz of Greenwich and White Plains (N.Y.) Hospital.
Connecticut-based panelists included Fran Pastore, founder, president and CEO of the Connecticut Women’s Business Development Council; Catherine Cleare, an interior designer based in Greenwich; Phyllis W. Haynes, founder and president of Southern Relishes, who launched her business from her West Haven home; and Veronique Lee, co-owner of ATELIER360, a sustainable goods shop in Greenwich.
The event began with moderator Elizabeth Bracken-Thompson, principal in Westchester County, N.Y., public relations firm Thompson & Bender, sharing U.S. Census data that illuminate improvements made in employment statistics and annual revenue for women-owned businesses.
Women-owned businesses employ 7.7 million people, which is 40 percent more than three of the nation’s largest employers — McDonald’s, IBM and Walmart — combined, Bracken-Thompson said. Women-owned businesses generate revenues of $1.3 trillion, and over the past 15 years, they have seen a 58 percent increase in revenue, she added.
The gradual rise in revenue is attributed to a bill called the Women’s Business Ownership Act of 1988, Pastore said. The passage of this bill was the impetus for the Fair Credit Act, which allowed women to access capital for commercial purposes without having a male co-signer.
The bill also mandated that the U.S. Census Bureau start gathering and reporting data on women-owned businesses and established the National Women’s Business Council. Pastore serves on the national council. While there, she has seen the number of federal contracts granted to women-owned businesses increase, but it still falls short of the 5-percent mark.
“For about 21 years, there has been an unwritten law that women should receive 5 percent of all government contracts,” Pastore said. “President Clinton put in place a 5-percent rule that has never been met.”
But through the women-owned Small Businesses Administration procurement program, women have received more government contracts over the past two decades, and researchers have been holding the federal government accountable by keeping track of recorded statistics.
The event shifted to a question-and-answer session where Fairfield County women were asked to share about the best piece of advice anyone gave them before they started a business and personal business philosophies that are attributed to the owners’ success.
Cleare, who is in the luxury residential design industry, said the best piece of advice she got before starting her business is to keep educating herself.
“The generation I come from, very often I’d hear people say, ‘I’m not going to do this, this and this unless my boss pays for it,’” Cleare said. “There was this idea that somehow it was somebody else’s responsibility to educate yourself. What I figured out early on was you have to keep educating yourself because change happens whether or not you like it or invite it.”
Lee, who specializes in artisan and sustainable fashion, said her business philosophy is shaped by four socially responsible pillars: making sure products are handmade by artisans; are organic; are made of repurposed material; and are made in the U.S.
“We have designers who are coming up with innovative fabric made out of recycled coffee grounds or plastic,” Lee said.
The event ended with questions from the audience about how to get past the gender barrier women entrepreneurs face as they access capital to fund their businesses.
“There are unlimited examples of two people with different genders going in before a group of venture capitalists and the one that looks like the one at the other end of the table is the one that gets funding despite the fact that they have identical business plans, Pastore said.
She then asked the rhetorical question, “What can we do?”
“We get more women — our daughters, our nieces, our granddaughters, or friends’ daughters — into the field of STEM,” Pastore said, referencing the science, technology, engineering and math acronym. “When we encourage young women to go into the field of economics and finance and technology and engineering, they are then going to have a seat at the table.”
She added that it’s not about replacing someone who is sitting at the table. It’s about “making room at the table.”
“It starts at the very beginning stages when we buy Legos for boys and Barbies for girls,” Pastore said. “We need to buy Erector Sets for girls and Barbies for boys.”