Just a month ago, the Connecticut Women’s Business Development Council (WBDC) cut the ribbon on its renovated Stamford headquarters, which includes a new financial education center aimed at women entrepreneurs.
This week, CEO Fran Pastore takes the organization’s curricula to Costa Rica as part of an initiative of the WBDC, the University of Connecticut and the U.S. State Department to foster financial awareness and business savvy abroad.
For Pastore and the WBDC it all comes down to evening the playing field — both at home and oversees — even as women-owned businesses add workers and grow revenue at a faster pace than most U.S. firms.
“One of the reasons why women look to entrepreneurship is because it represents a road to inclusion,” said Pastore, who serves on the National Women’s Business Council, a nonpartisan council that advises Congress, the president and the U.S. Small Business Administration on economic issues pertaining to women business owners, in addition to leading the Stamford-based WBDC.
Entrepreneurship, Pastore said, represents “a logical and reachable goal to help you level the playing field.”
In conjunction with a Jan. 23 visit to the WBDC’s Stamford offices, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he had tasked the state departments of Labor and of Economic and Community Development with studying factors that contribute to the gender wage gap and making recommendations to eliminate any inequality.
As Malloy and the Connecticut General Assembly launch into the biennial process of drafting the state’s budget, Pastore said one answer to the inequality issue is providing more resources for women-owned businesses.
“The revenues of women-owned businesses in Connecticut are outpacing those across the rest of the nation by about 11 percent,” Pastore said. “What I’m saying to our leadership is, ‘What resources are we putting toward helping women to grow businesses in our state?’ … I would think we want to focus initiatives for and about women, and I’d like to see more of that.”
A major area that has yet to be addressed is access to credit, Pastore said. Citing data collected by American Express OPEN, she said it takes women four times longer to obtain a business loan than it does for businesses owned by men.
“Cash flow is the number one issue” for women business owners WBDC works with, she said. “One of the challenges around cash flow is there is still discrimination…There is still bias against women.”
That, despite the fact that in Connecticut and nationally, women-owned businesses are growing at a faster rate than most any other business, according to a 2012 report commissioned by American Express OPEN and the National Women’s Business Council.
According to the report, “The growth in number (up 54 percent), employment (up 9 percent) and revenues (up 58 percent) of women-owned firms over the past 15 years exceeds the growth rates of all but the largest, publicly traded firms.”
Employment at women-owned businesses based in Connecticut grew 17.3 percent to 92,200 workers from 1997 to 2011, while revenues increased 66.4 percent, according to the report.
Pastore called for an emphasis on programs such as the state’s Small Business Express initiative — which provides loans and grants to Connecticut-based businesses not more than a year old that have fewer than 100 employees — that could be geared toward women-owned businesses.
She said the WBDC was able to nearly double the size of its Stamford office and hire six new employees with the help of a $239,000 Small Business Express loan and a matching $100,000 grant.
The expansion and addition of a financial clinic helps to address what Pastore described as a “changing clientele.”
“We started out being an organization that focused on low-to-moderate income women and minorities,” she said. “Sixteen years later … the organization has really changed to meet the needs of the community. More and more we are seeing women coming to us from all walks of life – from GEDs to PhDs.”
Pastore said the WBDC works with about 1,200 women each year and that about 90 percent of the nonprofit’s clients are micro-entrepreneurs, or business owners with five or fewer employees.
However, she said there has been a shift coming out of the recession, with more established business owners seeking out financial assistance and training from the WBDC.
“Women business owners who are established have become a major part of our constituency. And we are responding to that … We think of ourselves as a post-secondary training organization for women.”