Michelle Richards

(WOMENSENEWS)–Arlene Watkins wishes she’d had a mentor when she and her husband started their home-based computer business 10 years ago. But she couldn’t be happier to have the support of the Kansas Women’s Business Center to guide her now.

“It’s helped us move from an attitude of ‘let’s support a family’ to ‘let’s grow a business,'” says Watkins, president and chief executive officer of Heritage Computer Consulting and Services, Inc.

Watkins isn’t alone. The Small Business Administration estimates that there are currently 9.1 million women-owned businesses in the United States employing 27.5 million people and contributing $3.6 trillion to the economy. And much of this growth has been assisted during the past 15 years by female entrepreneurs like Watkins taking advantage of a variety of services offered by women’s business centers that continue to pop up around the country. Most of these centers have been shepherded along by the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership, launched by Congress in the 1980s in response to the sudden growth in women-owned businesses.

Now 80 women’s business centers are operating in almost every state and U.S. territory, from Maine to American Samoa. Each tailors its programs and services to the individual community, offering assistance and training in finance, management, marketing, procurement and the Internet, as well as specialized programs for home-based businesses, corporate executive downsizing and welfare-to-work. All provide business counseling and access to the Small Business Administration’s programs and services; a number are also intermediaries for the government’s micro-loan and other financing programs.

Michelle Richards, executive director of the Center for Empowerment and Economic Development, a group based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that fosters local business growth, notes that women’s business centers are a unique animal.

“These aren’t just centers that serve women, they’re centers that serve women’s needs,” she says. “Women think differently than men and they put different values on time and money. So I think the centers emerged by a very different process–of respecting women first–than other small business development centers.”

Women in business tend to embrace concepts such as mentoring and round-table discussions as part of their business plans–ideas reflected in meeting agendas.

On April 3, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Women’s Business Research is sponsoring the Ninth Annual Executive Roundtable, a one-day seminar that will give corporate executives insight into the best ways to leverage the power of women-owned businesses. The keynote presentation will feature Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.

On a more local level, Arlene Watkins founded a “growth roundtable” at the Kansas Women’s Business Center–a weekly meeting of women business owners that provides education, support, fellowship and confidentiality. Watkins says this was key to the success of her business.

“It’s a non-threatening environment where I can say ‘I don’t know how to do this,'” she notes, adding that she recently learned through the group how to update her employee’s policy manual. “The group gave me the encouragement and support I needed to implement policies. As a result, I feel that we have some good people who are back in the swing of making the business grow.”

The Kansas Women’s Business Center is located in the high growth area of Johnson County, Kansas, but serves the entire state, including socially and economically disadvantaged women, women veterans and women whose life circumstances make traditional employment difficult.

“Our goal is to positively impact the economy in the State of Kansas in three ways: by creating new businesses, new jobs and opportunities for volunteerism,” says Sandy Licata, executive director.

Business Centers Stress Internet Technology

Many women’s business centers are branching out to help women build their businesses through newer technology such as e-commerce. The Center for Empowerment and Economic Development, for example, recently established a “virtual mall,” called the Michigan Women’s Marketplace, for women entrepreneurs located in Michigan. The site offers women the opportunity to list their products and services–everything from specialty foods to Web design services to health and beauty products–without the burden of establishing and maintaining their own Web site.

“It’s a really growing area, because women have to be able to compete,” says Michelle Richards. “But it’s different from other small business centers in that it’s a site where women can collectively work together to compete. Whereas a traditional business center might teach a class on how to set up an e-commerce site, a women’s business center says, ‘If we set it up and divide the cost between 50 businesses, then each of them only has to pay $100 to be in business. That’s a clear example of how women perceive things differently.”

Marketplace coordinator Elissa Rossetti notes that it’s also a good way for business owners in rural areas to compete with the big guys. “It gives them an opportunity to reach people without having to relocate,” she says.

On the consumer side, the marketplace enables customers to shop for a variety of Michigan-based products and services in one location with one credit card transaction.

“It’s a win-win situation for both consumers and business owners,” says Rossetti. “Business owners can sell their products and services electronically, and consumers can easily locate and support local businesses.”

The Michigan Women’s Marketplace has been operating for more than a year and includes small to medium businesses that are at least 50 percent woman-owned. Richards says several other women’s business centers are already using it as a model.

“Our vision is to eventually have marketplaces from all over the country linked together, creating a virtual mega mall,” she says.

Another center leaping into the 21st century is the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce Women’s Business Center, founded in 1997. In addition to marketing, management, finance and procurement services, the center offers onsite access to the Internet and various business software programs. Some services are only available for a small fee but, as with most women’s business centers, scholarships and specialized training are available for socially or economically disadvantaged women. The center also offers one-on-one counseling and personal assistance with brainstorming, role playing and management styles.

Jane Louise Boursaw is a freelance writer specializing in health, business, and women’s issues.

For more information:

Kansas Women’s Business Center:

Center for Empowerment and Economic Development:

Michigan Women’s Marketplace: