DORSET — More than 80 women entrepreneurs from throughout Bennington County gathered recently at the historic Wilson House for the first-ever Women in Leadership Luncheon. On the menu: support, advice, mentoring opportunities, fresh thinking, camaraderie, and all the other key ingredients women need to run and grow businesses.
“Women coming together and being able to support each other, it’s incredibly powerful,” said Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, in a conversation this week.
Studies show that the number of women-started businesses continues to increase, here in Vermont and globally, with women-owned businesses growing at more than double the rate of all other firms.
But women entrepreneurs face more challenges than men. Those include time constraints (on top of our professional lives, we still tend to be the CEOs of our homes and families), lack of access to capital, having less exposure to training opportunities, experiencing more professional isolation and other issues. And often the businesses we gravitate toward are lower-paying, such as day care facilities.
Which brings us back to the Wilson House, in what I hope is the first of many more such events, where serious networking was front and center.
Being newer to business ownership in many cases, women don’t always have the knowledge or connections to successfully network to their advantage. Yet networking builds skills, creates opportunities to learn from mentors and even generates clients for our businesses.
Attending the luncheon were women in banking — a connection to financing and credit; women in public relations — a connection to marketing; women in real estate — a connection in business location; and more. We all sat together at round tables over lunch, sharing introductions and discussions about what we do and how we do it.
And we do it … all. That seemed to be a shared theme.
“This gender job gap is not driven by confidence, as many people thought it was,” said Laura Walker, president of Bennington College, also with a leadership background in public radio, at the luncheon. “I think it’s partially because we as women, in many ways, are expected to do everything. The expectation is that we are going to be responsible for all the tasks, large and small.”
A wave of heads nodded in recognition across the room; smiles of relief that we are not alone in experiencing that reality.
And, Walker added, “Women truly are judged more harshly than men.”
Yet it is vital we don’t judge, and instead support women — young, old and in between — launching new or growing existing businesses, not only for their personal livelihoods, but for the economy at large. Women-owned businesses often employ fewer workers, Brown said. If they employed at the rate of men-owned companies, about 10,500 new jobs could be created. That’s good for everybody.
The pandemic also hit women-owned businesses hard, with too many female entrepreneurs forced to close up shop, stay home with children and supervise at-home schooling. Brown said we’ll likely see a spate of new companies opening as those women put their kids back on the school bus and head off into the workforce.
I asked Brown what advice she would give a young woman thinking about starting a business. She said the place to start is seeking out basic assistance from organizations designed to support women entrepreneurs, including the Center for Women & Enterprise (cweonline.org) and Mercy Connections (mercyconnections.org/womens-small-business-program). They provide workshops, training and advice to help even the novice in developing a business plan, with nothing more than a vague idea for a business.
My thanks to the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce and Berkshire Bank for putting together the Wilson House event to honor, celebrate and educate women entrepreneurs. My thanks to the organizations like the Center for Women & Enterprise who make sure women have the best shot possible to create a successful business venture.
But a special shoutout to all the women in Southern Vermont who are taking risks, defying the odds and working twice as hard to start businesses that support their families, hire their neighbors and build our economy.
I look forward to watching you take over Main Street — and Wall Street.