How a non-profit is supporting businesswomen in CT

STAMFORD — When Gov. Ned Lamont announced a five-year, $46.6 million plan last week to expand programs to help small businesses in Connecticut, the organization receiving the largest amount of that funding — $9.8 million — was known to small business owners across the state.

The Women’s Business Development Council’s recognition reflects the Stamford-based nonprofit’s 25 years of service to help more than 18,000 clients in 169 Connecticut cities and towns. Since the organization’s founding in 1997, WBDC programs have supported the start-up or growth of more than 12,500 businesses – the majority of which are women-owned – and the creation or maintenance of nearly 26,000 jobs.

In an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media, WBDC Founder and CEO Fran Pastore discussed the organization’s 25th anniversary, the impact of its programs launched during the COVID-19 pandemic and its long-term goals.
The following are excerpts from the interview.

Pastor: When we started, we were truly pioneers. No one was really talking about the impact of women entrepreneurs on our state, national or even global economies at the time. I think in the last five-plus years there’s been an emphasis and an incredible movement to not only capture the economic impact of women entrepreneurs, but also to recognize some of the obstacles that women face.

The light shined on women in business and women entrepreneurs is finally being recognized as an economic issue. I’m excited that WBDC was really at the forefront of this.

Our focus has always been on micro businesses – the businesses on the high street – because we know that women will continually invest their time, talent and treasure in their local communities to keep their businesses alive and add to the economic vitality of their communities.

Q: How has the pandemic affected women in the workforce?

Pastor: Women have been disproportionately affected—particularly people of color and women who live in disadvantaged communities—because we know that the majority of unpaid work falls to women. We know that women were responsible for taking care of their children when schools were closed. We know that women were responsible for caring for their parents who were affected by COVID.

But we’ve seen a 30 percent increase in WBDC since 2019 in women starting their own businesses. With entrepreneurship, even though you have to work really hard to start a new business, I think it provides a lot of flexibility.

Q: Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a proliferation of government funding provided through initiatives like the federal Wage Protection Program to help small businesses. But many women- and minority-owned businesses struggle to access these funds.

How has WBDC’s grant program—which since its launch in 2020 has awarded 167 grants totaling $1.5 million—helped address these funding disparities?

Pastor: We know that over 75 percent of Connecticut’s PPP loans went to white-owned businesses, and the majority of those businesses are owned by men.

In the micro businesses that WBDC works with, our clients do not have a CFO (Chief Financial Officer) on staff. Many of them do not have established banking relationships. Many of them do not have the infrastructure to support this application process, which was quite complex.

When these results came out about who received the PPP loans, we really felt that this was our opportunity to address an unmet need. We knew business owners couldn’t take on more debt. So we collaborated with the Governor’s office, Commissioner David Lehman (of the Department of Economic and Community Development) and the private sector to launch this grant program.

We have structured this grant program a little differently than other types of support that have been offered. It was not for general operating expenses. It was an opportunity to catalyze a new way of thinking about their own business, to get people thinking about re-orienting their business so that they not only survive after COVID, but thrive after COVID. It wasn’t a Band-Aid. It was an opportunity to take what we do – education, technical assistance, coaching, consulting and mentoring – and take it to another level, giving them an incentive to change the way they run their business.

As a result of the capital matching grant program, our clients have doubled from pre-pandemic numbers: pre-pandemic we were seeing 800 to 1,000 women a year. We now see approximately 2,000 to 2,200 women a year. The Equity Match Grant has expanded our reach in a big way because people are interested in learning more about how they can access these funds.

Q: In 2020, WBDC’s Child Care Business Support Program was launched when Lamont and Connecticut Early Childhood Services Commissioner Beth Bye called on WBDC to distribute emergency grants and technical support to child care businesses. to ensure they can remain open, allowing parents – especially frontline workers – to return to work in the midst of the pandemic. Additional emergency grants were distributed through a partnership with the Governor’s Labor Council.

Since its inception, the program has awarded 381 grants totaling $4.23 million. How would you describe the impact of these funds?

Pastor: These were emergency grants to ensure child care providers could stay open so first responders and families could get back to work. It also helped them purchase the necessary equipment – ​​and not just PPE – to be able to care for children in a safe environment.

As a result of this program, all but 1 percent of our pre-pandemic child care spaces (nationwide) have remained open. On average in other states, about 10 percent of those locations are still unopened.

Q: What are your goals for the WBDC in 2023 and beyond?

Pastor: What has become abundantly clear to us is that there are some distressed communities and disadvantaged groups that we want to reach out to more.

Last month we had a grand re-opening of our New London office. We quadrupled the size of our office space in New London. We took over an old bank building from 1905 and have about 3,000 square feet of space where we intend to create a mini co-working space for some of our clients who work from home but want to get out of their home now and need a place, where to go. And it will be a great networking opportunity.

And we created a partnership in Waterbury, with the city hall and the economic development office. We expect to open an office in Waterbury probably in the first quarter of 2023.

WBDC is ready to help women achieve their personal economic goals through entrepreneurship and help them along the way. We intend to continue to be a part of this recovery from the pandemic, as well as part of Connecticut’s great comeback.

[email protected]; twitter: @paulschott

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