There is an enormous but untapped business opportunity to grow Vermont’s economic vitality and diversity, to create networks of mentorship, to secure funding for small business, and to increase contributions to Vermont’s economy on an ongoing basis.
What is this growth engine, and why is it untapped? According to Meg Smith, the executive director of Vermont Women’s Fund (VWF), there are an estimated 23,000 women business owners in the state of Vermont — about 25% of the state’s overall total. Yet, they are mostly invisible.
Smith explained: “When Federal Paycheck Protection Program funds became available in 2020 to women-owned and minority-owned businesses in Vermont, there was no official way to identify them because a vital piece of information was missing — the number of businesses in the state that are owned and operated by women.”
In 2021, the VWF set out to remedy this omission, by launching This Way UP, an online survey tool that identifies and tracks women-owned businesses across Vermont. It also assesses the impact of their economic contributions in real-time.
“Our goal is to encourage 10,000 women to participate in the survey,” Smith said, “so that we can determine the best way to provide these entrepreneurs with resources to help them succeed.”
Since the survey’s launch last fall, about 760 women have taken the survey, and the data contain implications and directives for the state overall as well as shedding an overdue light on the unique challenges of being a female entrepreneur.
Here, according to This Way UP, is a snapshot of why and how women in Vermont start their own businesses, the challenges they must overcome, and ideas for how to support women-owned businesses.
Of women surveyed, 22% started their businesses because they had lost employment, and decided it was time to work for themselves. About 14% said they were compelled to start a business because they had no other work options, 18% said they had someone who offered support while they started the business, and 17% had a mentor who helped them get started.
As for financing, 41% started their businesses by building it up slowly over time; 32% used savings; 11% secured a loan from a bank, credit union, or community development organization; and 9% borrowed money from friends and family.
Gender biases and funding challenges remain the biggest obstacles for many women business owners. “Women entrepreneurs far more than men continue to face prejudice in securing capital, obtaining credit in one’s own name, and loneliness due to lack of peers with whom to share triumphs and worries,” noted Meg Smith. “They are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts, especially if they are juggling business operations with family responsibilities.”
This is not a new phenomenon, but one that may be due to how courses in leadership, operations, and entrepreneurship are taught in most business schools.
When I was studying for my MBA 14 years ago, all the case studies were about men — even in the so-called “soft skills” courses like leadership, strategy and marketing.
Yet throughout the 20th Century, many women started valuable enterprises whose brands endure today. They include Weight Watchers, Estee Lauder, Mary Kay Cosmetics, Liz Claiborne, Spanx, Ruth Chris Steakhouse, Girl Scouts of USA, AARP, and several others. That their stories of courage and tenacity were not included in the teaching of business until very recently, perpetuates the myth that women-owned businesses are little more than hobbies.
For women business owners that want the flexibility, autonomy, and creativity that a corporate job might not provide, Vermont has become even more attractive, especially for remote workers (like myself). Women-owned businesses also tend to hire more women, which means that more women are in the workforce, acquiring valuable skills, contributing to our economy, and serving as a role model for upcoming generations.
Through This Way UP, Vermont Women’s Fund aims not only to champion women business owners, but to change the system itself, so that more women are better positioned to secure essential resources for starting and growing a business.
Here are just a few ways to champion Vermont’s women-owned businesses, besides becoming a customer or client:
Look to women-led businesses as potential partners when exploring collaborations within your own company or for a business to provide products or services. (By the way, Mountain Times is a woman-led business, too. Polly Mikula is its editor and publisher.)
Post about the business on social media or through word-of-mouth. Brand awareness is the first step toward building preference and revenue. Offer your expertise as a mentor to a woman entrepreneur. When This Way UP asked respondents if they were ready to mentor and connect with others, 75% said yes.
In addition to the Vermont Women’s Fund, others helping women achieve financial security include Soroptimist International, The American Businesswomen’s Association, and the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce.
Spread the word about This Way UP, so it reaches its goal of signing up at least 10,000 women entrepreneurs by the end of 2022.
“Please share this with every woman you know who runs a business,” urged Smith, be it full-time or part-time, from solopreneurs to large employers. The first step is to move women forward, from invisibility into full view. There’s power in our numbers.”
To take the survey or see results visit: ThisWayUPvt.org. More information can also be found at: vermontwomensfund.org.
Liz DiMarco Weinmann, MBA, is the owner of Liz DiMarco Weinmann Consulting, L3C, in Rutland, serving charitable and educational institutions: lizdimarcoweinmann.com.