New York nonprofit Count Me In and Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women kicked off the Blast! Grand Rapids program last fall with a series of “pitch parties” — weekly events where women practiced pitching live before competing for a place in the accelerator early in October.
Blast! Grand Rapids functions as a business accelerator that will provide 12 months of mentoring, resource sharing and social support to 30 local entrepreneurs. Funded by the Kellogg Foundation, Blast! is part of Count Me In’s Urban Rebound program — a national initiative that helps women scale up their businesses to $250,000 or more in annual revenue.
“While women own half of the privately owned companies in the United States, 70 percent earn $50,000 or less each year,” says Heather Mangrum, Count Me In’s chief marketing officer. “Even if they’re doing better, they’re kind of plateauing at the 250 (thousand) mark.”
Count Me In works to reduce these disparities through special events, web-based resources, social media networks and mentoring through programs like Blast!. Established in 1999, the nonprofit was the first online micro-lender for women entrepreneurs. Count Me In changed direction, however, when founder Nell Merlino realized that loans launched businesses but did not help them grow.
“It soon became clear that the real need was around support services and education,” says Mangrum. “The mission shifted to helping women learn how to run their businesses as CEOs rather than as artists or bakers.”
Or as a glass blower, as in the case of Blast! participant Tammy Newhof.
When a colleague suggested that Newhof attend the Blast! pitch party, the soft-spoken glass artist figured she would “just sit in the background and listen.” But something came over her and she found herself pitching Windborne Studios, the Grand Rapids-based artisanal glass hardware company she founded in 2006. Things went well considering she was not prepared — that is, until someone asked about the story behind her company’s name. It was so personal that Newhof began to cry as she told it.
Even though the experience “was horrifying,” Newhof left determined to pitch her way into Blast! — a dream that came true a few weeks later.
“What lit the fire for me was the yearlong coaching and growing your business to (the $250,000 mark),” says Newhof, whose wares were recently picked up by Home Depot in Manhattan. “Money doesn’t really motivate me, but I knew that to grow my business I definitely have to see what it’s like to go from where I am to the next dollar level. There’s a lot to learn in between.”
Historically, owning a business allowed American women with the opportunity to move outside stereotypical gender roles. Today many women hang out their shingles with hopes of enjoying more flexibility than traditional employment often offers.
But it doesn’t always pan out that way.
Especially below the $50,000 per year threshold, many women operate as “solopreneurs,” says Mangrum. They work “in isolation” and take on everything from bookkeeping to product development to client management.
“A lot of women have it in their mind that they have to do it all themselves,” says Mangrum. “It’s exhausting, especially when you have kids and a husband. This is one of the greatest barriers and obstacles that women need to overcome.”
As businesses grow, this do-it-all mentality not only cuts into flex time, it also prevents growth. This is why, whether they are coaching women to be able to reach revenues of $250,000 or $1 million, Count Me In mentors devote a lot of time to helping women kick this habit.
“When you’re doing all those things in your business, you’re not growing your business. It’s important to hire,” says Mangrum. “It sounds elementary, but for our women, it’s actually been the difference between 250 and million dollar organizations.”
But, Mangrum is careful to add, “It’s not just about revenue. When your business gets bigger, you have more time to spend with your family.”
That’s a good thing, too, since family members often spark great business ideas. Just ask Nancy Metzger, who formulated a line of chemical-free personal care products to meet her granddaughter’s unique skin care needs.
“I founded the company when I was faced with (the) serious health issues of my infant granddaughter, Brittanie,” says Metzger, who started her company, Brittanie’s Thyme, in Cedar Springs in 2007. “In the beginning, the products were intended to assist her with natural, chemical-free skin protection. Then the interest grew.”
Five years later, Brittanie’s Thyme has expanded into a full line of “USDA-certified organic products for personal care, outdoor, sinus and cold issues.”
But Metzger’s growth has not been without obstacles. Michigan’s economy, infrastructure and the high cost of local goods have all impacted Brittanie’s Thyme.
“Everything costs more in Michigan than elsewhere,” says Metzger, who has found it hard to rely on local suppliers for ingredients and shipping. Located in rural Cedar Springs, Metzger has no access to cable Internet — making it hard to connect with customers — and her municipality offers little financial support for small businesses.
Metzger’s marital status also made it difficult for her to get a loan, which posed its own set of challenges in starting and growing her business.
“It was not just the fact of being a woman for me. It was the fact that I was a single, divorced woman,” says Metzger. “(This) made financial institutions not want to take the risk. This was the toughest part.”
In her shoes
Metzger’s story is not uncommon. In fact, CPA Janice Vanderbilt — another Blast! member — met so many women in the same situation that she started Vanderbilt CPA Group to help them.
As president of “one of the very few” women-owned CPA offices in West Michigan, Vanderbilt said her personal experience gives her an edge over other firms in reaching clients like Metzger.
“I had seen many divorced women (without) experience or the ability to produce income coming to the job market after taking care of their families,” says Vanderbilt, who opened for business full-time in 2009. “I was going to help other women start businesses as I had. After becoming single, this was my most important goal.”
Though many women came to Blast! to hone their business skills, Vanderbilt, who works in a male-dominated industry, was in the market for kindred spirits. She discovered Blast! online while trying to find a women’s business group.
Even though it’s only been a few months, the competition and first coaching session have already changed how she looks at her business.
“The competition was a major step for me. I have learned that not only is my business important, but so am I — to myself and my business,” she says. “This first step has helped me declare ownership of my business in a new and open way.”
Beyond the direct personal and professional benefits to the 30 women involved, organizers anticipate Blast! to create lasting economic impact in West Michigan.
Data show that women launch businesses at twice the rate men do, and their growth tends to be more consistent. Women-owned businesses are expected to create more than five million jobs nationally by 2018.
“They’re good for local economies and communities,” says Mangrum about women entrepreneurs. “These women are looking to work with their city councils on urban revitalization — and they can do it sustainably. They contribute to the tax base and, of course, create jobs.”