From the August 2001 issue of Entrepreneur

What if every woman in the United States donated $5 to a fund that would help women start businesses? Can you imagine the impact that would have?

Entrepreneurial activist Nell Merlino can. In fact, she's gone beyond imagining that scenario to turning it into a reality. This consultant who worked with the Ms. Foundation to help develop Take Our Daughters to Work Day has teamed up with media specialist Iris Burnett to form an Internet-based microloan fund for aspiring women entrepreneurs.

What the two women did was tweak an idea that's been growing in America for more than 25 years: microlending. The twist: Instead of seeking contributions solely from government and private foundations, as most microloan funds do, this one also solicits contributions from individual women. By April 2001, the Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence fund had collected $2 million, including $100,000 from individual contributors whose average donation was $15. We spoke to Merlino about the power of women helping women.

Why do you think women have been so supportive in helping your efforts? Is it because we have an urge to nurture?

Nell Merlino: I generally don't like to ascribe a characteristic to an entire group of people. But certainly women have an interest in helping. There's plenty of evidence for that. We play those roles in the family, in our communities and at work. But I also think women want to lead and build lives that are flexible.

They're contributing not just out of a desire to help others, but also to make sure the opportunity is there for women to do what they want to do. I believe there are many women who either had the experience of starting a business, or are thinking about it, or are watching a close friend or relative try to do it, and they want to help.

Were you surprised by the response from individual women and girls?

Merlino: Yes. But very pleased with the contributions we've received. The more women hear about it, the more contributions we get. I don't think this is something you hear about one minute and make a contribution the next. [Contributions] improve as people get familiar with the concept of women being able to help each other.

It seems a bit unusual to target individual donations rather than just foundations and corporations. Why did you take this route?

Merlino: We thought the broader we made it, the more interest and support we would have. I think it means a lot for the women who get our loans to know it could be somebody down the street who put in $10 or $15.

[With most corporate donors,] the people who contributed to us first have been women. The heads of the American Express, Verizon and BP Amoco foundations are all female.

So far, Count Me In has made loans to 115 women in 39 states, ranging in size from $500 to $10,000 and totaling more than $300,000.

GET A BIG CHARGE:American Express and three microlenders have joined forces to broaden the concept of people helping people by creating the Community Business Credit Card. Entrepreneurs use this card just like other American Express cards, but 1 percent of what they charge is donated to Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, microlender Acción International and the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, a microlending umbrella organization. The first funds, which are expected to reach several million dollars, will be dispersed in 2002. At least 60 percent of proceeds donated to each microlender must be used for loans or technical assistance. For more information or to apply, visit www.americanexpress.com/communitybusiness.

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