Minority Women-Owned Firms Experience Record Growth

By reaching out for available resources, these entrepreneurs started strong and just keep on ticking.

Gwen's Old-Fashioned Bread Puddin' Crunch is a Chicago-based gourmet dessert company founded a year and a half ago by Gwendolyn Meeks, a 41-year old African American woman. Spurred by her desire to "get off the plantation," as Meeks calls working for someone else, she always dreamed of economic independence.

The idea for Meeks' business actually came to her in a dream. Shortly after Meeks' mother died in 1999, she dreamt her mother had asked her to go into the kitchen and make her some bread pudding, one of her mother's favorite desserts. "I really didn't want to at the time," Meeks recalled. "And she said, 'Girl, stop being so lazy. Get your behind up and make me some bread pudding.'"

Though she went back to sleep that night, the next day, Meeks had an overwhelming craving for pineapple bread pudding--a recipe she'd never tried before or tasted since. A friend stopped by the next day, sampled some of Meeks' dream-inspired bread pudding and encouraged her to try to sell it.

Meeks began taking her bread pudding around Chicago, gaining encouragement from all tasters. One day, she asked the manager of the café at a Borders bookstore if they might be interested in selling her bread pudding. To her surprise, the manager was very interested and asked Meeks if she baked in a health department certified kitchen, had a business license, insurance, etc. "I felt like Dorothy after the Wizard of Oz gives her that list and says, 'OK, now I want you to go get the broomstick from the Wicked Witch of the West,'" says Meeks. "I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to do it."

Meeks enrolled in a 12-week business-training course at the Women's Business Development Center in Chicago. By the end of the 12 weeks, Meeks had most everything she needed to start selling her bread pudding. Paperwork in hand, she went back to the Borders café, where they soon began selling her bread puddings made with a crunchy topping, available plain or with raisins.

"I saw they were selling my bread pudding for $5 a slice, and I thought, 'Well, I really have got something here,'" says Meeks, who now sells her products in selected Jewel grocery stores, a major Chicago chain. So far, Meeks still does all the cooking (in a rented, certified kitchen) and runs her company while holding down a full-time job as a social work administrator. She estimates that she spends about 40 hours a week building her business.

Meeks is not alone in her quest for entrepreneurial success. U.S. women of color are starting businesses at a faster rate than other women and all other business owners, according to a study released last month by the Center for Women's Business Research (formerly the National Foundation for Women Business Owners). This incredible growth among minority women-owned firms, at 31.5 percent, was more than four and a half times greater than the growth rate of all firms nationally, at 6.8 percent.

"What's exciting about this," says Nina McLemore, vice chair of the CWBR and president of Regent Capital Partners in New York, "is that finally, we're finding statistics that women-owned businesses are not all small. These increases mean an exponential growth in power for women and for minority-owned businesses."

McLemore said she and other women business leaders are excited about the "role model effect." "We look at a successful woman and think, 'If she can do that, and overcome all that she has had to overcome, then just think of what I can do.'"

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