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It's a new day in Congress, and women business owners enjoy top billing. In its first hearing of the year, the Senate Committee on Small Business decided to make women's enterprises a focal point, marvels Amy Millman, executive director of the National Women's Business Council. "Almost all the senators [on the committee] came to this hearing, which never happens, and they were right on with women business owners," she says. "They knew the statistics; they talked about women business owners in their districts and what they'd like to do to promote women-owned and homebased businesses.
"Three years ago, we couldn't even get the Senate to hold a hearing on women. [This] was like dying and going to heaven!"
Entrepreneurial women testified about obstacles in the federal procurement process, access to capital, self-employment training and technical assistance for women coming off welfare. They also noted the Small Business Administration's (SBA) failure to meet its goal of 5 percent of contracts to women. The SBA's Office of Women's Business Ownership (OWBO), however, earned nothing but high praises.
And the committee intends to do more than just listen. "We are planning to reauthorize [OWBO] for three to five years," says Ken Bricker of the Senate Small Business Committee. "And we feel strongly about making sure women are getting their share of federal contracts.
"[Committee chair] Sen. Kit Bond is deeply committed to expanding opportunities for women entrepreneurs. Not to take note of their increasing power and economic expansion would be foolish."
"Usually at hearings, people are arguing and upset," says Millman. "But these women came in to talk about the good news, to say they're moving ahead and to ask the government to start moving with them. The members of Congress were [saying], `We want to know what we can do to help you more.' And we in the audience were just thinking, `Finally, somebody is catching on!' "
A League Of Our Own
In a welcome effort to woo women business owners, Dun & Bradstreet recently announced the formation of its Minority & Women-Owned Business Development Group. "We've done a lot of work in support of minority- and women-owned business but felt the need to coordinate our efforts, get more focused, and really have more of an impact," says Ron Wesson, vice president in charge of the new group.
The first item on the group's agenda is to give entrepreneurial women access to Dun & Bradstreet's database free of charge, providing increased visibility among large suppliers, vendors, customers and partners; the ability to bid on government contracts set aside for women- and minority-owned business; and increased access to capital.
"We have a dual mission," says Wesson. "First, we want to help support the growth and development of these businesses; second, we want to give them [more] exposure in the marketplace."
As the group matures, Wesson foresees the possibility of creating special services targeted to women-owned businesses. In the meantime, he says, "we continue to have an open dialogue with [entrepreneurs] and women's organizations, asking them what they need to be successful."
For more information, contact Ron Wesson at 899 Eaton Ave., Bethlehem, PA 18025, (610) 882-7117.
Summer camp usually means swimming and campfires. But for a select group of girls, it means business plans and marketing presentations. Camp Entrepreneur, sponsored by the National Education Center for Women in Business (NECWB), teaches girls aged 12 through 17 all aspects of business ownership, from brainstorming business ideas to making presentations.
"Studies show young women begin losing their self-esteem around junior high age," says Rebecca Campbell, NECWB's associate director of education. "We try to show them they can be anything they want to be."
The results? "For many, the experience is life-changing," says Campbell. "They don't want to leave."
This June and July, Camp Entrepreneur will be offered in six states: Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Call (412) 830-4625 for more information.
Camp Entrepreneur, National Education Center for Women in Business, 389-F Seton Hill Dr., Greensburg, PA 15601-1599;
National Women's Business Council, 409 Third St. S.W., #5850, Washington, DC 20024, (202) 205-3850;
Senate Committee on Small Business, 428 Russell Senate Office Bldg., Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20510, (202) 224-5175.