Baltimore organization trains and bankrolls women to start their own businesses

SHE'S THE BOSS

January 10, 1992|By Randi Henderson

Natilie Towles is a baker. Hope Harrell cleans up lead pain residue. Beth Dellow inspects homes for prospective buyers. Lisa Michael rents out "pedicabs" -- carriages pulled by bicycles -- to Inner Harbor sightseers.

These four women may not seem to have much in common but they all are following a similar path. Each is running her own business, trying to make her way in what was once seen as a man's world of small business ownership.

"I wanted to have control over what I did with my life," Ms. Michael said of her decision to start her own business, echoing the sentiments of the other three women.

None of the four had attempted running a business before, and each agrees that it is unlikely she would have been able to get started without help.

That help came from Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore, Inc., a fledgling organization that works with low-income women to turn viable business ideas into working enterprises.

In at least one sense, WEB and the women it serves are riding the crest of a wave: More women than ever before are in business for themselves.

About 30 percent of all American businesses is owned by women, according to Juanita Weaver, spokeswoman for the Small Business Administration. In 1987, the year of the most recent economic census, 4.1 million women ran their own businesses, an increase of 58 percent over five years.

"Since the late '70s women have been starting their own businesses at a rate two times faster than men," said Kathryn Keeley, founder and president of the Women's Economic Development Corporation (WEDCO), a St. Paul, Minn. group that began nine years ago and has helped nearly 1,000 women establish businesses. She estimates that there are now more than 150 similar programs around the country.

rTC "Women are fed up with the corporate climate," Ms. Keeley said of the motivation of many female entrepreneurs. "They're saying, 'I'll build my own climate where I can figure the rules.' "

The inspiration for WEB came not from St. Paul -- where WEDCO was the first project of its kind in the country -- but from much farther away.

Awilda Marquez, a lawyer with Piper & Marbury, is the founder and president of the board of WEB. In the early '80s she was in the foreign service in Bangladesh where she observed firsthand the efforts of the Grameen Bank, which began in 1976 to make low-interest loans to the poor to help them out of poverty.

"When I came back to Baltimore I was struck by the similarities between Third World countries and the city's low income area," said Ms. Marquez, a Puerto Rico native who grew up in Aberdeen. "I thought that development projects that were successful there should be successful here, too."

She researched similar programs already under way in the United States. In 1988 she was appointed chairwoman of the Baltimore City Commission for Women and made the project a priority; WEB was incorporated in the fall of 1989. Funding comes from private and individual donors, including a recent grant from the Morris Goldseker Foundation.

And the project has grown: Last January, Sondra Stafford, whose background includes politics and business, was hired as WEB instructor.

Ms. Stafford emphasizes that WEB does not supply ideas, but works with students so they develop their own ideas. "There are some exciting projects," she said. "They dispel any pre-conceived notions about what you think women want to do."

Students' proposals in the current class include a home improvement business, a casting agency, a massage therapy practice and a service delivering baby products to homes.

The first class started with 12 students, graduated nine, and four Natilie Towles, Hope Harrell, Beth Dellow and Lisa Michael -- are now running their own businesses. The 11 students in the current class will graduate later this month.

The program also offers post-training support, a mentor network and a loan fund to help graduates with start-up costs. "We don't just run them through the class and say, 'So long, you're on your way,' Ms. Marquez said. "We try to stay with them, especially to get over those early barriers."

She added low-income women often encounter barriers not usually thought of in business start-ups. "Self-esteem can be a major issue," she said. "But the progress I've seen so far takes my breath away. The results are so stimulating, the transformation we see as women discover

skills and become more assertive."

But graduating from the class, even with a loan to start a business, does not guarantee success. "Most businesses need three to five years to get in the black," Ms. Marquez said, and all four of the WEB entrepreneurs in business can testify financial success doesn't come overnight.

"Almost every penny I make goes back into the business and I still don't make enough to pay the rent," said Ms. Towles, the baker. "I'm sort of scraping by and I will probably be taking an outside job and running the bakery part-time for a while."

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