Sharon Dandridge thinks of her taxi service for the elderly as her offspring. She's had to sacrifice for her year-old business and give more than she gets in return.
Remembered Pleasures, the single-van business Dandridge hopes will fulfill a need for transportation in Howard County, just breaks even now. And Dandridge still longs for the regular paychecks she received when she drove tractor-trailers.
But "I was as far as I could go with that company," Dandridge said. "That's not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I have always dreamed of working for myself. Sometimes you have to take a chance.
"My business, my baby, is in the crawling stages now. Next year, she'll be walking and talking."
Dandridge feels pretty confident because, so far, everything has worked out as she outlined in a lengthy, detailed and well-researched business plan.
The 39-year-old single mother of two never would have known to even write such a plan without the training she got a year ago from the Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore.
Since 1991, the nonprofit WEB has acted as training ground, support group and bank for dozens of low-income women starting businesses in the Baltimore region. And surprisingly, for something as typically risky as entrepreneurship, most of the 210 graduates who launched businesses -- out of a total 300 graduates -- are still in business today, running bookstores, a travel agency, a collection agency; serving as event planners; repairing telephone systems.
On Tuesday, WEB's 15th class will graduate. Twenty-seven women have completed the rigorous three-days-a-week, three-months-long instruction.
The program has given one of Tuesday's graduates, Jennifer Crisp, solid grounding for her vegetarian catering business, the Vegetable Patch Gourmet. Crisp started the business part time over the summer while in the program and intends to go full time now. But making it this far has been difficult, she said.
"I had no idea what I was getting into," said Crisp, 33, of West Baltimore. "It was so intense. You have to be on your toes. You have to want to open your own business. Now, I'm really motivated. It has let me see what it is to open your own business."
Before WEB, Crisp said, she had no idea that entrepreneurship entailed calculating inventory, start-up costs, equipment needs and income statements and hiring and firing.
She was not the only one with misconceptions. Many women come to the program with little more than grand visions, said Amanda Crook Zinn, WEB's chief executive officer.
"Most of our time is spent bringing people from these really lofty ideas down to reality," she said. "They say they want to start a restaurant, and we suggest they start with home-based catering and rent a kitchen."
Many consider themselves already in business but have no clear plan, she said.
"They can't answer questions like how much money they need to operate and who their target audience is; they have no idea if they have made money or lost money," Zinn said. "We try to get women to start businesses on a scale that is appropriate given their financial resources."
WEB grew out of a 1988 effort of a city commission looking into the economic status of women. At the time, single women headed more than half the households in the city, and 36 percent were living in poverty. The commission's work led to one conclusion: Women needed an entrepreneurial training program as opposed to another training program that would put them into low-level, dead-end jobs.
WEB incorporated as a nonprofit in 1989, started raising funds the next year and offered its first training course to eight women in 1991. It began and still operates out of a former police station on East Ostend Street in South Baltimore.
The program evolved with the help of a $500,000 grant in 1993 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and additional grants each year thereafter. About a month ago, the Small Business Administration in Baltimore selected the group as an intermediary to help more women and minorities get pre-approvals on SBA-backed loans of up to $250,000, said Allan Stephenson, SBA district director for Maryland.
"They're giving women the basics of what really goes on in the business world," said Sam Handwerger, a partner in the Baltimore accounting firm Handwerger, Funkhouser and Lurman who volunteers as a lecturer for WEB. "They're preparing them for the realities that exist."
The program, which costs students from $85 to $325 depending on their income, helps knock down common barriers to starting businesses. The biggest hurdles: lack of business skills; lack of experience in day-to-day operations; lack of capital, contacts and resources such as desks and computers; and lack of expertise in areas such as accounting and legal matters.
Of each class of 30, at least 18 women must be at the poverty level -- or earning no more than $7,900 for an individual in the city. Most others typically have low or moderate incomes.