Taking ownership

With training from Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore, women are learning how to start and run their own businesses and work their way out of poverty.

Spirit of Sharing

December 13, 2005|By JONATHAN PITTS | JONATHAN PITTS,SUN REPORTER

The turn of the millennium was less than kind to Michelle McLarin Weaver.

After trying to save her marriage in counseling, the mother of five ended up divorced. Then her oldest son, Maurice, shocked her by getting arrested for armed robbery. He was sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison.

It wasn't the kind of world, to say the least, that Weaver, a devout Christian, envisioned for herself as middle age drew near. "I felt like I'd failed in my marriage and failed my children as a parent," says the soft-spoken Weaver, now 45. "I had so little confidence in myself. I was underwater. I felt like I was just paddling."

Through it all, one notion - improbable and vague - kept her from caving in. A military wife and daughter, she had always found ways to help her family make ends meet: mowing lawns, scrubbing apartments, painting, driving. "I always thought I might start my own business," she says. "I just had no idea how to do it."

Soon after she moved to Baltimore, that changed when a magazine article about a Georgia couple caught her attention. They'd started a business ferrying kids around town. "That's something I can do," she remembers thinking. "A light went on."

Weaver, now the owner and president of Travelin' Tots & Teens, LLC of Glen Burnie, can't speak highly enough about the program that helped her turn instinct into enterprise: Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore Inc., a nonprofit organization in Federal Hill dedicated to the proposition that small-business ownership makes the straightest path out of poverty. Over the past 15 years, WEB has graduated close to 2,000 people from its crash course in business skills, helping to kick-start thriving businesses large and small.

"Michelle's like so many of our students," says Anne Rouse, director of development, who last week helped preside over the final class of WEB's 40th evening course. "She already had the entrepreneur's spirit, but her skills were part of a hidden economy ... that goes on outside the mainstream. When [our students] learn about the capitalist system and how to put it to work for them, the change in self-confidence that happens can be amazing to see."

Struggling women

Weaver isn't much different from the scores of "matriarchs" the Baltimore City Commission on Women first contacted in the early 1990s. A study had shown Kurt L. Schmoke, then the mayor, that 54 percent of the city's households were headed by women, 36 percent of them subsisting at or below the poverty level.

He sent commission members into the community to speak to as many stalwart moms as they could. What the envoys found, says WEB development officer Shani Ahearn, was "an underground economy ... in which these mothers were keeping each other and their families going - offering each other rides, cooking, sewing, sharing child care chores and more."

Over and over, Schmoke's people heard a common refrain: These mothers wished they could start their own small businesses but didn't know how. Most lacked three things: computer skills, capital and confidence.

WEB's founders, including an early volunteer named Awilda Marquez, had ideas. Their aim was to harness the women's innate entrepreneurship for the benefit of all. Set up as a nonprofit, WEB scored support through government and private grants, performance-based contracts and donations. They found volunteer teachers, mostly Baltimore-area business successes. They offered graduates micro-enterprise loans and legal counsel. They created an atmosphere of intensive teaching and in-class teamwork.

The 30 people (out of 100 applicants) who are accepted into each program found a ladder to a better life. Three nights a week for 11 weeks, in three-hour classes, the students - more than 90 percent of them women - plunged into marketing and management strategies, federal procurement techniques and tax law. Civic and business leaders critiqued mottos and mission statements, helping build competence and confidence with cheerfully sharp scrutiny.

It was the toughest challenge Weaver had ever faced. "There were so many mountains to climb," she says. "For many weeks I didn't know if I could finish it. But as my pastor says, whether it's apple seeds or joy or prosperity - whatever you plant, that's what you're going to harvest."

Family ties

When Weaver came to Baltimore, though, it was less for total transformation than to find peace. In the wake of her divorce, she just wanted to be near her dad. Her parents had split up 30 years before, and over the years, as she raised her three daughters and two boys, she'd lost touch with Benjamin McLarin, a Glen Burnie Navy veteran.

"I needed to be near him to reconnect with myself," she says.

Once here, she got an office job with a contracting company, but her entrepreneurial ideas never died. One day, she was flipping through a favorite magazine, Black Enterprise, and learned of the husband and wife in Savannah, Ga., who started that business in an area she knew a lot about.

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