For decades men have considered bars, clubs, locker rooms and golf courses open territory in which they can ask for introductions and guidance to advance their businesses and careers.
But something like the Old Boys’ Network has mostly eluded women. Our formal and informal networks are not as robust, perhaps because we are still hampered by the competition that existed when there was only one seat for a woman at any important table.
A revitalized, growing economy in Michigan, however, requires thriving new businesses of all sizes, in every industry, and started by both men and women. Recognizing that the playing field was not level for everyone, Michigan Women’s Foundation (MWF) made “Accelerating Women’s Entrepreneurship” a new focus.
Research showed that while women started nearly half of new businesses in Michigan, they received only 5% of venture capital and microloans. We believed, therefore, that access to capital was the secret sauce that would allow women -- even those with poor or no credit -- to turn passion and great ideas into viable enterprises.
With the understanding that changing a woman’s life changes a family and, ultimately, changes a community, we launched the Michigan Women’s MicroLoan Fund in 2013 with $750,000.
Very quickly, however, we discovered that aspiring entrepreneurs needed a great deal more than just money. They needed education and skills training.
Even those with previous business experience often lacked expertise in areas like strategic planning, forecasting, marketing, accounting or inventory control. Those without business experience needed much more.
More than 600 women have approached us for loans since we started the project, but less than 10% have been ready to begin a successful application. With money to loan, we grew deeply concerned. Our analysis showed that loan readiness was also dependent on access to information, counsel and mentorship.
When one applicant asked for a referral to someone who could help establish a QuickBooks accounting system, we said, “We must know 100 women who know and would be happy to teach QuickBooks!” But, who were they and how could we connect them to those who needed help?
So what’s the Next Idea?
To address this dilemma, we’ve just launched a new initiative called the Women’s Volunteer Network.
We began by building a consortium of highly accomplished (and big-hearted) people who wanted to offer their expertise. We sent requests to our donor base and held a series of orientations across the state that attracted lawyers, accountants, business consultants, marketers, media relations executives and others.
What it’s turned into is an unconventional cross between Millionaire Matchmaker and Uber.
How it works is we invite volunteers to choose a level of involvement that is actually doable in their lives. A retiring executive may be able to commit to a multi-year mentorship, while an attorney who is a new mother would be happy to review business plans and make legal recommendations once a week after the kids are in bed.
Email alerts with specific requests go out to the volunteers and anyone whose schedule allows can accept the assignment.
Our goal of gathering 50 volunteers quickly became 100 and is poised to exceed that in just this first month.
Now called The New Girls Network, we’ve taken the best of what the old boys have done for years and do it in better shoes. Women will be encouraged to keep their contact lists and calendars open for each other, to ask for help and to give it.
Sometime, down the road, we think The New Girls Network of advice, sharing and wise counsel will no longer be a new idea, it will just be business as usual in Michigan. And that would benefit all of us.
Carolyn Cassin is president and CEO of the Michigan Women’s Foundation.