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Microlending and more for women's business dreams: WomenVenture

Audrey Matson of Egg Plant Urban Farm Supply, at the WomenVenture holiday fair
Photo by Bill Kelley
Audrey Matson of Egg Plant Urban Farm Supply, at the WomenVenture holiday fair
The Line

Laura Ooley thought she had everything in place for a business loan application: revenue projections, analysis of competitors, strategic direction, and larger vision. But, because she didn't have previous sales or an outstanding credit history, she endured meeting after meeting with bank officials who politely listened before saying no.

Ooley and her husband, Nathan, had started an application development company, Appmosphere, in 2007, just before the big app boom. The timing was perfect, but the funding situation wasn't. They needed an infusion of cash in order to hire developers and marketing experts, and just when they began to think they'd never get Appmosphere launched, they found WomenVenture.

"We delivered the same pitch as we did to the banks, but instead of only paying partial attention like we were used to, they were really engaged," Ooley recalls. "They gave us a loan, but we also got so much more."

Global trend, local effect

Founded in 1978, WomenVenture focuses on supporting women-owned businesses, and offers services such as consulting, classes, networking groups, and business center access.

One particularly important aspect of the organization is the microloan program. Women can borrow up to $50,000 to start or expand a small business. In 2011, the organization loaned $277,000 to 14 women-led companies.

Holly Jordan of Esse Reusable Bags
Photo by Bill Kelley
Holly Jordan of Esse Reusable Bags

Often, that funding infusion means the difference between struggling with startup issues or achieving a new level of growth.

For example, with its loan, Appmosphere was able to hire six more employees and take the business to a new level. Ooley notes that WomenVenture's help has given the company more solidity, and confidence in taking bold new steps forward.

Microloans throughout the world have gotten more attention lately for their ability to create just the kind of change that Ooley experienced. In 2006, Muhammad Yunus, who established a microloan program in Bangladesh that primarily benefitted women, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. Another significant effort in Africa, The Hunger Project Microfinance Program, was started for women farmers and now has a loan portfolio of $2.9 million, helping women in eight countries.

Although microloans are proven to give women entrepreneurs a strong start globally, it's always at the local level, with companies like Appmosphere, where the big difference is seen.

"WomenVenture takes a chance on women who have solid business plans and the drive to be successful, and by providing loans to them, we help them become 'bankable,' so they can go on to get bank loans," says Chris Olsen, WomenVenture Director of Marketing and Events.

After the check

Although a funding infusion is important for a small business, equally crucial is advice on potential strategic directions. WomenVenture doesn't just hand over a check and ask for a progress report later; the organization pairs entrepreneurs with experienced consultants who become business mentors.

For example, when Nikol Gianopoulos wanted to take her sewing shop business, Sewtropolis, to the next level, she came to WomenVenture for guidance. Her consultant there helped her tweak the business plan so it was more attractive for funding, and then shepherded her application through the loan committee.

She credits the loan for helping her secure a new store location, but it's the advice that the consultant provided that let her see a stronger strategic plan for Sewtropolis. "It's about more than the money," Gianopoulos says. "You get feedback and insight, and if I wasn't a client there, I would miss out on that."

Stephanie Williams of the HopeFULL Company
Photo by Bill Kelley
Stephanie Williams of the HopeFULL Company (Read this week's update on HopeFULL here.)

Ooley notes that she had a similar experience, in which a WomenVenture consultant has now become a go-to resource for ideas. Currently, the company is working on a new mobile point-of-sale system, and the WomenVenture helper has been able to connect Ooley with valuable contacts.

"It's like having this amazing resource in your back pocket," she says. "You have an objective set of eyes that can look at your company and tell you what needs work, or what other directions you might consider."

Good for business

As the WomenVenture microloan program thrives, it's attracting interest from a range of women-led businesses, from Defiant Tattoo to Esse Reusable Bags to bicycle-delivered honey purveyor The Beez Kneez.

Recently, WomenVenture held its annual holiday fair, featuring some of the companies that received microloans, and the range of goods was impressive. From Egg/Plant Urban Farm Supply to earth-friendly home and personal product retailer Moss Envy, the companies were a nod to the booming entrepreneurial culture in the Twin Cities--a culture fostered and supported well by WomenVenture.

Kristy Allen of The Beez Kneez
Photo by Bill Kelley
Kristy Allen of The Beez Kneez

Kristy Allen, who owns The Beez Kneez, has been taking classes at the organization, and says she's likely to draw up a loan application soon, using some of the growth strategies developed in a WomenVenture classroom.

She says, "They look at what I've done already, and they make an effort to really understand where I want to take the business. That's so important. When you're in business for yourself, you need as much support as you can get, and WomenVenture is great at being there when you need them the most."

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. Elizabeth Millard is The Line's innovation and jobs editor.

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