Helping new Americans become business ownersGlobally, women make up 51 percent of the population and perform two-thirds of the work, yet they earn just 5 percent of the world's income and own less than 1 percent of all land, according to a United Nations study. For many immigrant women in the Bay Area, transitioning to a lifestyle where they can demand fair compensation for their labor requires a dramatic change. The non-profit C.E.O. Women creates economic opportunities for low-income immigrant and refugee women through teaching English, communications, and entrepreneurship skills.
C.E.O. Women's 16-week class expands women's knowledge in three areas: what you know (how to write a business plan or a resume), who you know (connecting to mentors and potential clients), and what you have (capital and tools to start the business). The program has a minimal fee on a sliding scale depending on household income.
"We want the women to be invested in attending the classes, which is why we require them to pay something," explains Anita Dharapuram, C.E.O. Women's executive director.
C.E.O. Women participant Winou exemplifies the roundabout path that many participants take to successfully running a business. Winou came to the U.S. from Ethiopia seeking political asylum. She earned minimum wage as a homecare worker and was often mistreated. To earn more money and be treated respectfully, she wanted to start her own business. In 2007, she went through the C.E.O. Women program and started making and selling jewelry at the flea market. However, she was not breaking even. The next year she worked at a friend's grocery store and wanted to purchase the business. However, after exploring the idea with C.E.O. Women, she decided against it.
After that, Winou fell out of touch with C.E.O. Women. When she resurfaced, she was making handmade Ethiopian crafts. She launched a website featuring her products and has since sold over 450 of her crafts. She makes a profit on this business and has diversified into quilts, decorations and potholders.
Anita Dharapuram says, "We have a saying: once a client, always a client." Of women who participate in at least 10 hours of class, 63 percent start or expand a business, and their revenue increases by 41 percent, on average. Women who graduate from the class can apply for a grant from C.E.O Women or sign up for a one-on-one "business coach."
Mountain View resident and business coach Robyn Reiss observed first hand the numerous challenges C.E.O. Women participants face through her mentee, "Maria." Maria and Robyn began meeting weekly to help Maria launch her green cleaning business. However, Maria's house was in foreclosure and she had family problems that necessitated her going back to Brazil for an extended period. Reiss advises potential mentors to take such events in stride as part of the process. "You're going to be a mentor for the whole person — work is just one of their challenges. Be prepared for things to take longer than you thought."
To reach more women, C.E.O. Women is developing an soap opera called "The Grand Cafe" that is available on DVD. The C.E.O. Women curriculum is woven into each episode as the show's four heroines start their own businesses. The first six episodes, launched in fall 2009, enabled the program to reach 50 percent more women than the year before. Twelve more episodes are in the works to complete the program. The goal is to use this media tool to help launch 30,000 women-owned businesses in the next ten years. The training program will be paired with classroom support whenever possible.
C.E.O. Women is always looking for male and female business coaches. To learn more, see www.ceowomen.org.
Mountain View resident Jennifer Pence is founder of the Windmill Giving Circle and founder and owner of Academic Springboard, a tutoring group. She can be reached at email@example.com.