The shape of the financial world is changing — a reality that has become all too apparent through the shifting markets and ongoing problems we face as a country, both internally and as a partner in the global economy. This is a situation in need of several solutions, one of which is the increase in growth of small businesses in our country. Women-owned businesses represent one of the fastest growing sectors of small businesses in our country, and in Maine. The question arises then: How can we encourage this growth?
The answer to this question requires the attention of the people and institutions that can contribute to and benefit from the growth of women-owned businesses such as banks, vendors, chamber organizations and consumers.
There is a perception, and often a sad actuality, that banks are hesitant to provide loans to female entrepreneurs. As a mentor to many women business owners, and one myself, I have experienced this firsthand. I regularly have clients tell me that they have simply been turned down flat.
Every bank should consider women-owned businesses as a place to loan money. Effective growth for any business begins with loan programs, and for women, it is important that they be specifically geared toward the needs of women business owners. They need someone who understands lending to women, someone who can spend the time to give honest and transparent feedback and foster comfortable banking relationships.
The concept of female empowerment in the financial world is of increasing importance. A recent article in Forbes shed light on what may be at the root of the problem, addressing the internal and external factors that prevent women from pursuing leadership roles. It finds that an overwhelming majority of women don't feel they deserve their accomplishments, and attribute much of their success to luck or misperception. Bonnie Marcus, a Forbes contributor, calls this the "Imposter Syndrome," the consequences of which are "not speaking up and voicing opinions, not promoting yourself, not asking for raises, not exhibiting the type of behavior associated with leadership."
All too often women second-guess themselves. They question how their ideas will be received, or doubt the importance of their contributions. The article urges women to recognize the value they bring to organizations and to not be afraid to speak up, even in predominantly male business environments.
This is related to a concept I encounter in the legal profession through my own practice dealing with employment law, termed Lateral Violence. When people are victims of subordination, such as male dominance in the workplace, they can often turn on each other by internalizing their feelings through gossip, jealousy and blame. This only serves to deepen the problem. Overcoming the manifestations of this lack of confidence means women need to gain visibility and credibility from their coworkers, and also for themselves.
We need to help level the playing field for women who still face these unique obstacles in the world of business. From 2009-2011, I served on the national Key4Women Advisory Board, and was the first woman from Maine and the second from New England to do so. Today, I continue to take part in several women-focused national boards, including serving on the Key4Women leadership council in addition to local organizations in my hometown of Bangor. Recognizing that women tend to have less experience and confidence when it comes to financial decisions and startup business practices, Key4Women was founded in the interest of facilitating access to capital, providing tailored lending services and connecting like-minded female entrepreneurs in pursuit of their business goals.
The network of professionals that the Key4Women program creates is a crucial step in financial success for women. Programs like this are a source of empowerment and help forge strategic alliances among women, communities and institutions.
When banks lend to women, they can contribute to the reaffirmation of strengths, integrity and the potential for continued — and more importantly deserved — success. Providing women with financial loans is a form of investing in their professional success as well as their personal growth. This access to reliable banking options and financial education is critical for the advancement of women-owned businesses. But equally important are the relationships it fosters as a lending community, building a network for women where they can make connections, validate their self-worth and grow comfortable with navigating financial institutions.
I have found that once women are given the kind of resources and information that builds confidence and makes for a solid foundation in the planning and execution of a business, they are off and running — no one can stop them. So developing lending programs to deal with the specific challenges faced by women entrepreneurs, is the critical first step.
If we are to grow as a state and as a country, we need the help of forward-thinking risk takers and entrepreneurs. As more women become entrepreneurs, supporters of small businesses will need to adjust the way they do business to better serve their needs. The world of women-owned businesses is only growing. We all would be wise to pay attention to it. n