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San Francisco Organization Celebrates 20 Years of Helping Women Launch Businesses


Low-income women usually struggle to make ends meet. A lack of adequate education and skills often makes it hard to find better job opportunities. For the past 20 years, a non-profit group in San Francisco, California, has been helping many of these women create new opportunities by starting their own businesses. Women's Initiative for Self Employment offers them microloans, business training and a good reason to believe in themselves.

Krista Bray suffered from severe back pain five years ago, while she was starting a career in advertising. Missing a lot of workdays because of doctor appointments, surgeries and physical therapy cost her job advancement opportunities, but it also led her to a new career. She became a certified physical therapist and dreamed of having her own practice.

"I was working for someone else," she says. "I had really limited credit. I had surgery without insurance while I was between jobs. So I pretty much lost everything financially [because] for several years I was in chronic pain and I wasn't able to work full time. So, starting out my own studio was kind of an impossibility."

When she learned from a friend that she could start her own business with a microloan from Women's Initiative for Self Employment, she jumped at the chance.

"I checked it out," she says. "It was the first time that I believed I could start my own business. It wouldn't matter if I had terrible credit. They would actually look at my potential instead of my credit score."

Erica Varize also heard about Women's Initiative from a friend. Three years ago, she was ready to quit her job as a banker and make her hobby - sewing - her livelihood. Varize says the training she received through the organization prepared her to start her own boutique.

"We were given assignments to do," she says. "For instance, one night, we may have to come up with a marketing strategy and really, really put it into play, like we may have to go to different businesses and ask them, 'What do you think about having a dress shop on your block? Do you think it would be a good fit? Do you think that there's enough foot traffic for this type of business I wanted?' They gave us real life experience."

Success stories like that are living examples of how women can help each other, according to Justina Cross, Women's Initiative spokeswoman, who says the organization was started in 1988 by five women.

"They were kind of fed up with the unequal pay for women," she says. "They started brainstorming about what they could do to increase women's wages here in San Francisco and came up with this idea of doing business training so women were able to make big changes in their income for themselves."

Cross says clients come with their business ideas, and Women's Initiative helps turn those dreams into reality.

With donations from private corporations, individuals and the government, Women's Initiative has helped women start 1600 businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since then, the organization has expanded its loan funds and is now able to loan between $1,000 and $25,000 to help women launch their businesses.

In 1991, they added a program for Latina entrepreneurs, called Alternativas para Latinas en Autosuficienica. "That program is really tailored to the needs of Latina entrepreneurs," says Cross.

"But probably the most exciting expansion has really happened in the last two or three years," Cross says. "We've really ramped up the number of women we've been able to serve. We're on track this year to serve 3200 women through all of our six sites throughout the Bay area."

Women in the program are offered a 20-session training course on essential business management skills. Cross says they learn how to put together business plans, target markets, analyze the competition, price their products or services, and handle cash flow projections. More importantly, she says, women learn to overcome the fear of becoming businesswomen.

"One of the biggest struggles for women in business is seeing themselves as business owners," she says. "So, we help them through our personal empowerment training to build a great advisory board. If you've been told all your life you can't do something, you need to get past that before you can open the doors to a business."

Program graduate Erica Varize says even after starting their own business, women may still get advice from business experts. They also continue to learn from each other, through the organization's SuccessLink program.

"It's a group of graduates. We get together every other month," Varize says. "We come together not with problems, but with issues that we may have concerning the business. Sometimes I have questions about on-line [marketing], because I just recently went to on-line sales. That's something that I really brought to the table: How you go about doing it? Who do you cater to? How do you get folks go to your website?"

Through networking, women are helping and inspiring each other. Justina Cross says that's the sort of development Women's Initiative for Self Employment fosters – helping women discover their potential, achieve their dreams and contribute to the economic growth of their communities.