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#SheOwnsIt: Women's Business Center takes off in Lancaster

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As she grows her retail business, Nicole Vasquez has taken advantage of free classes at the Women’s Business Center at Assets in Lancaster. Vasquez, owner of That Shuu Girl clothing store on East King Street, recently opened a second Lancaster shop, Nicole Taylor Boutique, on the 300 block of North Queen Street.
As she grows her retail business, Nicole Vasquez has taken advantage of free classes at the Women’s Business Center at Assets in Lancaster. Vasquez, owner of That Shuu Girl clothing store on East King Street, recently opened a second Lancaster shop, Nicole Taylor Boutique, on the 300 block of North Queen Street. - (Photo / )

One woman wants to start a podcast. Another wants to provide sustainable employment for refugees. A third would like to organize small-group nutrition workshops.

These women made up some of the more than 150 aspiring and established entrepreneurs who packed into Lancaster’s Candy Factory co-working building on a Thursday evening in late August for the inaugural #SheOwnsIt forum, a networking and educational event held by the Women’s Business Center at Assets, a Lancaster nonprofit focused on economic development.

The women eagerly exchanged business cards during a food truck-catered mingling hour before the start of the main forum. They cheered throughout a keynote address by urban revitalizer Majora Carter. And they readily shared their entrepreneurial aspirations during breakout sessions that closed out the evening.

The event was the first of its kind for the Women’s Business Center, which started operating under the Assets umbrella about a year and a half ago. Center director Melisa Baez hopes more events and programs like it — ones that encourage not just aspiring entrepreneurs but also ones looking to expand existing businesses — will follow as the young organization grows.

Addressing disparity

The Women’s Business Center exists for two purposes: to increase the proportion of women business owners in the city of Lancaster and to help established entrepreneurs grow their companies.

Right now, women make up roughly half of the city’s roughly 60,000 residents but less than a third of its business owners, Baez said. The Women’s Business Center wants to inch that number up through seminars, accelerators, peer support groups, one-on-one assistance and other programs.

The center is not new to Lancaster. It existed for some time as part of Community First Fund, a local community development institution, before Assets absorbed it in May 2016.

Funding for the center comes in part from a $150,000 annual grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which sponsors similar centers throughout the country. The Women’s Business Center must match a portion of that amount through state, local and private funds each year. In 2017, its second grant year, the center is required to match every $2 of federal funds with at least $1 of non-federal funds. That ratio goes to 1:1 next year.

Baez has worked since the transition to mesh the center’s programs with ones already existing at Assets, which tries to build socially responsible and economically sustainable businesses through its own menu of educational and lending programs.

In the year and a half since Assets took over the Womens Business Center, Baez has noted some of the most common barriers that seem to separate women from successful entrepreneurship. She encounters lots of women with innovative business ideas, but few seem to know how to take those concepts to a lender to receive financing. And many struggle to scale their companies beyond small mom-and-pop shops.

That same struggle among women to finance their businesses has also played out on the national level. Because of factors ranging from the relatively young age of women-owned firms to the kinds of industries in which women tend to start their businesses, women who own businesses employ fewer people and bring in less revenue than their male cohorts, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The Women’s Business Center has seen some success addressing these issues with individual entrepreneurs. Its business startup learning circles — 10-week programs in which 15 aspiring entrepreneurs learn how to take their businesses from idea to reality — have a 75 percent startup rate, Baez said. The center has also seen interest in its one-on-one consulting services.

Nicole Vasquez is one of the center’s success stories.

A lifelong Lancaster resident, Vasquez opened That Shuu Girl Boutique on East King Street in 2012 at the age of 23. Support from Baez and participation in a lending circle program at Assets helped Vasquez open a second store — Nicole Taylor Boutique — on North Queen Street on Sept. 1.

Vasquez found the educational components of the lending program especially helpful, she said, as she learned how to understand and build her credit. The program also connected her with a $3,900 loan to stock inventory at the new store.

Vasquez believes Lancaster overwhelmingly supports women who own businesses or want to own businesses. And she overwhelmingly supports Assets and the Women’s Business Center. She only wishes more people knew about all the resources available in the city for entrepreneurs.

Baez also hopes to get the word out about the Women’s Business Center’s programming. Other goals include ramping up the center’s accelerator programs for already-established women-owned businesses and organizing more boot camp-style seminars on topics like marketing and financial management.

More big events like the #SheOwnsIt forum could also lie in the Women’s Business Center’s future. The Aug. 24 event emerged from suggestions the center received from its current clients, Baez said, and the 156 people in attendance far exceeded the crowd of 100 for which the center’s leadership had hoped.

Baez expects the momentum to continue.

“Our job is to really make sure that the underrepresented get access to quality resources,” she said. “And we won’t settle for anything less.”

Not just Lancaster

Lancaster is not the only city with a relatively small proportion of women-owned businesses. Nor is it the only one trying to do something about that disparity.

Majority women-owned businesses account for about a third of private businesses in York, Harrisburg and Lebanon, as well as the borough of Carlisle. The number nationally was 36 percent as of 2012, the most recent year the U.S. Small Business Administration compiled a report.

Programs likes Lancaster’s Women’s Business Center exist throughout the midstate. One such program is the Women’s Business Center Organization in York.

The organization existed for about 10 years as part of York College but, as of Aug. 24, is part of the York County Economic Alliance.

Unlike the Women’s Business Center at Assets, the York Women’s Business Center Organization does not receive government grants; instead, it sustains itself through $175 annual membership fees from its roughly 50 members. The fees cover the organization’s monthly networking luncheons.

In the short term, York County Economic Alliance president and CEO Kevin Schreiber wants to focus on sustaining the center’s existing programs and completing the transition process.

But come 2018, he would like to see the organization ramp up its mentoring services for women with established professional careers, as well as increase advocacy around issues like helping women re-enter the workforce if they choose to take a leave.

He also hopes to increase cooperation with similar organizations in the area.

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Jennifer Wentz

Jennifer Wentz

Jennifer Wentz covers Lancaster County, York County, financial services, taxation and legal services. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at jwentz@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @jenni_wentz.

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