by Meg Smith
Women business owners in the state of Vermont are invisible. Researchers first learned that this vital data was missing in 2016 when examining the economic status of women in Vermont. Of the 81,132 businesses currently operating in Vermont, no one knows how many women own and operate them.
This omission is proving to be costly. When federal Paycheck Protection Program funds became available in Vermont to women-owned and minority-owned businesses two years ago, there was no official way to identify them.
The Vermont Women’s Fund has committed to changing this narrative. “This Way UP: there’s power in our numbers” is an online survey to identify and track women-owned businesses in Vermont. It also assesses the impact of their economic contributions in real-time, so the aggregated results are instantly available.
Here’s a sampling of the questions and answers from some of the first 681 respondents:
Where did women get their funding? Forty-one percent started their business by building it up slowly over time; 32% used savings; 11% got a loan from a bank, credit union, or community development organization; and 9% borrowed money from friends and family.
What life changes led them to start their business? Twenty-two percent lost employment and decided it was time to work for themselves; 18% had someone who offered support while they started the business; 17% had a mentor who helped them get started; 16% became a caregiver and needed flexibility; while 14% had no other work options and had to start a business.
Are they ready to mentor and connect with others? Seventy-five percent said yes.
Narratives live behind the numbers, offered voluntarily as part of the survey. They concretely reflect the issues that so many female entrepreneurs have had to address. Here are a few:
“My adult existence has been defined by choosing to produce food and steward land while raising kids. Our farm began in 1868; I currently own 40% and when my parents retire, I will be the first female to ever own the farm. We have credit card debt and back taxes from so many years without a living wage while building my husband’s business, raising young kids in rural Vermont, and working to update and weatherize our 1920s farmhouse. And our story is nothing compared to so many of our neighbors, we are the lucky ones; I am among some of the most privileged of farmers. I live with mental illness, and it is on this land and through farming that I can stay well and be a productive member of society, but I have to tell you, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep doing what I do, producing food and stewarding land, while knowing the burden it places on my family for me to do so.”
“It’s IMPOSSIBLE to get funding as a woman (with student loan debt) in small business. I was only able to secure financing because of my husband’s favorable credit. Even though this is 100% my business, I still have my business cards in his name. Access to capital for women in Vermont is SO important.”
“Being in business for myself has been the best journey of self-discovery I have ever taken.”
“I initially went into real estate sales as an independent contractor in 1981. Prior to that I was a stay-at-home mother. I went into the business as a financial necessity. In 2012, I made the move to open my own independent company. We have a great team of 14 now … which includes my husband and two of my daughters. It has been a great move and provides us all the means for financial independence with no glass ceilings to shatter.”
“I am a service-based business of one and a woman of color. I tried connecting with some networking organizations for business owners and found them to not be very welcoming, and I heard this repeatedly from others. Because I work with clients virtually, I am not focused on tying into the local community for customers but would love to have people to share ideas with, to support, and uplift.”
We can learn much more from the data that “This Way UP” gathers. You can help “This Way UP” reach its goal of signing up at least 10,000 women entrepreneurs by the end of the year. Share this link with every woman you know who runs a business, be it full-time or part-time, from solopreneurs to large employers. Encourage them to sign up so we can count them. The numbers bear out that we see an enormous untapped opportunity to grow Vermont’s economic vitality and diversity, to create networks of mentorship, to secure funding, and to increase contributions to Vermont’s economy.
But the first step is to move women forward from invisibility into full view. There’s power in our numbers.
Go to ThisWayUPvt.com to take the survey and click on “Today’s Numbers” to see the results to date. To learn more about women’s economic empowerment in Vermont, go to vermontwomensfund.org.
See more about local women-owned businesses in Linda Radtke’s story for the Bridge about women-owned businesses on Waterbury’s Stowe Street.
Meg Smith is the Director of the Vermont Women’s Fund.