Women in Connecticut should be feeling exceedingly optimistic about their future in the wake of this year’s elections. Not only did the state reelect a centrist governor committed to economic growth and opportunity, but a recent $46.6 million state investment designed to support underserved and start-up businesses — naming women-owned businesses specifically — will soon bear fruit.
Such support drives success, like in the case of Alisa Bowens-Mercado’s New Haven-based Rhythm Brewing Company. Motivated by economic disparities in the billion-dollar beer industry — where upwards of 88% of brewery owners are white — Alisa Bowens-Mercado opened her doors in 2017 as the first Black, woman-owned brewing company in the state and the fourth in the country. Recently facing inflationary pressures, she sought and secured grant funding from the Women’s Business Development Council that allowed her to not only stabilize her business but set her sights on national distribution opportunities.
When women are empowered with the resources necessary to invest in their businesses, the socioeconomic returns are significant. Consider that there are 112,000 women-owned businesses in Connecticut that generate $16.5 billion in annual revenue. This type of impact is possible when the environment is well-cultivated for growth, which can only succeed when private and public sector investments and policies take a holistic view of the needs of women.
At the beginning of my own entrepreneurial journey, small hurdles were common. Accessing office space, setting up an email, and just having the confidence to keep going were ongoing barriers to entry and stability. But access to capital was, and remains, one of the biggest hurdles for women — especially since it wasn’t until 1988 when women could access capital in their own name for commercial purposes. Making the case for the economic value and imperative of women in business from Main Street to the C-suites has certainly improved over the course of these past three decades, but the movement to ensure women have a seat at the table across all facets of society where decisions are being made for and about them continues.
Based on a Hearst Connecticut Media Group review of Paycheck Protection Programmoney during the pandemic, only 10% of the businesses that received this help answered the voluntary question of minority ownership. Hearst said that more than 80% of those that answered were white-owned businesses.
After this information became public the state stepped in to do something to assist women-owned and minority-owned businesses who were left behind. It responded with tax cuts, low-interest loans and nearly $20 million in funding through the American Rescue Plan Act’s (ARPA) State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI), funding forgivable loans and grant programs to specifically support underserved entrepreneurs. It also took critical taken steps to address policy issues that impact women the most, including child care.
While the state successfully responded to these needs, the real victory was not only in what it did, but how it was done. Led by the governor and lieutenant governor, the state engaged and partnered with the trusted entities at the community level — those who have been passionate advocates for their own constituencies for decades, from community banks to non-profits, and bring first-hand knowledge to address their clients’ specific and unique challenges. They also recognized that the state’s economy is not one-size-fits-all and, therefore, focused on solutions designed to meet the needs of businesses and employers in each locality.
It’s not only the right thing to do but the most profitable. Women-owned businesses performed better than the national average for all businesses from 2014-2019. This level of contribution suggests that supporting businesswomen must be an economic imperative. When women have access to the resources they need to succeed, the impact is undeniably critical.
The state’s model of investment to expand small businesses through grants to local nonprofit economic development organizations should be one that other states follow. It shows how collaboration between public and private entities — most notably those with on-the-ground knowledge and expertise — can improve outcomes for diverse and underrepresented businesses and communities that are often, and unfairly, the overlooked drivers of economic health and impact.
Fran Pastore is the founder and CEO of the Women’s Business Development Council and chairperson of the Connecticut Paid Leave Authority Board of Directors.