When Gov. Ned Lamont announced last week a five-year, $46.6 million plan to expand small business assistance programs across Connecticut, the organization receiving the largest amount of that funding – $9.8 million – was one known to small business owners across the state.
The renown of the Women’s Business Development Council reflects 25 years of work by the Stamford-headquartered nonprofit to help more than 18,000 clients across the 169 cities and towns in Connecticut. Since the organization’s founding in 1997, WBDC’s programs have supported the launch or growth of more than 12,500 businesses – the vast majority of which are women-owned – and the creation or maintenance of nearly 26,000 jobs.
In an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media, WBDC founder and Chief Executive Officer Fran Pastore discussed the organization’s 25th anniversary, the impact of its programs launched during the COVID-19 pandemic and its long-term goals.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
Q: What has been the impact of WBDC’s work in the past 25 years?
Pastore: When we launched, we were really pioneers. Nobody was really talking about the impact of women entrepreneurs on our state, national or even global economies at the time. I think in the past five-plus years, there’s been an emphasis and incredible movement to not only capture the economic impact of women entrepreneurs, but to recognize some of the obstacles that women face.
The light that has been shone on women in business and women entrepreneurs is finally being recognized as an economic issue. I’m excited that WBDC was really at the forefront of that.
Our focus always has been on microbusinesses – Main Street businesses – because we know that women will continually invest their time, talent and treasure in their local communities to keep their businesses vibrant and add to the economic vitality of their communities.
Q: How has the pandemic affected women in the workforce?
Pastore: Women were disproportionately impacted – in particular, women of color and women who reside in distressed communities – because we know that the majority of unpaid work falls on women. We know women were responsible for taking care of their children when schools were closed. We know that women were responsible for taking care of their parents who were affected by COVID.
But we’ve seen a 30 percent increase at WBDC since 2019 in women launching their own businesses. With entrepreneurship, while you have to work really hard to get a new business started, I think it affords a lot of flexibility.
Q: After the pandemic started, there was a proliferation of government funding provided through initiatives such as the federal Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses. But many women-owned and minority-owned businesses struggled to access those funds .
How did the WBDC’s Equity Match Grant Program – which, since its launch in 2020, has provided 167 grants totaling $1.5 million – helped to tackle those funding disparities?
Pastore: We know that over 75 percent of the PPP loans that were provided in Connecticut went to white-owned businesses, and the majority of those businesses were male owned.
In the kind of microbusinesses that WBDC works with, our clients don’t have a CFO (chief financial officer) on staff. Many of them don’t have the established banking relationships. Many of them don’t have the infrastructure to have supported that application process which was fairly complex.
When those results came out about who got the PPP loans, we really felt like it was our opportunity to address an unmet need. We knew that business owners couldn’t take on any more debt. So we collaborated with the governor’s office, (Department of Economic and Community Development) Commissioner David Lehman and the private sector to launch that grant program.
We structured that grant program a little differently than other types of support that were being offered. It was not for general operating expenses. It was an opportunity to catalyze new thinking about one’s business, to get folks to think about pivoting their business so they could not only survive COVID, but thrive post-COVID. It wasn’t a band aid. It was an opportunity to take what we do – education, technical assistance, coaching, counseling and mentoring – and take it to another level by providing them with an incentive to transition how they run their business.
As a result of the Equity Match Grant Program, our clients have doubled compared with pre-pandemic numbers: Prior to the pandemic, we were seeing 800 to 1,000 women per year. We’re now seeing roughly 2,000 to 2,200 women per year. The Equity Match Grant has opened up our reach in a big way because people are interested in learning more about how they can access these funds.
Q: In 2020, the WBDC Child Care Business Support Program was launched when Lamont and Connecticut Office of Early Childhood Commissioner Beth Bye called on WBDC to distribute emergency grants and technical support to child care businesses to ensure that they could remain open, allowing parents – particularly front line workers – to return to work at the height of the pandemic. Additional emergency relief grants were distributed through a partnership with the Governor’s Workforce Council.
Since its inception, the program has distributed 381 grants totaling $4.23 million. How would you describe the impact of these funds?
Pastore: These were emergency grants to make sure that child care providers could remain open, so first responders and families could get back to work. It also helped them purchase the equipment that they needed – and not just PPE – so they could take care of children in a safe environment.
As a result of that program, all but 1 percent of our child care slots pre-pandemic (statewide) have remained open. The average across other states is about 10 percent of those spots still have not opened.
Q: What are your goals for WBDC in 2023 and beyond?
Pastore: What has become abundantly clear to us is that there are some distressed communities and disadvantaged populations with whom we want to conduct more outreach.
Last month, we kind of had a grand re-opening of our New London office. We quadrupled the size of our office space in New London. We took over an old bank building from 1905, and we have about 3,000 square feet of space where we intend to create a mini co-working space for some of our clients who work from home but want to get out of their house now and need a place to go. And it will be a great opportunity for some networking.
And we’ve formed a partnership in Waterbury, with the mayor’s office and economic development office. We expect to be opening an office in Waterbury probably in the first quarter of 2023.
WBDC is poised to help women reach their personal economic goals through entrepreneurship and help them along that pathway. We intend to continue to be part of this recovery from the pandemic and also part of the great Connecticut comeback.