Meg Smith: Of the 81,132 businesses in Vermont, how many women do they own? Nobody knows

This commentary is from Meg A. Smith, director of the Vermont Women’s Fund.

Vermont’s women business owners 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 are owned and operated by women.

This omission is costly. When federal Paycheck Protection Program funds became available in Vermont for women- and minority-owned businesses two years ago, there was no official way to identify them.

The Vermont Women’s Fund is committed to changing that 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 aggregated results are instantly available.

Here is a sampling of questions and answers from some of the 681 first responders:

Where did the women get their funding? 41% started their business by growing it slowly over time, 32% used their savings, 11% got a loan from a bank, credit union or community development organization and 9 % have borrowed money from friends and family.

What life changes led them to start their business? 22% lost their job and decided it was time to work for themselves, 18% had someone who helped them start their business, 17% had a mentor who helped them start, 16% became carers 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? 75% said yes.

Behind the numbers, there are narratives intentionally offered as part of the survey. They concretely reflect the issues that so many women entrepreneurs have had to face. Here are a few:

  • “My adult existence was defined by choosing to produce food and manage land while raising children. Our farm started in 1868; I currently own 40% of it and when my parents retire I will be the first woman to own the farm.
    “We have so many years of credit card debt and back taxes with no decent pay while building my husband’s business, raising young children in rural Vermont, and working to update and to protect our farm from the 1920s. And our history is nothing compared to so many of our neighbors. We are the lucky ones; I am one of the most privileged farmers.
    “I live with mental illness, and it is on this land and through farming that I can stay healthy and be a productive member of society, but I have to tell you that it is becoming more and more hard to continue doing what I do, producing food and stewarding the land, knowing the burden it places on my family if I do.
  • “It’s impossible to get financing as a woman (with student loan debt) in a small business. I was only able to obtain financing thanks to my husband’s favorable credit. Even though it’s 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 first got into real estate sales as an independent contractor in 1981. Before that, I was a stay-at-home mom. I got into the business out of financial necessity. In 2012, I decided to open my own independent business. We now have a great team of 14 people…which includes my husband and two of my daughters. It was a great decision and provides us with all the means to financial independence without glass ceilings to break. “
  • “I am a one-person, one-woman-of-color service business. I’ve tried connecting with some business owner networking organizations and found them to be unwelcoming, and I’ve heard this repeatedly from other people. Because I work with clients virtually, I don’t focus on connecting with the local community for clients, but would like to have people to share ideas with, support and uplift.

There is much more to learn from the data This Way UP collects. You can help This Way UP reach its goal of recruiting at least 10,000 female entrepreneurs by the end of the year. Share this link with all the women you know who run a business, whether full-time or part-time, from solopreneurs to big employers.

Encourage them to sign up and get counted. The numbers confirm that there is a huge untapped opportunity to grow Vermont’s economic vitality and diversity, build mentorship networks, secure funding, and increase contributions to Vermont’s economy.

But the first step is to move women from invisibility to full sight. There is power in our numbers.

Go to ThisWayUPvt.com to take the survey and click on today’s numbers to see results to date. To learn more about women’s economic empowerment in Vermont, visit vermontwomensfund.org.

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