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The National Association Of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) President Talks Women And Small Business

04/01/2013 10:05 am ET

Twenty five years ago, the share of women-owned businesses was dismal. But thanks to a concerted effort by both the private and public sectors and membership organizations like National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), women are playing an increasingly vital part in bringing women entrepreneurs to the forefront.

Started in 1975 by 12 women who wanted to increase economic opportunities for female entrepreneurs, NAWBO continues that work today through a combination of advocacy and community.

In the late 1980s, women owned only 10 percent of U.S. businesses, Reuters reported. Today, women-owned firms account for 40 percent of all privately-held firms.

This considerable rise of women leaders has helped shift the business landscape and has opened up a wealth of opportunities for aspiring female entrepreneurs and small business owners. Diane Leneghan Tomb, the President and CEO of NAWBO, spoke with The Huffington Post about the current state of women and small business and what has contributed to this vital evolution.

Which element of the services that NAWBO offers is the most beneficial to women in small business?

Our primary mission, when the organization was created, was really on the public policy front. To really have a voice at the table for women business owners on regulatory issues, tax issues and issues that face business across the board. Helping to create a level playing field is really something of value that we continue to provide for our members.

But we also create programs that service our members in terms of identifying mentorship, ways of growing their businesses and educational opportunities. Then there's always the peer-to-peer interaction that helps folks as they're running businesses. Many women just find that they would often like to find other women who've had those experiences to use as someone to bounce ideas off of as they're thinking through their next steps.

What do you believe are the main challenges facing women small business owners today?

Unfortunately things haven't changed that much since the organization has been around since 1975. Still one of the biggest issues facing women who are trying to grow their business is access to capital.

What do you believe is the best way for women to overcome that challenge?

It's really multi-faceted. I think that the lending organizations need to do a better job of understanding the needs of small business owners and women. One of the things that our organization was on the forefront of in 1989 was a piece of legislation called HR 5050. Up until that time women had to actually have a male co-sign on a business loan. We have a member who talks about -- she was divorced at the time -- how she had to get her son to sign for her to get a business loan. Believe it or not, it was just 25 years ago when women weren't even able to get business loans without getting it co-signed by a male. We've come a long way but there's still a lot of issues in the lending arena that still need to be addressed.

The other piece of it is that we do a lot of research with market partners which shows that women are starting businesses in record numbers, but there is still difficulty with growing the businesses. So we try to provide that technical assistance and partner with different organizations to help our members, those who choose, to grow their business.

How will the landscape shift in the next 15-20 years with regards to women and business?

If the trends continue as they are, the private sector -- particularly in the banking industry and others -- will have woken up to the potential of women business owners. Like I said, they're starting businesses in record numbers and the potential for growth is there. I think understanding how to tap into that market and understanding that their needs tend to be unique is important. For instance they don't tend to be focused on venture capital, that's not a way they would initially go to to raise money for business ventures. Understanding the best way to tap into that industry is really going to be how the private sector will benefit.

I will say, Karen Mills, who is the current SBA administrator, has been very, very good at recognizing the potential that women business owners have but also understanding where the current barriers are and how to address them. A lot of times with small business, they're not looking for large, high-risk loans. It's maybe ten or fifteen thousand. It's what they call bridge loans, often, to get through, and there are not a lot of organizations that are willing to take those kinds of risks.

What is the most important challenge you have weathered that has helped to grow NAWBO?

In terms of what we could be doing better, I think communicating what it is we're trying to do in terms of the organization, adding value and moving forward.

One of the things I'm trying to do a better job of articulating is what that value is, being a part of a member organization like this and how it can benefit you in terms of growing your business.

What do you find to be unique among the women-owned business community?

I'm sure this happens with men as well, but women tend to want to give back, so we have a lot of board members who still stay very involved with our organization. Their businesses are grown, they've sold their businesses, they've moved on, but they still stay very involved in the organization because they felt like when they really needed it, it was there to help them get to their next level. They like to turn around and do that for other women. That's something I find to be really unique, to be a part of an organization like this, and that it tends to be the culture of the organization.

For women preparing to start their own company, which piece of advice do you think is the most important to keep in mind?

To not forget that, like anything, it doesn't always happen the way you envisioned it. The perseverance, doing your homework, being sure you have access to resources, but also the staying with it and not giving up. When I see the members who have been successful in their current business, it's the ability to hang in there when things get tough. Being able to use their resourcefulness and being risk takers but also being measured in how they do it.

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