Third time’s the charm for an Idaho Women’s Business Center?

Sharon Fisher//May 30, 2018

Third time’s the charm for an Idaho Women’s Business Center?

Sharon Fisher//May 30, 2018

Attendees at a Small Business Administration workshop on how to apply for a Women’s Business Center grant. From left, Katie Sewell, director of the Idaho Small Business Development Center; Jeremy Field, regional administrator for the Pacific Northwest Region of the Small Business Administration; Diane Bevan, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and an unidentified attendee. Photo by Fiona Montagne.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) is trying again to pay for the creation of a Women’s Business Center in Idaho, after two unsuccessful launches.

The agency announced on May 8 that a $150,000 grant was available for a nonprofit organization to provide business counseling, training, and other resources to women entrepreneurs in Idaho.

The deadline for the grant is July 2, and the agency held bidding information sessions May 17 and 18 in Coeur d’Alene and Boise, respectively. Representatives from about 15 groups attended the Coeur d’Alene workshop, said Suzanne Wrasse, director of outreach and policy advisor for the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship in Washington, D.C.

A smaller number, including supportive organizations that are ineligible for the grant, attended the Boise workshop. They included representatives from the Idaho Department of Commerce, the College of Western Idaho, Idaho-Women in Leadership, Zions Bank, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and The Development Company, an eastern Idaho economic development nonprofit. 

Kathleen McShane from the Small Business Administration leads a workshop in Boise to encourage applicants to apply for a Women’s Business Center grant. Photo by Fiona Montagne.

“As a former woman business owner myself in rural Idaho, I definitely think there were times when it would have been helpful to have a one-stop resource to get answers to all sorts of questions,” said Diane Bevan, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, in Nampa, which she said would not be applying for the grant itself. Women she knows who own businesses say it would have been easier to them had there been a place they could call with basic questions such as how to get permits, how to create a business plan, and how to get financing, she said. “There are great women’s organizations — the valley is rich with them,” she said. “But on the business side, having one place to go could be very helpful to the state.”

The SBA has 110 Women’s Business Centers nationwide, which it said helped 150,000 entrepreneurs, including 17,000 new business starts, in 2017. Idaho is one of three states, along with Alaska and South Carolina, without one, said Kathleen McShane, assistant administrator of the office of women’s business ownership for the SBA.

SBA-funded Women’s Business Centers haven’t done so well in Idaho. The first one was founded in the late 1990s, but succumbed due to a lack of funding, as well as a lack of a viable host agency to provide administrative functions, said Nina Dillon, former executive director.

A second SBA-funded Women’s Business Center started in 2012, and solved the host agency problem by partnering with the nonprofit organization Jannus, then called Mountain States Group. In its first 18 months, it said it had provided more than 1,000 hours of one-on-one customized business counseling to 218 individuals, held 437 counseling sessions, and trained 264 people with classes and workshops. It served any prospective or existing business owner, not just women.

photo of beth geagan
Beth Geagan

However, after a series of directors, it closed in 2016 because the organization couldn’t raise the cash match that the SBA grant required, said Beth Geagan, the economic opportunity director for Jannus at the time.

The SBA attempted to fund another Women’s Business Center in late 2017. “My understanding is no one applied,” Geagan said. McShane said she could not disclose that.

It’s not that there isn’t a need for a women’s business center in Idaho. The state tends to show up dead last, or nearly last, in national research on economic opportunities for women. “When I was involved, we were 49 or 50 in opportunities for women-owned businesses and women in management,” Geagan said.

“It’s a lack of willingness to fund these initiatives,” due to the number of nonprofits in Idaho and the competition for funding, she said.

According to a recent WalletHub survey of Best and Worst States for Working Moms, Idaho ranked last in the country. In particular, Idaho ranked 50 in ratio of female to male executives, 49 in gender-representation gap in different economic sectors, and 43 in gender pay gap, said Diana Popa, communications manager for the Washington, D.C., organization.

Now the SBA is trying again to help jump-start a woman’s business center, but with the same daunting cash match requirements – 50 percent for the first two years, followed by 100 percent. “We were told that they were going to rewrite the requirements, but when I read the new grant, it was exactly the same,” said Geagan. “If it comes out and it’s exactly the same, the only way it will be successful is with a pre-commitment of match dollars.”

Organizations concerned about the cash match requirements could take a smaller grant than the full $150,000, McShane said. They also might not understand the market, she added. However, the grant has reduced its stringent record-keeping requirements, which some previous Women’s Business Center staffers had also criticized. “I cut paperwork by 25 percent,” she said.

photo of julie fogerson
Julie Fogerson

Wells Fargo Bank provided funding for the second incarnation of the organization, including $3,000 in 2015 and $2,500 in 2014. A Women’s Business Center “absolutely would be considered” for funding through its normal grantmaking process, said Julie Fogerson, assistant vice president of Idaho regional communications.

Nationwide, the program itself is facing budget cuts. The proposed 2019 federal budget cuts $2 million from SBA’s $18 million budget for Women’s Business Centers. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, sent a letter signed by 17 other senators asking that funding be reinstated. Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch did not sign the letter; spokesmen from their offices said they were not asked.