Business writer Jennifer Hickey recently spoke with Nell Merlino, founder and president of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence (CMI), a non-profit organization that provides coaching and community support for women entrepreneurs seeking to grow their businesses. Merlino is also the author of Stepping Out of Line: Lessons for Women Who Want It Their Way in Life, in Love and at Work, and the creative force behind “Take Our Daughters to Work Day.” Some excerpts:
JH: How did CMI evolve from an online micro-lender to a resource and education provider for women seeking to grow as entrepreneurs?
NM: Over time we saw a greater need for helping women grow their business, instead of just starting their business. There are already 8.5-million women-owned businesses in the country. While this is an impressive figure, the majority makes less than $50,000 in annual revenues. There were countless programs that helped women start up their business, but not one that exclusively helped women business owners focus on the growth of their business. Once we saw the success of Make Mine a Million $ Business (M3), which was piloted in 2005, we began to shift our focus to equipping women with the resources they need to reach millions in annual revenue through various conferences and competitions around the country.
JH: How do the various programs—Make Mine a Million $ Business (M3), Urban Rebound, and Women Veteran Entrepreneur Corps (WVEC)—and the services CMI offers complement and support one another?
NM: Although all of our programs target women business owners, they cater to different levels of business development. They include a competition component where women give two-minute pitches on their business and have the opportunity to be selected for our nine-month business accelerator program. The Urban Rebound program feeds into our M3 program because it helps women reach annual revenue to $250,000, so that they can focus on reaching the million-dollar mark. The Urban Rebound program is open to businesses in cities that remain challenged by higher unemployment, as a way to help those businesses grow so they can hire more people.
There is a great disparity in growth and prosperity between men and women who go into business. It is a similar experience for women in the military, and that is why we decided to create our Women Veteran Entrepreneur Corps (WVEC) program. WVEC is a separate program that accepts women veterans and military spouses with businesses in good standing, regardless of revenue threshold, because we’ve seen that women veterans bring a different life experience to their business. So, we’ve created coaching groups through the business accelerator program for those on their way to reaching that million-dollar mark, for those who fall into the Urban Rebound category, and for those in the startup phase. It’s proven to be very important that these women are among other veteran or military spouses and at the same level of revenue growth, as they often have different needs. We hope and plan to integrate the awardees from all of our programs together, because we feel veteran and civilian women business owners have so much to learn from each other.
JH: What have you observed and encountered as a business owner that led to founding one that specifically targets female owned businesses?
NM: The Census tells a story of millions of women business owners throughout the country. Private and public institutions that seek to help small business owners typically focus on start-ups or on larger businesses seeking venture capital funding. Before CMI, there was no organization working with the women who had plateaued after having started their business. The programs we offer help women get the confidence and access to resources needed to grow companies that will sustain them and their families, as well as create jobs. Just as there are business organizations that help African-American, Asian, and Hispanic business owners, at CMI, we believe giving women their own space is an important element in the growth of their businesses.
NM: It became very clear to me that the missing piece to women’s equality was economic empowerment and the ability to support oneself and family that went beyond struggling to survive. There’s a lot of pent-up innovation and creativity in women that periodically changes how we think about products and services, such as Angie’s List, Spanx, and all the development there’s been in creating more nutritional, easier to prepare food products. Women are constantly developing products and services that solve all kinds of problems. I feel like we’ve only just scratched the surface of what women in business are capable of. And one of the most important ways to continue the progress women have made is through business.
JH: According the 2010 Census, women make up almost half of all small business owners, yet less than three percent reach or exceed $1 million in revenues, compared with six percent for men. Could you describe some of the obstacles women-owned businesses face that may account for this disparity and how have the programs and services CMI offers helped to overcome them?
NM: The first obstacle that we try to help women overcome is the awareness that it is possible for them to grow their business. We focus heavily on introducing women in our programs to other women who have successfully made it to the million-dollar mark so that they can realize that those women started just like them, stuck at a plateau. Another obstacle that we help women overcome is the lack of confidence about how to grow their business, after they’ve realized that it’s possible. Women who participate in CMI programs become a part of a community of women who are trying to reach the same goal, and that is a very powerful resource for them. I think it’s particularly helpful for women to have colleagues to talk to that are interested in each other’s success. I truly believe that is why 32 percent of the women who participate in CMI programs reach the million-dollar level and have the skills to keep growing. We’re trying to change the notion that financial and business success means you have to step on others to get there. At CMI, we encourage women to build a sustainable, thriving business that also incorporates their visions for their family, community, and the world.
JH: What advice would you offer a female entrepreneur thinking about attending a CMI event?
NM: The first step is to apply. By filing out the application, it forces you to think about how you would scale your business. In the process of enrolling in CMI and getting into a competition, you start to plan and set larger goals for your business. And by the time you’ve finished the business accelerator program, you have a solid business plan. Beyond learning about the CMI programs, you learn things that can be used the very next day in your business. You start thinking about what you can do to improve your business and often find someone to do business with. Even if you’re not chosen for a program, you can come back and apply again. Isolation is the enemy of success. Simply stepping out and engaging with others is the first step in realizing the full potential of your business. I love what Diana Nyad said after her swim from Cuba to Florida. She said: “[Swimming] looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.” The very same thing is true for small business owners.