by Rieva Lesonsky
National Women’s Equality Day is celebrated every August 26 to commemorate the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. That amendment prohibits the denial by the federal government and the states of the right to vote on the basis of sex.
While more recently women have made great strides in the world of entrepreneurship, we still have a ways to go. I recently sat down (virtually) with Sharon Miller, Head of Small Business at Bank of America, to talk about how women can continue to thrive—even during this global pandemic.
The last time Sharon and I spoke all signs pointed to a strong 2020 for women business owners. Obviously, the coronavirus has dimmed that outlook, making it a challenging year for all business owners.
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Rieva Lesonsky: Before the pandemic, were you seeing more equality when it came to women-owned businesses getting funding?
Sharon Miller: Our last survey of women busines owners showed access to capital for women had improved over the last decade. But, in that survey, nearly 25 percent of the women said, “We women will never have equal access to capital.” There’s still a perception among women that money is harder to get.
Women think they have to have it perfectly right before they go to the bank. Many men come in without even having a concept.
Women need to get there [to the bank] sooner. Don’t wait until it’s perfect. Go now so you can get advice from professionals and learn what you will need to do to get funding. It’s never going to be perfect. Don’t be afraid to come in.
Today, women own about 40 percent of the small businesses in the country and that’s accelerating. Women are a force to be reckoned with. Women understand they can do this. And when we at Bank of America can’t provide help directly, we will be a resource to get women what they need through organizations like Vital Voices and NAWBO (National Association of Women Business Owners).
Lesonsky: You believe “confidence” is a big factor in women achieving success. How can we better instill confidence in younger women and girls, so they grow up more confident about pursuing entrepreneurship?
Miller: One of my favorite quotes—I have this pinned to my bulletin board—is from Henry Ford—"Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” My daughter is 11, my son is 14, and I already can see the difference. I tell them, “You can do anything.” It’s really important to instill that in our daughters, nieces, and families.
We need to have role models who have achieved and accomplished at the highest levels—women who are helping their communities. We need to keep breaking glass ceilings so we can show what can be done.
Advocacy moves women forward
Lesonsky: Can you speak a little about the power of mentorship in helping women business owners succeed?
Miller: Mentorship—to have like-minded people and resources to help advise you and give you information and help with problems you’re not seeing or don’t know about—is important.
But what’s more important is advocacy. We can be mentors all day long, but as women, ask yourself, how can I be an advocate, how can I move them along? Be a referral source. In the corporate world, ask how you can help advance other women. We need to pull through women and minorities and make sure they have access.
Lesonsky: Bank of America was investing in helping women by sponsoring conferences and events. Now that the pandemic has played havoc with in-person meetings and conferences, how do we best connect and support one another?
Miller: Everything is virtual now. We’re the title sponsor at the upcoming NAWBO conference. And it’s going to be virtual, which means more people can participate. Human connection is important, but we have to adapt to the new normal. This is a time of self-reflection and everyone needs to define the new normal for themselves.
Finding work-life balance in the current environment
Lesonsky: I have read that while many women and men have been working at home these last few months, many of the responsibilities of taking care of the kids (teaching, etc.) have fallen disproportionally on women. This goes back to something you said last year. This question was asked: “I believe X will be impactful in helping women in business over the next five years.” And the No. 1 answer was achieving work-life balance. How do we do that in these pandemic times?
Miller: That was an optimistic conversation, but all of a sudden the world changed. I’m a mom of two and found out over spring break they were not going back to school. I thought, “What am I going to do?” My office became a classroom and I was balancing work with making sure the kids do what they’re supposed to.
Lesonsky: Do you have any tips for working moms?
Miller: You have to be even more structured in your day. Try to be the best mom and the best at work. Just do the best you can.
But you also need to pull away every now and then. Exercise. Take time for you. We all need time to refocus. You can’t do your best if you can’t be at your best.
We have to tell ourselves, “I can’t control this, so focus on what you can control.”
Investing in our communities
Lesonsky: In the podcast, you mention that women invest more in their communities than men. Today in particular, it seems especially important to invest in our communities. How can we business owners’ best do that?
Miller: Despite the challenges, there have been a lot of positives. There’s always a silver lining. We need to help businesses in our communities. Order take out from local restaurants. Raise funds for community programs.
At Bank of America, we don’t just serve clients, we serve communities. We’ve launched a billion-dollar commitment for racial equality. We’re not just having a health care crisis in America. We have to ask, “What do we stand for?” We may not understand someone else’s situation, but we can open our hearts and minds.
We can listen and make our communities better. We can make it a better world.
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