By Marybeth Gas via Forbes
Ever wonder about women-owned businesses? Consider these facts:
• 42% of all U.S.-owned companies are owned by women;
• 4 out of 10 businesses are owned by women;
• Women-owned businesses generate $1.9 trillion annually;
• Between 2014-2019, Black women-owned firms grew 50%, the highest growth rate of any woman-based demographic;
• Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (41%), Latina/Hispanic (40%), Asian American (37%) and Native American/Alaska Native (26%) businesses grew at a slower rate than women of color overall but faster than women-owned businesses and businesses in general.
The Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell University is working to capitalize on this impressive growth and to support women entrepreneurs. To date, 50,000 women have enrolled in the Institute’s on-line certificate program, and Bank of America recently funded 50,000 new spots in the program. Most impressive, 90% of the participants are women of color. The certificate program, which is open to anyone worldwide (regardless of gender), is offered at no cost and is the only on-line entrepreneurship program at an Ivy League institution.
One of the program participants is Raquel Solomon, who owns Ceremonies by Raquel. As she shared, “As a 52 year old single mother, I never thought I would graduate from Cornell.” Solomon enrolled in the women’s entrepreneurship program because she thought it would lend credibility to her being an entrepreneur. In her words, “Although I felt I had sufficient educational experience to start my business, I could not pass up the opportunity to attend an Ivy League school at no cost in a field that supports my goals and dreams. I knew without a doubt this program was going to catapult my business to the next level, and it did just that.”
When she was accepted into the program, she was initially nervous. However, very quickly, she released that she was with like-minded women who were dedicated to building their businesses. Solomon stated, “Your colleagues are just as passionate as you are and there is a strong support system.” She also appreciated the instructors, noting that they were “amazing.” Solomon shared that although the program was tuition free, the standard of learning and expectations were equal to that of a program for which people pay high tuition. She found the coursework challenging but incredibly rewarding.
As a student in the program, Solomon gained a great amount of confidence and also the tools to position her business to move to the next level. More importantly, as she stated, “This program gave me a clear view of my potential and how to get there, and that is something most entrepreneurs struggle with. The ups and downs to entrepreneurship can be tough and we were challenged on how to handle business conflict and different things to look out for not just as a [woman] but as a business owner in the twenty-first century. Solomon currently works full-time as a government employee, but plans to retire in the next few years and at that point she will offer full-service wedding and life planning services. In the past 12 months she has officiated marriages for 120 couples, and as such, she isn’t worried about finding clients.
Bank of America financially supports the women’s entrepreneurship program at Cornell. According to Pam Seagle, Global Manager for Women’s Programs at Bank of America, “As a financial institution, it’s within our purpose to support the economic vitality of our communities. At Bank of America, this is especially true for women and minority groups. We’re continuing to deliver on our $1.25 billion commitment to address racial equality and economic opportunity, which includes efforts specifically focused on supporting small businesses.” She also recognizes that there are systemic, long-term gaps and that significant change is required for progress to occur and to be sustained.
Cornell University is the academic partner in this initiative. The Ivy League university, which boasts strong women faculty, provides high-quality education as part of the program. According to Kirsten Barker, the program director for the Institute, “This program enabled us to reach across the country and the globe and provide world-class teaching from Cornell faculty to any interested entrepreneurs at no cost to them.”
The program is important to Cornell because it is providing education, connections, and networking opportunities to 100,000 students. Barker shared, “The social impact of this program is not only aligned with what Cornell strives to achieve as an institution but is also aligned with what is needed in the world right now as we exit a two-year period that has highlighted specific challenges facing so many professional women and more specifically, women of color.”
When Bank of America and Cornell launched their pilot program in 2018, they did not anticipate such a high percentage of women of color. However, as a result of an article in Forbes, news of the program went viral in just 24 hours. The article was shared across social media and passed around in groups supporting Black/African American women entrepreneurs. According to Bank of America’s Seagle, “There is an incredibly strong community of passionate women business owners and within the first week of launch we exceeded our initial plan for participants – talk about the power of social media” The program now benefits from women referring each other to the program, sharing their success stories, and posting their certificates among these same on-line communities, and it continues to attract a very diverse student population.
Each student in the on-line certificate program is on a unique journey. Some are already business owners and this program helps fill in some of the missing pieces so that they can more successfully operate their organizations. Some students have a side business and this program helps them work through the details of what is needed to launch into a full time business. Some students are at a point of transition in their lives –retiring from a long-term career, relocating, leaving the military, caring for children or elderly family members – and this program helps them explore whether entrepreneurship is the right next step. As Barker explained, “The educational aspect of the program provides value to our students regardless of where they are on their entrepreneurial journey.”