Creating Pathways to Success for Women Entrepreneurs

Small businesses are playing a vital role in our emergence from one of the worst recessions in our nation's history. In fact, America's 23 million small businesses are responsible for 54 percent of all U.S. sales. There are a number of factors contributing to this phenomenon -- our long tradition of entrepreneurship and an evolving economic landscape, to name a few. But among the most impactful is that more and more women are becoming entrepreneurs.

According to the 2014 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express OPEN, women are starting 1,288 net new businesses per day; over the past 17 years, women-owned businesses have increased at 1.5 times the national average.

The impact of these new businesses is profound. One only has to look to New Jersey to see just how important women entrepreneurs' contributions are to our economic rebound. Small businesses in the Garden State employ about half of the workforce -- 1.7 million people. Women-owned firms employ more than 250,000 of those New Jerseyans and do nearly $45 billion in sales. Over the past 17 years, the number of women-owned businesses in New Jersey has increased by more than 48 percent.

While we have seen increases in women's success in the entrepreneurial space, there is still room for improvement, and the gains have not translated to much of the rest of the business world. Only 4.2 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are women, and for eight years, the proportion of female board members in corporate America has remained stagnant at less than 17 percent.

These discrepancies are not just issues of social justice and gender equality; they're a matter of global competitiveness. America can't afford to waste any of its talent. The playing field for women can and must be leveled, and we believe that while we continue to work toward greater fairness in the corporate space, we must redouble our focus on building upon the achievements women have made in small business.

Over the course of our respective careers it has become clear to us that there are two critical factors that can change the current landscape: improving access to capital for women-owned businesses, and creating structures to better enable women entrepreneurs to get the resources and networks they need to thrive.

Expanding access to capital means improving and funding Small Business Administration (SBA) loan programs for women and minority small business people, offering better and expanded SBA counseling services and technical assistance, and providing the Agency with more federal resources. The SBA's new administrator, Maria Contreras-Sweet, is taking steps to improve the agency, but these reforms will only take us so far -- government won't offer solutions to many of the challenges women entrepreneurs face.

Innovation and action driven by public-private partnerships is of critical importance. In many cases, the most effective assistance comes from businesswomen offering other businesswomen the support they need to get an idea off the ground. That's exactly what the Tory Burch Foundation does by supporting the economic empowerment of women entrepreneurs and their families in the U.S. through small loans, mentoring and entrepreneurial education programs.

This January, in partnership with Bank of America, the foundation launched an initiative called Elizabeth Street Capital, named for the location of the first Tory Burch store. With an initial investment of $10 million from the bank, the initiative is partnering with Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) across the country to provide women entrepreneurs with access to low-cost loans and mentoring support to launch and scale their businesses.

We've seen firsthand the great work that women who gain access to loans and mentoring opportunities do for themselves and their communities.

One of these women is Judy Thaxton, a Las Vegas-based tile, stone and flooring contractor, who recently received an Elizabeth Street Capital loan of $35,000 for operating capital, equipment and shop improvements to fulfill several contracts she had been awarded. Without the loan, she would have been unable to complete the jobs.

Another is ceramics maker Susannah Tisue, who recently refinanced part of a $10,000 loan to purchase an industrial pottery press that has more than tripled daily production at her Brooklyn studio, expediting delivery times. Since purchasing the press, an investment she made based on advice she received at TBF mentoring events, Tisue has hired two additional employees and is now positioned to handle larger accounts and expand distribution to major retailers.

For each of these examples there are millions more innovative American businesswomen following their passions, creating jobs and adding value to the marketplace and to their communities. It is time that we all do more to empower women entrepreneurs, for them, and for us all.

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