Empowering New York City's Women Entrepreneurs

By New York City Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen

If you are a woman following the public conversation about gender roles in the workplace, it would be reasonable to assume that you have just two choices - wait for work culture and norms to change, as Anne Marie Slaughter suggests, or take it upon yourself to adopt behaviors and strategies that will allow you to succeed in a man's world, as Sheryl Sandberg posits.

Slaughter and Sandberg have been monumental in highlighting gender-based inequality in the workplace and possible ways to achieve greater economic and gendered fairness at work. But both of their arguments presume that women are and will continue to work in spaces dominated by men.

This presumption doesn't have to be true -- women can, and are, starting their own businesses. If properly supported, women entrepreneurs may just be the wildly successful cultural and workplace change catalysts women, families, and neighborhoods need.

According to a comprehensive research report from the NYC Department of Small Business Services and Citi Community Development, New York City is home to almost 360,000 women entrepreneurs, representing 32 percent of all registered companies -- a 43 percent increase since 2002. This growth is generating significant economic impact for the City ($50 billion in sales annually), and yet, there is still a tremendous gender gap. In New York City, men own 1.5 times the number of businesses, employ 3.5 times the number of employees, and generate 4.5 times the amount of revenue as compared to women entrepreneurs.

Recognizing the tremendous economic and social impact women entrepreneurs have, how can public/private partnerships help create alternative pathways towards economic empowerment, and change the set of alternatives available to women in the workplace?

We went straight to the source to find these answers, speaking with more than 1,500 women entrepreneurs in NYC through interviews, surveys, community forums, and focus groups to find out about their motivations, challenges, and needs. Through these conversations, we have found that women face unique struggles as a result of limited access to capital, industry specific business skills, gaps in leadership, limited networks and mentorship opportunities, and a lack of comprehensive and quality information.

Entrepreneurship is a risky and often challenging proposition for anyone -- but particularly for women who are struggling to get by. At Hot Bread Kitchen, a non-profit social enterprise that creates opportunities for low-income women and their families by offering culinary workforce and business incubation programs, the majority of women who participate in programs choose to pursue jobs with high wage and opportunity employers, as opposed to entrepreneurship. While entrepreneurship may ultimately be a path to economic security, to consider it as an option, women will need to know how and what services can support them in that endeavor.

As a result, we launched WE NYC (Women Entrepreneurs NYC) initiative -- a first of its kind initiative seeking to empower women entrepreneurs, specifically those from underserved communities, by offering a suite of innovative, scalable, programs and strategies that address these entrepreneurs' most urgent needs. In addition to just launching a mentorship program with leading women entrepreneurs in New York City, WE NYC will also be announcing programs that focus on leadership development, credit building and obtaining access to much-needed capital.

WE NYC stands as a testament to our belief that women can actively take the reins in leading this country to a fairer and more robust economy. There are many ways women can lead and support each other in imagining a better future for ourselves and our communities, and adding diverse perspectives to the current conversations allows women, families, and communities to envision a more progressive workforce.