By Jim Haddadin
The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H.
U.S. Sen Jeanne Shaheen and one of the country’s most important decision-makers on issues that affect small businesses recently visited New Hampshire to hear from female entrepreneurs.
About 30 women gathered at LaBelle Winery in Amherst on Friday to discuss their concerns with Shaheen and Acting Small Business Administration Administrator Jeanne Hulit.
Shaheen and Hulit discussed some of the SBA programs aimed at helping women in business and took feedback on the challenges that hamper local entrepreneurs.
Shaheen, D-N.H., serves on the Senate’s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. She said the number of women-owned businesses in the country is growing rapidly, but that New Hampshire is “a little behind the national curve.”
“We want to catch up,” Shaheen said. “We want to make sure that people know what’s available to help them. And it’s inspiring — it’s inspiring to hear from the women who are here about what they’ve been able to accomplish, and we want that message to get out to people.”
Hulit said the SBA operates 100 women’s business centers across the country, as well as an office dedicated to women’s business development. The SBA also interfaces with the National Women’s Business Council, an advisory group that provides counsel to Congress and the president.
“There are several resources that are available specifically to help women entrepreneurs grow and create jobs,” Hulit said.
New Hampshire’s Center for Women’s Business Advancement opened about three years ago, replacing a previous women’s business center that had closed after several years. It’s now run as a partnership between the SBA and Southern New Hampshire University, which houses the center on its campus.
SBA District Director Greta Johansson said the center provides one-on-one counseling to help women find resources, whether they have started a business or are looking to start one. She said the center provides more assistance than a typical banker can offer.
“They will very often work with customers who need more hand-holding, or education or credit reestablishment,” she said.
The center recently hosted its second Women and Money Forum, which brought together more than 100 entrepreneurs and specialists in subjects such as financing, government contracting, analyzing financial statements and getting started in business.
Johansson said one of the challenges facing the SBA is finding more organizations in New Hampshire willing to participate as intermediaries in its microlending program.
The program provides loans of up to $50,000 to help businesses that are not yet “bank ready” — meaning they likely wouldn’t qualify for a traditional bank loan.
SBA provides money for the microloan to third-party organizations, which in turn grant loans to entrepreneurs. The organizations then become responsible for paying back the SBA, taking on the risk associated with the loan.
The program offers pre-loan technical assistance to business owners — a valuable asset — but it only operates in a portion of the state.
Northern Community Investment Corp., based in Vermont, is currently the only organization that works with SBA in New Hampshire, providing microloans to business owners in northern New Hampshire. The SBA is still seeking nonprofit and alternative lenders to consider becoming SBA microlenders in the state’s lower seven counties.
“We haven’t given up the effort, but we’re still working on it,” Johansson said.
Among those in attendance Friday was Manchester business owner Kriss Blevens, who runs a small makeup company called Kriss Cosmetics.
Blevens told Shaheen and Hulit that 2013 was her most successful year in business after starting up 27 years ago.
Blevens said she worries the perception that the economy is still in a downturn is inaccurate, and that it’s discouraging entrepreneurs.
“I’m wondering if the fear of the economy and how that’s marketed is sort of inhibiting women from start-up businesses here in New Hampshire,” she said.
When she launched her makeup line after finishing college, Blevens said she enjoyed success because of her passion and spirit.
Blevens said she has worked hard and reinvested in her business and hasn’t looked to institutions for financing, but was encouraged to hear about some of the SBA programs that are available.
“I did open my mind a little bit today to the possibility that if I did want to take my company to another level, that I met, today, some people that would be able to guide me through the SBA … because in business you never stop growing,” she said.