By Kaitlyn Krasselt The Hour, Norwalk, Conn.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The "Women's Business Development Council" symposium, honored both men and women for their work in addressing gender issues in the workplace.
As a child, Seema Hingorani would race her siblings to the kitchen to answer the phone, eager to pick up before it reached the second ring.
"Quality Homes, how can I help you," she'd say.
She was answering for her mother's Norwalk-based real estate business, and she knew every client mattered. Her parents had immigrated from India and the company was their dream.
Hingorani's mom was an entrepreneur and her inspiration for entering the business world. She sat in the audience Friday as Hingorani accepted the Woman with Impact Award from the Women's Business Development Council for her work as the founder and chair of Girls Who Invest, a nonprofit that focuses on education, industry outreach and career placement to help young women become involved in portfolio management and leaders in the asset management industry.
Prior to starting her own nonprofit, Hingorani spent four years in the public sector most recently as Chief Investment Officer of the New York City Retirement Systems' $160 billion portfolio. She also served as the city's head of Public Equities and Hedge Funds for the pension funds, and previously, she worked as an analyst, portfolio manager and general partner in the hedge fund industry.
Throughout her time in financial services, Hingorani was used to being the only woman in the room. But when she began working as the CIO for NYC, she realized how widespread the problem truly was.
"I would go into meetings with managers, and they were mostly men, which is fine," Hingorani said. "But I would look at their organizational charts and I'd ask them, 'Where are all the women?' I didn't realize how widespread this was, and they'd tell me, 'Seema, we just don't get the resumes.' OK, maybe we do have a pipeline problem, which we can address ... but we also need to address the culture that is not welcoming to women."
This theme, addressing the culture that prevents many women from ascending to greater roles in the business world, was consistent throughout the WBDC symposium, which honored both men and women for their work in addressing gender issues in the workplace and creating new opportunities for women.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, received the Outstanding Leader Award, presented by the WBDC to someone whose "inspiration, generosity of spirit, wisdom and leadership move forward the mission and goals" of the organization.
Duff has been associated with WBDC for more than a decade and is known for his advocacy for Connecticut job creation since he joined the Legislature in 2001.
"I am so inspired by hearing these stories," Duff said. "Women-owned businesses need our support each and every day, and any money we put in the (state) budget that supports WBDC is worth the investment because it goes back into the economy."
Norwalk resident Renata Papadopoulos was also honored for her work as an entrepreneur, receiving the Deb Ziegler Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence. As the owner of Lovely Cakes she's baked for clients like GE and Lebron James, won the Food Network's Cake Wars Valentine's Day competition and opened a commercial kitchen which she rents out to other female entrepreneurs in the food industry.
Despite her success, Papadopoulos still calls herself an "accidental entrepreneur."
"I started making cakes for my family ... and then someone asked me to make a cake for them and suddenly I was an entrepreneur," Papadopoulos said.
Her operation quickly outgrew her home kitchen, but she knew she wanted to own a space rather than rent it. She was nervous and unclear where to start so sought guidance from WBDC on raising capital, writing a business plan and more. Eventually she worked up the nerve to approach the bank for a small business loan.
"I was concerned no one would loan to a Brazilian immigrant who baked cakes from home," Papadopoulos said. "But I was approved by all three banks and they all told me how prepared I was. Having WBDC as a guide was so important."
More than 700 people attended the symposium, the largest in WBDC's history. The organization, which was founded in 1997, provides entrepreneurial training and education as well as financial counseling for women business owners, and recently began offering micro-loans for entrepreneurs.
WBDC founder Fran Pastore said she never imagined 19 years ago when she was inspired to start the organization that it would grow as much as it has, or that it would help has many people as it has. The organization has offices in Stamford, Danbury, Derby and Hartford, and serves people in every Connecticut municipality.
"WBDC has provided entrepreneurial training, access to capital and guidance to many women and a few good men, and we offer programs at every stage of development," Pastore said. "The statistics are encouraging but there's still so much work to be done."