Women’s Business Development Council at 20: Proud Record, Uncertain Future

By Paul Schott
Connecticut Post, Bridgeport

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The Women’s Business Development Council, a CT nonprofit that has helped to create and sustain thousands of women’s businesses and jobs faces looming cuts in funding from the state.

Connecticut Post, Bridgeport

Twenty years ago, Fran Pastore saw a need — and an opportunity.

Women entrepreneurs in Connecticut were grappling with a dearth of funding and support services to start and grow businesses.

The Brooklyn, N.Y., native realized she could help tackle women’s unequal economic standing and create a new career for herself.

She would build that idea into the Women’s Business Development Council, a nonprofit that has helped to create and sustain thousands of women’s businesses and jobs. Its two-decade record has garnered widespread acclaim, but looming state funding cuts threaten its mission.

“Our work for women has never been more relevant,” Pastore said in an interview last week at the WBDC’s main offices, on Bedford Street, in downtown Stamford. “It is more important than ever before for women to rise up to the challenges that we see before us to be leaders in business, in society, in politics, and to make our voices heard.”

Starting up
Many women start businesses not only because they have a promising concept, but because they lack viable alternatives to earn a living. Pastore was no different.

When she formally launched the WBDC, Pastore was a 36-year-old single mother with 4- and 7-year-old daughters who had survived on unemployment insurance for 18 months.

Earlier, she worked as an analyst on Wall Street and in real estate. After moving in 1990 to Stamford from Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., she went on to work for a short-lived women’s economic development nonprofit.

The demise of that organization did not discourage Pastore. She wanted to create a new enterprise to offer dedicated training and support to women entrepreneurs.

“My passions had always been around women’s economic equity, small business and education for women,” Pastore said.

“I had two daughters. I wanted them to be economically self-reliant. I was trying to figure out what could I do to help keep me local and have a career with passion.”

Pastore cited the early support and mentorship of several women, including Patricia Russo, who was then a commissioner of the state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.

Russo used her political network to connect Pastore with then-Congressman Christopher Shays. The offices of Shays and then-U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman helped the WBDC to secure funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“Fran just had this big vision for training programs that she wanted to be able to provide to women in Fairfield County who desperately needed the training to create the lives that they wanted to lead as entrepreneurs,” said Russo, who is now executive director of the Women’s Campaign School at Yale.

In the early 2000s, the organization’s corporate funding declined because of a recession and the redirection of companies’ resources to projects responding to the 9/11 attacks. The WBDC found a lifeline from Stamford’s city government when then-Mayor Dannel P. Malloy offered the group rent-free office space in the Stamford Government Center.

“I wanted to see women get the support they need, and I wanted to see small businesses get the support they need,” Malloy said in an interview last week. “I saw small business development as part of Stamford’s economic development. Some of my predecessors only concentrated on the ‘big guys.’ I wanted to see a more diverse approach to job growth and economic development in Stamford.”

The partnership with Malloy’s administration would become a model. In the ensuing years, the WBDC forged partnerships with local governments throughout Fairfield and New Haven counties. Now, the organization serves clients in nearly all of the 169 cities and towns in Connecticut.

Comprehensive services
Today, the WBDC operates as a de facto school for active and aspiring women business owners.

Its entrepreneurial and financial-education programming encompasses courses taught in the classroom and through webinars and teleconferencing, as well as one-on-one counseling.

The organization’s flagship program, “GPS — a Guide to Plan for Success,” helps participants develop business plans during a nine-week course.

In 2015, Maclyne Josselin, who founded last year a personal-finance business, Project 13:7, enrolled in the GPS course. In a business-pitch session at the end of the program, Josselin met WBDC board member and Bank of New York Mellon community reinvestment officer Kerri Holloway. They established a rapport, and Holloway has since become an important mentor.

“I think the class was helpful not only because of the content but because it was helpful to be among other women doing the same thing,” Josselin said.
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“And with Kerri as a mentor, she’s giving me about 40 years’ worth of experience that I can learn from her.”

To date, the WBDC has served more than 18,000 clients and helped to create some 1,800 businesses and supported another 3,500 existing establishments. It has supported the creation and maintenance of more than 4,200 jobs.

Major challenges
The WBDC faces a precarious financial future amid the state’s budget crisis.

After already seeing its state allocation drop in recent years from about $500,000 to approximately $350,000, it faces the prospect of losing the entire allotment. Malloy’s proposed budget for the next two years eliminated its funding. He said the cut did not represent a judgment of the organization’s work, but reflected a response to the state’s fiscal predicament.

The organization could end up receiving a direct allotment or competing with other organizations for funding, depending on the spending plan approved by the state Legislature, Malloy said.

“I am hopeful that there will be a continuation of efforts to help small businesses throughout the state,” Malloy said.

Pastore is counting on legislators to restore funding. Without a $500,000 distribution, she said the organization’s Danbury and Hartford offices cannot stay open.

Counting all funding sources, the WBDC operates with an annual budget of about $1.8 million.

Stemming from its fiscal pressures, the WBDC has reduced its staff through attrition. It now employs 10.

Related to the funding instability, the WBDC has suspended a “microlending” program started last year that provides loans between $2,500 and $25,000.

The organization will continue to offer a range of other services to help clients access capital, a chronic challenge for women in business. Only 4 percent of the total dollar value of small-business loans went to women entrepreneurs, according to a 2014 U.S. Senate report.

The potential funding drain looms as Connecticut continues to languish as a place for female business owners. It ranked 50th among states in overall economic clout for the growth of women-owned businesses between 2007 and 2016, according to a 2016 American Express report.

Pastore said she did not know why Connecticut lagged in the rankings, but that its low placement underscored the WBDC’s importance and continued need for public funding.

“We’ve persevered for 20 years; we’ve seen some hard times,” Pastore said. “I have to remain positive that the good people in this state Legislature recognize the importance of our work. And I am not going to stop.”

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