Sara Vescio understands the challenges that women business owners face.
And as the executive director of the Canisius College Women's Business Center, it's her job to help women clear those business hurdles and provide the advice and training they need to build up their companies.
She spoke recently about those challenges.
Q: What's the state of women-owned business in the Buffalo Niagara region?
A: Women have been starting up businesses at a faster rate than any other population, and Western New York is at the same pace as the rest of the country.
They're alive and well. There are a lot of issues that we're here to help them focus on those hurdles and keep growing.
Q: What are the big issues?
A: From the getting started point of view, there are capital issues. There is an access to funding issue for women-owned businesses. They're starting up with less money. They're getting less in loans and they're getting less venture capital than male-owned firms.
Q: Why is that?
A: There are two potential issues. One is that women are not informed or trained properly to package their requests or their financials for their businesses to get what they need.
And two, there is a large disparity in the number of women who are potentially giving the funds. Since there are far more men who are giving the bank loans or men who are the venture capitalists and angel investors in the country, they're not relating to the women business owners and their ideas.
Q: How do you get around that?
A: We take a two-pronged approach. In all of our training, what sets the Women Business Center apart is we bring a support network along with the training. We try to connect them to the people who they need to know and to people who can help them get to where they need to go, as well as train them so they are informed and educated and, really, the masters of their business.
We have bankers on our advisory board. One of our board members, Nancy LaTulip, a vice president at Lakeshore Savings Bank, helped us with a connection with Consumer Credit Counseling Services. So CCCS now is here once a month giving free advice to our clients, helping them to understand their financial needs and their financial wherewithal to help them get the bank loan.
We also have a seven-week financial boot camp to help them prep for business loans. We bring in a different banker each week for them to get to know the person who's giving the loans, as well as training them on the financial packages and training them on pitching for that request.
Q: What about the availability of venture capital?
A: A couple of years ago, I really realized it was popping up in our area. With 43North and Z-80 Labs and Launch NY, it started to become more of an opportunity in Western New York. I know the Buffalo Angels and the Western New York Venture Association has been around longer, but the conversation really sparked a couple of years ago.
Q: How has it changed?
A: I make it may job to be at all these places that are opportunities so we can be aware of who we need to know and make those connections, and I started noticing there were no women in the room, or very, very few, I should say.
A couple of years ago, I started nudging Jack McGowan with the Western New York Venture Association and the Buffalo Angels, saying where are the women, saying how many women are on your board, how many women are coming to pitch to you?
He started working with me and a couple of years ago we started our own pitch competition, called the Success Stimulus Competition. We held it in 2015 and 2014. It was only open to women from Western New York. You had to be a Western New York business owner and you had to be a woman to apply.
It started helping them learn the process of applying and putting together an application for one of these pitch competitions. For the final four, we put them through a pitch practice in front of all these players from our community. That really helped them learn how to put together a pitch deck.
We just brought Jack McGowan on to our board of advisers to help further the connections between what's going on in the community and our clients.
Thirdly, we're joining up with a new competition that just started a couple of years ago called Innovate Her. That's a national competition run by different women's business centers across the country, and the local winners go into the national competition and pitch before large investors.
Q: How can the Women's Business Center help?
A: Our niche space is as a place where women can find that support network, coinciding with the high quality educational training to support their business growth.
Q: Who are you targeting?
A: We focus on women through all phases of business growth. But it is small business, so it's from the launch up through $5 million and beyond in gross sales. Our advisory group is broken into four categories.
We have Launch, which is specifically starting your business. We have Grow, which is after you've been operating and you want to learn growth strategies. Elevate is after you've got out of a lot of those kinks. And Masters is for that $1 million and beyond group.
Q: How many people use the program?
A: We've been around for 13 years now. We've had over 1,000 clients participate in our programs.
We have definitely had more growth in women starting up their own businesses. Women have actually started up businesses at a faster pace than any other segment.
Q: When should women seek you out?
A: Our preference always is for them to come before they have challenges, rather than after, so they don't drive themselves crazy.
Despite the access to capital challenges, women are doing more than less. The Census Bureau says women, on average, start with half as much capital as men. But 58 percent of women-owned businesses had growth of more than 30 percent, compared with 5e percent for businesses owned by men.
So they do have these challenges. But they're determined. They're strong and they're smart.