Corporation helps women in running small businesses

For six years, Beatrice A. Fitzpatrick has been helping other women to mind their own business. As founder and head of the American Woman's Economic Development Corporation in New York City, she has helped give training and counsel to more than 12,000 women who are now running or planning to run their own small businesses.

Having just moved to new and larger headquarters at 60 East 42nd in Manhattan , Mrs. Fitzpatrick and her staff of 14 professionals, with the aid of a corps of highly qualified volunteers willing to share their expertise, are expanding their management-assistance programs.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick launched the corporation late in 1976, when less than 5 percent of small American businesses were owned by women. At that time she was working in the mayor's office as executive director of the Administration and Management Research Association of New York City Inc., which helped develop solutions to managerial problems in the public sector.

''I was busy raising my three children and working out my own career (she had also been director of special projects for a mayoral education-affairs office and a national consultant on parental involvement in Head Start programs), and I was hearing a lot about women's liberation,'' she says. ''But it seemed to me that liberation without money or a means of making it was incongruous. It occurred to me that economic development was the most important problem facing women. I assumed that 30 or 40 organizations were addressing this issue, but I found almost none.''

At that time, Mrs. Fitzpatrick knew many talented women who were going into business but didn't know how to run one. She discovered that business schools were teaching people how to work for large corporations, and that few in the United States were teaching women how to manage their own small businesses. ''I decided then that, if information could make the difference between success and failure, then women should somehow have that information,'' she recalls.

After much discussion with other leaders (many of whom serve on AWED's l3 -member board of directors), she pinpointed many of the pitfalls businesswomen face and the skills they need for success - in finance, marketing, time management, communicating, negotiating, selling techniques, and writing a business plan.

She then decided to form a nonprofit organization to offer such counseling and management assistance, but found it difficult to find funding for such a program. Most people, she says, would not believe that many women were economically disadvantaged and didn't know where to turn for help.

Eventually the Economic Development Administration of the US Department of Commerce gave her a $124,000 grant to develop a model entrepreneurial-assistance program for women to help with job creation and maintenance. Later, another $51, 000 came in from five companies (AT&T, CBS, Equitable Life Assurance Society, Lever Brothers, and RCA) and three foundations (Robert Sterling Clark, International Paper, and Playboy).

Professors from graduate schools of business at Harvard, Wharton, and New York University volunteered to help develop and then teach the courses. The first training group began in May 1977 with 18 women. In 1978 the organization moved into its own quarters and received funds from the Small Business Administration to expand training and counseling programs.

The organization now has a long list of successful alumnae, including Yeohlee Teng, a Malaysian-American who has developed a thriving couture business, and Regina Kravitz, whose sportswear firm does more than $5 million worth of business annually. Susan Kasen, who began her florist business in a basement in New Jersey, now owns the Green Thumb florist shop on Madison Avenue, and Sara Lee Singer is owner of a busy bakeshop called Betsy's Place that has become one of the gourmet hits of Manhattan's Upper East Side. Patricia Duncanson, an enterprising black woman, is now president of her own industrial-electrical contracting firm. Other women are distinguishing themselves in such fields as plumbing contracting, air-express delivery, computer-service firms, woodworking, tinsmithing, catering, graphic design, advertising, and fish wholesaling.

Mrs. Fitzpatrick estimates that the program has received more than $6 million worth of contributed goods and services. As the organization proves itself, more and more companies and foundations are contributing. More than 300 men and women executives have been recruited to serve as teaching volunteers. About 40 counselors, who are retired or semiretired executives, work from one to four days or evenings a week for small honoraria.

At first the organization charged no fees. With cutbacks in government funding in 1981, nominal fees for assistance were set - $25 for private counseling sessions of one to three hours, $350 for the 18-month training program for women already in business, and $175 for an 18-week course for women in the process of going into business. This fall over 2,000 women paid $50 each to attend an all-day seminar on opportunities in the beauty and fashion fields.

Telephone counseling, on a prearranged schedule, is available. The new tollfree number, available Feb. 3, is 800-222-2933. Women in business across the country may use this number for information or to arrange for the $25 counseling sessions, which run an hour or longer. A new grant of $53,000 has just come from CBS to help pay long-distance charges for this national telephone counseling service.

During 1983 new services will be added, including a national network called ''American Women Entrepreneurs.'' This will offer members access to counselors; provide a quarterly newsletter; a data bank of products, people, and services; and a series of meetings and conferences at which they can meet other women in business.

So successful has this New York venture been that grants have recently come from several corporations to be applied specifically to the development of similar programs in other large American cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Houston, and Philadelphia.

Women are natural entrepreneurs, Mrs. Fitzpatrick says, and most of them have a genuinely creative approach to business. She has found that they apply the same nurturing qualities to their businesses that they have developed as wives, mothers, and church and community workers. They also have a staying power and a love for what they are doing that carries them over the humps and helps them work through problems, she says.

''This makes them survivors in the economic environment, and means their failure rate is far smaller than among men,'' she says. ''I hear people say that women aren't team players and aren't risk takers, and that may be true for some. But women are devoted to maintaining high quality and will rarely compromise it. Most of them put much of themselves into their businesses and therefore find them deeply satisfying. Many of them have to learn they can't 'wing it' by feeling and intuition, but must learn analytic thinking and goal direction and how to feel comfortable with money and numbers. Once they see the importance of these skills, they tackle them with zest.''

Thousands of women, who have benefited from the programs, are now providing employment to others, paying local and national taxes, creating business for other businesses, and providing needed goods and services to their communities.

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