Empowering Women Business Owners

By Rieva Lesonsky

The purpose of National Business Women’s Week is “to call attention to women entrepreneurs, facilitate discussions on the needs of working women, share information about successful workplace policies, and raise awareness of the resources available for working women in their communities.”

Essentially for women to succeed we need support and resources from corporations and successful women entrepreneurs who can motivate and inspire us because if they can make it, why can’t we?

To underscore how important this support and inspiration is to women business owners, I talked to Mary Ann Reilly, SVP and Head of North America Marketing for Visa, about their She’s Next initiative and iconic fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff, founder of the Female Founder Collective, a network of businesses led by women, supporting women. Their mission is “to enable and empower female-owned and -led businesses to positively impact our communities, both socially and economically.”

She’s Next, Empowered by Visa, part of Visa’s “ongoing commitment to support female entrepreneurs, “aims to create a level playing field by supporting, celebrating and empowering women worldwide as they build, sustain and advance their businesses.”

She’s Next and the Female Founder Collective have teamed up offering information and workshops “to help build awareness and provide women with opportunities to grow their brand.”

Rieva Lesonsky: Why is Visa committed to dedicating so many resources to help women entrepreneurs?

Mary Ann Reilly: Small businesses are the backbone of economies around the world, and are the biggest employers, job creators and contributors to the national GDP. Within the small business world, women-owned businesses make up nearly half of the U.S. market, with women opening small businesses at a

Women-owned businesses are critical to communities globally, yet women face unequal challenges in funding and other crucial areas of business-building. For example, in a Visa survey of US-based female entrepreneurs, 73% of women said they had challenges getting the funding they needed to start their businesses, with 61% resorting to self-funding.

At Visa, we want to do our part to close the gap. Programs like She’s Next, Empowered by Visa focus on small businesses and provide female entrepreneurs with tools, resources, insights and networking opportunities that can help them grow and succeed.

Lesonsky: Tell me a little about the She’s Next program?

Reilly: She’s Next, Empowered by Visa is a growing global initiative designed to support and champion women in their efforts to fund, run and grow their small businesses. We’ve joined forces with Rebecca Minkoff’s Female Founder Collective, a network of businesses led by women, supporting women that debuted in 2018 and has already grown to include 5,000 members.

In January, we unveiled She’s Next with a preview event at Hudson Yards in New York. Since then we’ve held interactive workshops to tackle business challenges specific to key communities, in cities across the U.S. including Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. Additionally, we are proud to say the program is now truly global, following a She’s Next workshop event held in Cape Town, South Africa during the World Economic Forum. In October, we took She’s Next to Toronto.

These workshops include experts from Visa, local and national subject matter experts, and relevant partners to maximize the benefit to female small business owners.

Lesonsky: What are your goals for the program?

Reilly: Our primary goal is to shine a spotlight on women-owned businesses and give them the tools they need to succeed. As part of that, we’re giving female entrepreneurs access and one-on-one coaching from experts at Visa and our partners, including Chase for Business, Yelp and Square.

Similarly, we want to support the continued growth and expansion of these businesses and create unique opportunities for more female business founders to learn from one another throughout their business journey. Core to the She’s Next initiative is also our comprehensive “How-To Guides.” At visa.com/shesnext, you can find tools like our small business toolkit, best practices, uniqiue customer insights, and our guide on the digital transformtion of SMBs.

Lesonsky: Why do you think relatively few women push past $1 million in revenue?
Reilly: There are many factors that can get in the way, including access to capital and scarcer professional networks. According to the World Bank, there is a $300 billion annual credit deficit for women-owned small and medium-sized businesses.

In a recent Visa survey, the top three things women nationally say hold them back when starting their companies are strategy development, finding the tools to grow and manage their business and dealing with competition.

We believe that initiatives like She’s Next can help change the game for women in small business by providing them with the tools they need, and a supportive and empowering network.

Lesonsky: How important is mentoring to help them get there?
Reilly: It’s everything. Core to the She’s Next initiative is our commitment to providing one-to-one mentoring sessions during our workshop events with some of the most respected female industry leaders and fellow women business owners around the globe. The program is built on a foundation of community and knowledge sharing, with an underlying goal to provide actionable takeaways and meaningful mentoring opportunities.

Lesonsky: What are the most important things women entrepreneurs can do to succeed?

Reilly: Speaking to that sense of community, female business owners must embrace opportunities to meet and learn from one another. While your business is your own, its path to success can be driven by many and building a support network at events like the She’s Next workshop or other events for female entrepreneurs can be a great starting point.

Rieva Lesonsky: Why did you start the Female Founder Collective?

Rebecca Minkoff: I launched Female Founder Collective to teach the consumer to recognize Female Founded Companies and support them via their dollars and bridge the economic divide faster than ever. We stand out because there has never been a universal symbol until NOW. All female founders that use it, highlight their products to show the consumer where to vote. You know you’re giving your money to another female-founded company or female-run company.

Lesonsky: Mentoring is a key component of the FFC. Did you have mentors as you were building your brand?

Minkoff: My mentors were the guy in the logistics department at my old job, and the guy who shipped our products and showed me how to pack a box properly. We need to find mentors who are above us, below us, next to us. That’s more valuable. You can learn something from the receptionist at your office.

Lesonsky: So many women business owners struggle to reach (and surpass) $1 million in sales. What enabled you to push past that mark?

Minkoff: The secret to success has always been hard work. No one is going to hand me this company or this success. That “no” is just the beginning of “yes”. When you are told “no”, it’s never final. There is always a solution or a path forward. It might be different than you thought but there is a road.

Lesonsky: What are the most important steps to building a brand in a crowded field?

Minkoff: There is an ongoing cycle for everything you do in life: Grow. Learn. Fail. Every time you grow it repeats itself. Know what you’re good and bad at and find a subject matter or something you’re really passionate about because then it never gets old. Anything you have to think about too hard will probably come across that way. So know your audience, what you want to stand for, and then partner with a great company to help [you] get [distribution].

Lesonsky: I know you have kids. Any advice for balancing raising kids & building a business?

Minkoff: I think it’s about setting very strong boundaries and you have to be your own  disciplinarian. Decide what your boundaries are for you. Don’t look at social or someone else’s “perfect life” and think you know what is going on behind the scenes. Push your boundaries so you know when things are too much for you and begin to design your life that way.

Women business owners stock photo by ESB Basic/Shutterstock