On Thursday, I listened from my seat in the audience as five women sat on the podium telling stories that seemed so hard to fathom. The panelist were detailing the history of women in business at the national conference of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) in Miami.
There's always an amazing energy in the room when women in business come together to talk about opportunities and challenges. If you want to experience the energy, passion and power of women in business, you need to attend a NAWBO conference.
Anyway, one of the panelists described her experience trying to get a loan for her business in the 1970s. Divorced, the bank wanted her to have her ex-husband co-sign the loan. When she refused, the banker wanted her to have her 17-year-old son do it. Thanks to NAWBO and its lobbying efforts banks have relaxed that appalling restriction.
For the several decades, the top four issues for women business owners have been 1) access to capital 2) access to government contracts 3) access to expertise and mentors 4) securing a seat at the table.
Today, there still are those same concerns, the panelists explained. I looked up on the stage and I saw diversity. There was a black women, a Hispanic women and a white woman with a southern drawl all from different cities across the country and all who had been national presidents of NAWBO and shared a passion for seeing the political and business environment improve for women who want to start and build companies. Their stories and passion were impressive!
We now celebrate 25 years since HR 5050, known as the Women's Business Ownership Act of 1988, which was critical in boosting women entrepreneur's access to capital and independence and led to a surge in women-owned businesses. There also have been laws passed that help women to get government contracts. But we still find that the capital available to women isn't as plentiful as it is for men . Billie Dragoo, the 2013-2014 NAWBO National Chair, considers it the next frontier and she's trying to do something about it. She is forming a venture capital fund for women-owned business to tap.
I had a chance at the conference to speak with Bank of America's Small Business Banking National Sale Executive, Anna Colton, who seemed extremely tapped into the needs of women business owners. We talked about why women are struggling to land venture capital and that it may be the type of business they run. VCs tend to invest in high tech and life sciences but women tend to have professional services firms. We both think that can change if these VCs are made to understand the growth and success of women-owned businesses.
We also talked about the fact that only 27 percent of women who own business feel they are financially savvy. She says that is why her bank has personal advisors assigned to work closely with each women business owner. Bringing in that expertise, "that's how you create work life balance," she says.
Another message to women business owners that emerged at the conference: think about your communication style, your relationships in the workplace and tailor your approach and negotiation style to the people you want to influence. Anne Freedman, NAWBO's Miami president and owner of Speak Out explained how important it is to know the behavioral style of the person you're trying to pursuade and the right language to use.
Charlotte Beers was one of the highlights of the event with her message that women have no idea how much power we truly have. She says we need to learn to say what we mean and speak in a way that we inspire and persuade others. This can be learned, she says.
Beers, a former ad agency CEO who also worked for the Bush Administration as the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs,, just wrote a book about her path of self discovery on the way to holding positions in the C-suite.
It's appropriately called, I'd Rather Be in Charge. Charlotte also has a TEDx video that every woman needs to watch. She points out the golden rule of communication: It's not what you say, it's what they hear. As a female leaders, to get people to hear you when relationships get difficult, she says. Here's the key: eliminate the extraneous, don't repeat yourself, and be willing to step out of the team to show you are convinced and committed to thinking a certain way on an issue.
"You have to master skill of being an artful communicator. One day, you will want to say, 'this is the right thing to do' and when you turn around, people are following you. That's leadership!"