WomenOwned Businesses Spotlighted

March 7, 2005
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Grand Rapids Business Journal this week puts a spotlight on women business owners, all of whom fought to forge their business in competitive arenas, often while also wrestling gender bias. None of them would tell you it has been easy, though none would return to life under the glass ceiling. It is akin to the quote about Ginger Rogers being a better dancer than Fred Astaire: She had to dance backward, and in high heels.

As Women’s History Month begins, it is of note that majority-owned, privately-held, women-owned firms number 6.7 million and account for 30 percent of all businesses in the country, according to the National Women’s Business Council. The council notes that between 1997 and 2004, these firms grew 23 percent, compared to 9 percent of all U.S. businesses.

Local and regional programs like the Athena Awards and the Minority Business Celebration, sponsored by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, assist the entrepreneurial effort by providing examples of how others have managed to overcome the obstacles. Amazingly, the women recognized by the Business Journal and through the other programs step up to offer assistance to those just beginning the journey. Seeds are sewn, and the regional economy continues to be diversified — in more ways than one.

Some say the time has passed for these “special” recognitions, or for programs that seek to identify and provide opportunity through formulas to encourage minority-owned business contracts.

That argument fizzles in the exact example provided in another story in this week’s issue. Jeffery Hill has been proprietor of a custom home-building company for 15 years, but it was only five years ago that he began to understand the formula for unintended discrimination.

Hill started Renaissance Construction after taking a class at Reformed Bible College on urban development and doing a research project. He discovered that of 2,600 general contractors licensed in Grand Rapids in 1997, two were minority owned. He discovered that KentCareerTechnicalCenter develops classes by allotting a specific number of students from each school district, and of the 34 slots given to the most diverse district (Grand Rapids Public Schools) only two students were minorities, one Hispanic and one Asian.

He also found that in his and other city neighborhoods, many individuals were working “underground” and did not have the money for permits, didn’t have credit, didn’t have insurance. Hill established mechanisms to bring the underground trades people into such compliances and helped them establish their businesses, including (most recently) business space to rent.

The story is awe-inspiring. What one individual could do to assist others has a community ripple effect. A phrase often used in West Michigan is that of teaching a man to fish… rather than feeding him. The people with whom Hill has worked knew how to fish. His investment was in backing them to get the fishing license, thereby expanding their opportunities.

How much influence might a single individual have? There are 12 more stories to read in the section on Women Owned Businesses.    

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