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Women entrepreneurs reach for $1M level

Madison, Wis. - Nell Merlino and Laurie Benson may be as different as, well, New York City and Madison, but they share an enriching vision for women entrepreneurs, including those operating in the technology space.

Their vision has dollar signs as far as the eye can see, but the result may be a largely untapped source of economic growth - women who want to take their business to the next level. Specifically, the million-dollar level.

Merlino, the creative force beyond Take Your Daughter to Work Day and president of Count Me In, a New York-based micro lender, visited Madison to launch the Wisconsin version of the Make Mine a $Million business strategy. The goal is to inspire one million women entrepreneurs to reach $1 million in revenue by 2010.

Ambitious? Yes, but consider that there are 10 million women-owned businesses in the United States, yet only about three percent, or 245,000, generate $1 million or more in annual revenue. Count Me In estimates that getting one million women to the $1 million revenue mark would create over four million new jobs and have $700 billion in economic impact.

Count Me In already has named 20 winners from its first awards program in San Francisco, and it's actively planning another business event for Oct. 24 in New York City, where another 20 women will vie for business-oriented awards. If all goes as planned, the show could be coming to a Wisconsin town near you.
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"I am convinced this is something we can do," Merlino said. "The next step is to go deeper into communities across the country."

Prairie millions

Melrino came to Madison at Benson's invitation, and they begin mapping a strategy to raise the number of such businesses in Wisconsin. Among those in attendance were Commerce Secretary Mary Burke, Jennifer Alexander, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, and Denise Roseland of the Department of Public Instruction's Girls in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) initiative.

"All of us, collaboratively, have the opportunity of a lifetime to create something special," Benson said.

As part of the program, winning entrepreneurs receive mentoring, financing, increased visibility, a technology assessment from Cisco Systems, and software training from Intuit, among other sponsor-provided business necessities.

Merlino said an ancillary benefit would be to attract more young women to the STEM disciplines. "By drawing attention to women-owned businesses that are technology businesses, I think young women are going to see opportunities that they just weren't aware of," she said. "The kind of attention that the women who win this program get, and we have a number of technology companies that have won already, I think it will be just a great way to direct women to that."

Benson, CEO of Inacom Information Systems, a company that generated $77 million in revenue in 2005, said mentoring also would be made available to high school girls.

"What we're really talking about here is that we have some great examples of successful women-owned businesses in the state that are technology-driven, and really what we're doing is giving this more visibility," she said. "When we talk about the mentoring, that's going to certainly include middle school girls and high school girls, and giving them the opportunity to get exposed to these technology careers."

For women, the barriers to reaching higher in business often are their own. While the program can bring added confidence and expanded thinking to entrepreneurial women, Merlino said mindset issues and a lack of access to capital have prevented many women-owned businesses from growing beyond $250,000 in annual revenue.

One damaging belief among women is that if they take their businesses to $1 million, they will have to work longer and harder when in fact they will need to hire more, delegate, and perhaps work less and work smarter. When the program's sponsor-driven services are made available to them, they become less tentative about taking the next step.

"The thing we've cracked is that we have set up a systematic way of dealing with a lot of this," Merlino said.

No place like home

Local companies will be needed to step up and further erode any misgivings. Maureen McGinnity, chief diversity partner with the Madison office of Foley & Lardner, which hosted the Make Mine A $Million gathering, said the law firm is interested in providing participants with basic legal information through its website.

"We think one service we could provide is to build capacity for online, Web-based legal information that would generally be of interest to small businesses and growing businesses, not necessarily one-on-one legal advice, but at least hitting the basics of things that we think everybody needs to know," McGinnity said.

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