Not that we didn’t already know, but Beyoncé did tell us who runs the world: girls. All around us we see and feel it: total girl power. Whether in the news field, entertainment world, sports or business, a smart and powerful woman can be found. The examples are there for us to see on a daily basis, which is why it is so hard to believe that prior to 1988 there still existed individual state laws requiring women to have a male relative as a cosigner in order to obtain a business loan. That was just 26 years ago, MTV has been around longer. If it sounds preposterous to you that laws like that ever existed, you need to thank the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). It was their organization that was instrumental in the passing of the Women’s Business Ownership Act in 1988 that created the National Women’s Business Council and eliminated the aforementioned, and ridiculous, law.
Founded in 1975 by a group of about a dozen women in Washington, D.C., NAWBO was started as a network of support for women in business, but quickly realized the best support they could provide would be through policy and regulation change. Championing the cause of women entrepreneurs, NAWBO went national just a year into its existence. In 1982 they hosted their first ever conference in Houston, Texas, and attracted the attention of the then-Vice President George H. W. Bush and nine members of Congress, who were all presented with NAWBO’s six-point plan. By 1988 they had become affiliated with Les Femmes Chefs d’Enterprises Mondiales (World Association of Women Entrepreneurs), now extending a global reach to women in business and playing a major role in the Women’s Business Ownership Act, a law signed in a White House ceremony by President Ronald Reagan.
“There are so many lessons to be learned in business and nobody knows it all. As we are all aware, life is the best teacher, hands down,” Crystal Arredondo, NAWBO’s chair-elect, Board of Directors, said. “There are things you can only learn from other people’s real world, real life experiences. You can’t learn it in a classroom, a book, online or anywhere else. Work and life are integrated; you can’t separate them. So, for us, juggling many balls in the air at all times, it is critical to have a network of other like-minded women to be a resource and help serve as a sounding board. On a much larger scale, the organization represents forging new tracks for women-owned businesses. It was born out of the necessity for change.”
Now headed toward its 40th anniversary, NAWBO boasts more than 5,000 members and 60 chapters across the country, not to mention their international reach to 60 countries on five continents. They are a voice and system of support for the more than 10 million woman-owned businesses, one of the fastest growing segments of the economy.
“I did not know about [NAWBO] until someone personally invited me to attend a meeting,” Arredondo recalled. “When I walked into the luncheon, I saw a room filled with strong women entrepreneurs. These women were serious about building successful companies and invested in helping other women build theirs; compassionate and collaborative, not cliquish and competitive. I remember thinking ‘this is a different breed of women. They are taking it to new levels.’ It was intimidating and invigorating at the same time. When I learned about what the organization represented, it instantly spoke to me and I knew it was where I wanted to plant my feet.”
When the words “compassionate and collaborative” are spoken, they are not used lightly when it comes to this organization. The idea of women helping women is a serious one to NAWBO. After all, it was an organization created to be a resource to like-minded women, a place to go to for guidance and support. While NAWBO works diligently to change policy and perception, they know that is just one part of their job.
From their headquarters in Washington, D.C. they both start and participate in great programs geared toward helping other women. In 2004 they hosted their first Summit of Women’s Organization, which included 14 other organizations that together worked on forming new alliances and building government support. In 2005 they published “Tapping Your Inner Entrepreneur,” a first in a three-volume series detailing success stories of their fellow women entrepreneurs, providing tips and encouragement to all women thinking about taking that often-scary step of becoming one’s own boss.
Also in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, they formed WomenBizRelief in an effort to aid women entrepreneurs affected by the damages inflicted by the storm. In just two weeks, they were able to raise $40,000, for which they later won the Award of Excellence from the American Society of Association Executives.
“The ultimate hope is that our work is impactful in changing the face of entrepreneurship for women not only nationally but internationally,” Arredondo said. “NAWBO is affiliated with many international organizations in an effort to engage in meaningful partnerships and promote women’s entrepreneurship around the globe. Women helping women will help the world.”
In addition to working with organizations such as CARE, Global Summit of Women and The International Alliance for Women, they also have their attention set on the future. In 2003 the Institute for Entrepreneurial Development was formed, a nonprofit organization providing opportunities for emerging and established women entrepreneurs.
Beyond the aforementioned, NAWBO seeks out future entrepreneurs, in a partnership with Young Entrepreneurs Academy, a yearlong program that works to transform middle and high school students into budding entrepreneurs. In this program, students learn to not only generate carefully thought out and researched business ideas, but how to pitch their ideas to investors so that they are able to launch their ideas into a reality that can live long after their graduation. And while this program is open to both boys and girls, NAWBO reports that nearly 50 percent of their graduates each year are female.
“I want to bring an attraction for younger and diverse women to get involved,” Arredondo said. “Over and above the benefits to membership and helping our members with the ‘business of running their business’, there is also a great social purpose. I love the saying, ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’. There were some strong shoulders that tore down a lot of the obstacles that women faced in starting their own companies. We still have challenges in growing as entrepreneurs and we must continue to develop the culture and opportunities for women to not just survive but thrive in their business.”
Though the issues and barriers women in business face may have changed over the 40 years of NAWBO’s existence, women still hit walls that are slowly falling down. Even as women in business are becoming one of the fastest growing segments in the economy, the issue of equal pay and stereotypical views still linger. NAWBO believes as more and more women take the reigns, these issues will diminish, as women-owned business tend to pay above minimum wage and offer employee benefits. Again, it’s women helping women. It doesn’t, however, solve the issue of women being seen for their gender and not their talents. Often women in high profile positions are brought to the forefront with an air of wonder or surprise at their accomplishments in spite of their gender, taking the focus away from their actual abilities and/or talents. Arredondo and her fellow NAWBO members see this kind of attitude slowly declining.
When asked how we can change this Arredondo replied, “By doing exactly what Lioness Magazine and what other entrepreneurial magazines are doing – recognizing women for their accomplishments. I believe the reaction of surprise or wonder is because there have not been enough public acknowledgements of our achievements. We need to make this more and more the norm. Often women don’t like to brag about themselves. If you care about a woman, brag about her.
“The idea of gender intelligence is becoming more on the forefront,” Arredondo continued. “People in business and organizations are beginning to value what everyone can bring to the table. Speaking on behalf of women-owned or led companies, we realize the best solutions arise when men and women with diverse backgrounds, cultures, and areas of expertise work together. It has been our experience that our champions are both male and female.”
On the road to continued change and progress, NAWBO will usher in year 40 in San Antonio, Texas, where their annual Women’s Business Conference will take place. With this year’s theme, “Be The Change,” they’ll encourage women to work toward not only their own success but also that of their peers and their communities, extending, hopefully, into the economy stateside and beyond.
As an organization started with just a small group of women with huge aspirations, NAWBO has become something of a lifeline for women in the business industry. And while issues and obstacles change, they remain relevant and empowering.
“I’ll end with how we started,” Arredondo declared, “with a quote from our Founding President, Susan Hager. ‘Get a seat at the table, or build your own table, but make sure to include other women.’ We will continue to carry out our founding mission – creating leaders for a world of change. And that is something that will never get old.”