Starting your own small business is no small matter. The risks can be great, and the rewards a long time in coming. But there are days when the happy face of a satisfied customer can make the countless hours of toil and worry seem worthwhile. Ownership can be energizing. Financial success and knowing you've made it on your own are more than gratifying.
But in hard times, success can simply mean survival. Just ask the women on the pages that follow, many of whose businesses survived Hurricane Katrina, and others who bravely brought their new ventures to the marketplace in the midst of the hurricane's aftermath.
But for every woman who has gone into business for herself, there are probably five or 10 who have considered the prospect. How do you know if you're ready? What will it take to make it work?
Because owning a small business can become all-consuming, especially at the outset, the first thing a woman should do is take a personal inventory, advises Patrice William Smith, executive director of the Women's Business Resource Center (WBRC) of the Urban League of Greater New Orleans.
"Ask yourself, 'Do I really have the wherewithal to work maybe 60 hours a week?' Owning a business is not a 9-to-5 thing," says Smith. "How will you fund the business? Do you have good family support?"
With the goal of increasing the visibility and viability of women-owned businesses in the Greater New Orleans area, the WBRC is designed to support women in all phases of enterprise development.
"Our target market is female, but the center serves both genders," says Smith. "We operate under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). As one of only 60 women's business centers in the U.S. and the only one in Louisiana, we serve eight parishes."
In addition to free one-on-one business counseling and technical assistance for small businesses, the WBRC offers basic entrepreneurial training for new and aspiring business owners, a 12-week course consisting of a three-hour class one night per week for a total cost of $650. Entrepreneurs who have been in business for two years or more can enroll in a more advanced six-week course to help them take their business to the next level.
"We also have monthly seminars on things like credit repair and building business credit," says Smith. "But our approach in dealing with clients is not a cookie-cutter approach. What works for you may not work for me. We always consider specific goals and circumstances."
The Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission (JEDCO) is another organization committed to helping local businesses thrive.
"Our seminars help entrepreneurs find their niche," says JEDCO Deputy Director Gaye Frederic. "You have to identify your target market. Be specific. Who are your customers? Where do they live? Why do they want your product or service?"
In addition to offering business incubator and loan programs, JEDCO helps small business owners by informing them of state and parish incentives and tax breaks. Frederic says that over the past five years, she has noticed more women seeking out business opportunities and taking the initiative in terms of getting financial expertise.
"Women really need to tap into whatever resources are available to help them increase their financial sophistication," says Frederic. "You might be technically proficient with great ideas, a good product and competent employees, but if you don't understand cash flow and financial statements, you're in trouble. Financial management has to be practiced on a day-to-day basis, and you've got to plan for contingencies."
But there are some circumstances for which no one is ever really prepared.
After Hurricane Katrina, in cooperation with Loyola University's Small Business Development Center (SBDC), JEDCO operated a business recovery center where individuals and struggling business owners were able to meet with insurance and labor professionals, SBA officials and financial advisers.
"It was a one-stop center to help people get back on their feet during the recovery," says Frederic, who estimates that of the 13,000 clients who came through the center between October 2005 and September 2006, approximately 40 percent represented women-owned businesses.
In Orleans Parish, there is a new campaign to bring more business to women-owned enterprises.
As volunteer co-chair for Mayor Nagin's 100-day Committee, Judith Williams, managing partner of Metro-Source consulting firm, sought out business owners and other individuals in the local community to hear and respond to their concerns and requests about rebuilding needs and efforts.
Her findings and the committee's work resulted in three executive orders signed by Mayor Nagin on Sept. 21. One of the orders, CRN 06-15, "ensures local disadvantaged business enterprises, specifically minority and women-owned business, greater access to the private sector market."
According to Williams, the practical first step in implementing the mayor's executive order will be to generate an accurate picture of these minority- and women-owned businesses and their potential.
"We need to be able to say with some degree of certainty that these disadvantaged businesses will have the capacity to participate in specific projects," says Williams, emphasizing the importance of fostering strong and lasting relationships between the companies and contractors and subcontractors.
"Even though you are classified as a 'disadvantaged business', once you demonstrate that you can deliver a quality product on time, that's what really allows you to grow and participate in the economy on a long-term and ongoing basis," says Williams. "It's not about forcing anyone to use certain small businesses, but [these companies] have the potential to add so much value to the local economy."
In what areas will these small businesses have the most potential to grow in New Orleans? Williams points to construction companies and other professional services such as self-employed attorneys and accountants, adding that retail businesses will certainly feel a positive trickle-down effect from increased commerce on a local level.
• Urban League of Greater New Orleans Women's Business Resource Center, 2322 Canal St., 589-2838; www.urbanleagueneworleans.org
• Jefferson Parish Economic Development Commission (JEDCO), 3445 N. Causeway Blvd., Suite 300, Metairie, 833-1881; www.jedco.org
• U.S. Small Business Administration Business Recovery Center, 1 Canal St., Suite 1050, 589-6685; www.sba.gov
• The Idea Village, 638 Camp St., 304-3284; www.ideavillage.org -- An independent not-for-profit organization, The Idea Village is an accelerator program that supports early-stage New Orleans businesses that have solid prospects for high growth by offering business services and access to a broad network of professionals, mentors and investors.
• Small Business Development Center (SBDC): Loyola University SBDC, 864-7942; www.cba.loyno.edu/sbdc/; University of New Orleans SBDC, (866) 782-4159; www.unosbdc.org -- Part of the Louisiana Small Business Development Network, SBDCs provide business counseling, technical assistance and business training for owners, operators and managers of existing and new small businesses in the Greater New Orleans area.
• Louisiana Department of Economic Development, Offices of Business Resources & Business Development, (225) 342-3000; www.lded.state.la.us
• Women's Business Council Gulf Coast, 400 Poydras St., Suite 1730, 680-6497; www.wbcGulfCoast.org -- The Women's Business Council Gulf Coast is a nonprofit organization for women business owners interested in promoting, developing and maintaining business relationships with other women business owners, major corporations and governmental agencies.