Healing the U.S. Economy: Women Business Owners’ Key to Pandemic Recovery
By: Sandra Pedroarias, NWBC Senior Policy Advisor
Without question, women business owners are a force to be reckoned with and their resiliency will certainly drive America’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Just as female founders led on-the-ground recovery efforts in Puerto Rico following a series of natural disasters, so too are women business owners on the U.S. mainland on the frontlines of combatting and responding to this global pandemic.
As the country looks to gradually reopen the economy, it is vital that female founders have the tools and resources necessary to navigate the pandemic and continue to grow their businesses in the coming years. Notably, according to some pre-pandemic projections, there were as much as 13 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., employing just short of 10 million workers and generating almost $2 trillion in revenue.
Despite these numbers, women business owners have traditionally faced unique obstacles to accessing funding—to start and grow a business or access relief and stay operational in times of crisis. For this reason, the National Women’s Business Council (NWBC)—a federal advisory committee that serves as an independent source of advice and policy recommendations to the President, the U.S. Congress, and to the Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration—launched a Roundtable Series convening women entrepreneurs from across the country to learn about their experiences at the ground level.
This year started not much differently than the last for NWBC. The Council re-branded its signature initiative—the ‘Let’s Talk Business’ Roundtable Series—announcing six planned for 2020. The first took place on February 27th in San Juan, Puerto Rico, just as the Island again faced the ominous task of recovery from another set of natural disasters—the recent earthquakes that rocked its residents and their economy.
While the coronavirus pandemic forced postponement of the remainder of these roundtables, the prescient conversations had in San Juan almost three months ago could not have been timelier. The topics ranging from financial literacy, access to capital, ‘Opportunity Zones’, and most relevant disaster planning and financial preparedness, foreshadowed the impending health and economic crisis that the U.S. and world community would soon have to grapple.
The most noteworthy exchanges were inspiring and insightful, highlighting the key role that women entrepreneurs and business owners played in the Island’s economic recovery. As one female founder, whose company provides freight and transportation logistics solutions on the Island shared, “Hurricane [Maria] created an incentive to push Puerto Rico forward.” Her company was in fact one of the first responders following the hurricane, providing its temperature-controlled warehouses to store medication and ensuring that medicine was getting to the most vulnerable—even in the most rural and remote areas of the island.
Another woman entrepreneur echoed similar sentiments. She herself, a roofing manufacturer, shared that women business owners on the Island immediately formed a “business emergency group,” playing an integral role in providing immediate emergency infrastructure support to those affected by the disaster.
Annie Mayol, the President and CEO of the Foundation for Puerto Rico, shared best practices for organizations that support small businesses in post-disaster recovery situations. She underscored that the key to supporting small business centered on providing individualized technical assistance, as well as increasing and diversifying access to capital opportunities—including more affordable loans such as microloans. Nonetheless, the single most important issue that must be addressed during an economic recovery is that of mental resiliency. Support networks that address the importance of resiliency are key to ensuring that more businesses remain open in the long-term.
In other words, access to capital and assistance must be provided hand-in-hand with counseling and mentoring so that business owners have the tools and resources, but also the confidence, to sustain their enterprise and pay back the loan. “You know, some of the women are so reluctant to take loans and without the right support and technical assistance, it can be a daunting task,” Ms. Mayol retold.
Certainly, the learnings extrapolated from our recent roundtable in Puerto Rico are critical. As women business owners drive economic recovery efforts at home—whether through business or philanthropic efforts—NWBC remains dedicated to redoubling its efforts to remove common barriers for female founders and have more conversations around eliminating some of the false or limiting beliefs that can undermine women entrepreneurs’ resiliency.
Like women entrepreneurs in Puerto Rico, those on the mainland can and will recalibrate—and undoubtedly reposition themselves as the drivers of economic recovery.