"I immediately turned to Hedy Ratner and the Women's Business Development Center for help and advice," Schakowsky says. "They became invaluable to me."
Schakowsky and Ratner met in the '80s when both were fighting for approval of the Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois (which remains unratified).
In 1986, Ratner and fellow activist Carol Dougal founded the Chicago-based center (wbdc.org), an organization that provides services and programs to encourage women's business ownership across the country. They started as a staff of two, at a time when fewer than 10 percent of businesses in the United States were owned by women."When we began, there was absolutely no credibility given to women's business ownership," Ratner says. "People saw women in business as a hobby, something you did in your spare time."
Unless you were Mary Kay Ash, the cosmetics magnate and one of the few women business owners with any name recognition at the time.
"She was a guest at our annual conference 20 years ago," Ratner recalls.
Ratner and Dougal have formally bid their organization farewell, having stepped aside as co-directors of WBDC this month. They've handed the reins to Emilia DiMenco, 59, the group's chief operating officer since 2010.
Ratner will remain on the center's board of directors and will continue to advocate and consult on minority women-owned business issues for WBDC. Dougal is retiring, but she will also remain on the board.
The pioneering duo leaves the world of women's entrepreneurship in far different shape than they found it.
Today, women own 8.6 million businesses in the U.S., which generate more than $1.3 trillion in revenue and employ close to 7.8 million people, according to a 2013 "State of Women-Owned Businesses" report commissioned by American Express.
And those who know Ratner, 72, and Dougal, 74, are quick to credit them for much of that progress.
"Carol and Hedy have changed the national landscape," says Schakowsky, a Democrat who represents Illinois' 9th District. "They have advised business groups and public officials at all levels about ways to help women. They know that small business is the engine of our economy, and with their help, women are increasingly leading the way."
"There wasn't even a landscape that included women," says WBDC board member Laurel Bellows, who just completed her term as president of the American Bar Association. "There was no picture that included women in business in any way when Hedy and Carol began."
"The WBDC has provided tens of thousands of women — maybe more — with practical skills and advice for decades," says Alison Chung, founder of TeamWerks, a Chicago-based computer forensics firm. "I am one of those women who has been one of the beneficiaries of their services. Hedy and Carol are simply selfless in the way they devote themselves to all of us, giving endlessly without ever expecting anything back, except, perhaps, our happiness and success."
The center, at 8 S. Michigan Ave., has a staff of 24 full-time employees and consultants and a board of directors that includes such power players as financial analyst Terry Savage, as well as executives from Microsoft, ComEd and United Airlines, among others.
Bellows, principal of The Bellows Law Group in Chicago, offers a laundry list of values she picked up from Ratner and Dougal.
"Persistence, impatience, perseverance and the value of making noise and building relationships," she says. "And persistence."
Chung says the duo founded more than an organization.
"Hedy and Carol wove a women's community," she says. "They knew the rhythms leading up to transitions for business owners — the clarity, confusion, ups and downs. They drew us close together, so we would help one another. They saw us grow up, sometimes move away and embark on our personal and professional transitions.
"They were masters of our transitions, and now they meet their own."