The 22 women seated on the dais in the Hyatt Regency Hotel ballroom shared the same dream -- to become self-reliant through owning and operating their own businesses.
The chances of attaining this goal, slim at best, mattered not. The graduation ceremony last week of Class Eight of Women Entrepreneurs of Baltimore was a joyous occasion.
Proud relatives dressed to the nines watched as each woman collected her diploma and certificate of appreciation from the mayor's office. Hearty exclamations of "Congratulations!" could be heard throughout the room.
For many of the women, getting through WEB's 12-week training course was an accomplishment in itself.
During a post-ceremony reception, the women posed for class photos and talked about how WEB -- a nonprofit business training program geared primarily to poor women -- had boosted their self-esteem and helped them focus their ideas about work, starting a business and achieving success.
"I had no business skills," said Sandra Street, who works for the federal government but wants to start a business making African-American dolls full time. "The main thing I learned from WEB is it's OK to have an idea and a product, but if you go into it blindly, you're not going to make it. It's research and planning that pays off. Before, I didn't have a plan."
Ms. Street, who lives with her husband and two children in Randallstown and has sold some of her dolls to friends and at consignment shops, says above all else, WEB gave her confidence.
"Before I took this course, I had the hardest time telling people how much my dolls cost," she said. "Now if they ask, I tell them $75 wholesale. That's it."
Acquiring business skills
WEB's instructors said the women come to them with lots of energy and ideas, but lacking basic business skills.
"Many of them don't have any business background whatsoever," said Laurie Klyce, who owns a marketing business in Columbia and was co-instructor. "They have good ideas but lack knowledge about how to develop a business plan."
National studies have shown that half of all new businesses fail within the first four years.
On paper, WEB's graduates appear to have significantly better chances. Of 117 participants since 1991, 82 have started businesses and 78 are still operating.
But Amanda Crook, WEB's chief executive officer, admits these statistics paint an overly optimistic picture.
"I hate to give numbers because they don't mean anything. bTC We're really too new to have accurate statistics," she explained. "A lot of these businesses are operating now, but we don't know what to expect three or four years from now," she said.
And only a couple of the predominantly home-based operations have allowed their owners to become self-reliant through the business alone. Most of the women still need to work part time or full time and run their businesses on the side.
"Making these businesses your sole income is very tough," said Ms. Crook. "But if they provide the women with additional income that enhances their quality of life, then they're a success."
Training since 1991
Founded in 1989, WEB started putting women through business training in 1991. Starting slowly, with only four participants in the first class, the program now offers training sessions three times a year to classes of 25.
Sixty percent of the participants are at or below the federal poverty level, 35 percent are considered low-income and 5 percent can have any income level, Ms. Crook said. The Baltimore-based program is funded by foundation grants, individual and corporate contributions and a 17-month federal grant that will expire in two months.
The program gets more than 200 inquiries for each session, from which a panel interviews about 75 applicants, looking for the most motivated and best business ideas. The 25 selected attend three-hour classes, three nights a week for 12 weeks. WEB offers mentoring services for the next year and continuing support services. The program also offers loans of up to $1,000.
Much of the training session is dedicated to developing detailed business plans, including three-year, cash-flow analyses, start-up cost projections, profit and loss statements, marketing strategies and management and personnel plans.
'Not going to give up'
When asked about the business plans, the women groaned.
"That was really tough," said Ruby Bowling, who lives in Highlandtown and wants to open a floral design shop. Although she has made silk floral arrangements for 15 years and sold them to friends, she didn't know how to turn her skills into a viable business.
"WEB brings the reality of the cost and the hard work it's going to take," she said. "I know it's going to be hard, but I'm not going to give up."
Connie Evans, president of the Women's Self-Employment Project in Chicago -- one of the country's largest programs of its kind -- said helping women become self-employed is critical in any nationwide strategy to help families out of poverty.
"Clearly, when you invest in the women, it tends to bring up the entire family," she said. "If we're really talking about helping women out of poverty, there's not enough new jobs being created to help everyone. Helping women increase their incomes through self-employment is a sound strategy."