Williamsburg EDA considers scholarships for women-owned businesses

The founders of a business development group have the ear of the city’s Economic Development Authority, which seems poised to approve two scholarships to benefit women-owned businesses.

Zee Worstell and Francine Spinelli, of AccelerateHER, are proposing the authority sponsor two women in a class of six in their JunipHER Project.

Authority members said they plan to create provisions in the scholarships to ensure the group recoups the scholarship money.

The project is a business accelerator program that instills “the CEO mindset” in businesswomen.

“Most women start a business because they have a passion,” said Worstell, during the authority’s Wednesday meeting. “They pursue their passion, they aren't thinking of hiring someone else to pursue it for them.”

As a result, women aren't as financially successful and employ many fewer workers even though women start one-and-a-half times as many businesses as men, according to AccelerateHER’s founders.

“Ninety-one percent of women-owned businesses are solo operations,” Spinelli said.

Worstell said that's because women aren't raised with the “CEO mindset.”

And, she said, most business accelerator or incubator programs aren't designed with women in mind.

“You have to re-locate or you have to go to week-long seminars,” she said.

Women – who still shoulder a large portion of family responsibilities – can’t attend those events, Worstell said.

“I can't do a breakfast meeting,” she said. “I have small children at home.”

AccelerateHER’s program takes place online, with small classes of women, each of whom has a board of advisers and support groups of other female business owners.

Worstell noted that 7 percent of female-owned companies are start-ups, and 2 percent already have revenues of more than $1 million per year.

Project JunipHER intends to concentrate on the upper echelon of the “missing middle,” businesses that have been in operation for more than three years and have gross revenues of between $100,000 and $999,999 per year.

“They've shown that they have a valid business concept,” Worstell said. “We think they can be easily pushed to the next level by concentrating on a CEO mindset, on answering to a board of directors and by having an increased knowledge about their financials.”

Spinelli said she believed they can increase the revenues of the businesses by anywhere from 28 to 50 percent.

The women hope economic development authorities in James City and York counties will offer scholarships to the other four students in the first group of six.

The scholarships would cover half the cost of $5,000-per-year program.

“We think it's important that the participants have some skin in the game,” said Worstell, of the price the businesses would pay.

She said similar business consultants could cost $15,000 to $20,000 annually. AccelerateHER keeps costs down by doing the classes online.

Authority members asked to table the matter for a month to give Economic Development Manager Michele DeWitt time to craft an agreement with provisions to recoup money from the scholarships.

If the additional tax revenue generated for the city meets or exceeds the cost of the scholarship, the scholarships will be considered repaid.

“In that case, they won't owe us anything,” authority chairman Thomas Gillman said.

Worstell said she and her partner would welcome the provisions.

“We're telling you we can increase their revenues, which will mean additional revenue for the city. If that doesn't happen or if they quit the program, somebody should pay the money back,” she said.

In other business:

The authority met for the first time with new City Manager Marvin Collins.

Collins said that traditional economic development doesn't really fit Williamsburg “which doesn't have any industrial property.”

“Location isn't as important with the Internet,” the city manager said. “They can locate anywhere in the world. But talent and quality of life are drivers.”

He said Williamsburg is well situated in those areas.DeWitt told the authority that she is talking with developers about the Williamsburg Shopping Center, which is for sale.

The city has hired a consultant to create an economic development plan for the mid-town site.  

“It's nothing that's ready to be unveiled publicly yet,” she said of conceptual drawings the consultant created. “But we are making progress.”

The authority approved $1,300 to fund four events at the College of William and Mary this semester designed to get students thinking about making Williamsburg their home after graduation.

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