A woman on a mission
BY TAMMY MATTHEWS For Sun-Times Media
“Know your passion and live it. Don’t allow others to dampen your dreams. Surround yourself with people that support your values and your passions. Look for ways to fulfill as many aspects of your life as you can.” — Hedy Ratner, co-president, Women’s Business Development Center
INTERNATIONAL ADVOCACY IN RATNER'S OWN WORDS
"In Kuwait, all the women wear veils. They're not burkas, but they're veils. Then you go into their homes, and they are in these fabulous fancy clothes with their high heels. They can't do it publicly, but they're running businesses out of their homes."
"One of the reasons I was in Kuwait was to help women get the right to vote, and now they have that right to vote. This only happened last year, and I was there three years before. It was really sad because the first election after my visit, it failed but by only a few votes. And then a few years later, it finally got through. So Kuwait in now moving toward the empowerment of women but it's really very difficult."
"In Taiwan, I met with the vice president, who was a woman, and the head of the party, who was also a woman. The woman who was the vice president was educated at the University of Illinois. She is very familiar with the issues, and Taiwan is really pushing to get women into business ownership."
"My hotel was not nice, and it was the nicest hotel in Balarus. It was next to the KGB headquarters. Those women were trying to start businesses, provided we could help them. It was a real struggled because the government owns most of the businesses. It's very difficult for independent businesses."
"India was the most fascinating. They are doing a great deal in micro-enterprise - very small businesses - but they're not doing business development. Micro-enterprise is just survival level of income, but at least it's something that allows [women] to have some money of their own and also to send girls to school, which is the major issue there. After the fifth grade, the girls come home to help."
"I spent three weeks in India traveling all over the country talking to women about business education. I talked to the head of the political party in Delhi, a woman. She was interested in establishing a business initiative for women but it hadn't happened yet. Micro-enterprise, yes, but not business development the way we are here so that was an issue that we would like to address."
"I just did a teleconference to Israel with women in retail. They were trying to sell jewelry, accessories and clothing but everything was on consignment, and they couldn't make any money. That's a whole other issue."
WHAT FEMINISM MEANS TO HEDY RATNER
"Feminism means a commitment to parity for me. That's how I see myself. That women have equal opportunity in business, in education, in sports, in athletics. That there is as much emphasis on the health of women in our health care system. That we have universal access to health care. That reproductive health is a part of all health care programs. That the issues around the violence against women are addressed and dissolved. That sexism in the marketplace is eliminated. Trafficking is looked upon not as business but as crime. As a feminist, those are the things that I'm dedicated to. And business ownership."
Women's Business Development Center
8 S. Michigan Ave., Ste. 400
Chicago, IL 60603
Printed April 23, 2008
Hedy Ratner, co-president of the Women's Business Development Center, drove a motorcycle when she lived in San Francisco. She's a native Chicagoan who has seen world-renowned pianist Lang Lang perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She's a morning person and an avid cyclist, and she has forged the path for women business owners in the state, country and world. She is a busy, busy (and happy) lady.
The walls of her office are plastered with photographs of her and seemingly every important Illinois political figure (from former governors Harold Washington and Jim Ryan to former Cook County president John Stroger) and several national ones (former president Bill Clinton to former Senator Carol Mosley Braun). She is also very well connected.
The Women's Business Development Center, the organization Ratner founded with co-president Carol Dougal in 1986, provides business development, counseling and financial assistance to women business owners.
It was the first organization in the country to address women's business ownership issues and the second to address women in the workplace. (The first, based in New York, focused on integrating women into corporations.)
As a result of the women's movement, more women were in professional schools. Women were better educated, trained and able to get jobs.
"But true economic independence was not the case," Ratner said. "I decided that women would not be empowered if they weren't economically independent."
Ratner thought of her parents, who had difficulty finding jobs when they immigrated to the United States. To compensate, they opened a grocery store. She considered this when searching for a solution for women who need to support themselves and a family.
"A vehicle to change the face of business, to provide women with the flexibility and independence economically to make their own decisions, was business ownership," she said.
Some women-owned businesses existed, but they were considered hobbies; therefore, they couldn't receive federal funding. In corporations, women began to receive credit for their accomplishments but only at lower levels.
"Women had the education, capacity and willingness, but business ownership was not something they had the resources to develop," Ratner said. "We decided to change the image and perspective of business ownership to give women the credibility to be successful."
Ratner and Dougal began to lay the groundwork for the center that, ultimately, became insurmountably successful. They counseled women, developed entrepreneurial training and created a curriculum for workshops on starting a business and developing entrepreneurial and business plans.
"After a couple years, we realized helping people with a business plan and giving them hope to start a business if they didn't have access to financing wasn't useful," Ratner said.
To adapt, they established a loan program for women business owners. Currently, the center works with more than 20 banks on loan packages.
Ratner and Dougal also became political advocates for women's business ownership.
"We started advocacy for women and minority business ownership because the problems and issues are the same," Ratner said. "For minority women, they were both discriminated as minorities and as women."
Ratner took her grassroots advocacy to city and state politicians. She worked with mayors Harold Washington, Eugene Sawyer and Richard Daley as well as governors James Thompson, Jim Edgar, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich to ensure they established goals to work with women and minority-owned businesses.
"We had a great deal of success under Governor Ryan establishing a major initiative to ensure that women and minorities have ample opportunities," Ratner said. "Daley has probably been the most obsessed with affirmative action programs for women in minorities, and we're really happy about that. The programs have been challenged in court, and he's protected and defended them."
Ratner says the hardest part of establishing and growing the center was acquiring funds; therefore, the support of politicians has been essential.
"Former Governor Thompson came to our 20th anniversary celebration a few years ago," Ratner says. "He said, of all the investments he made when he was governor, ours was one of the best."
Ratner says that their efforts have been "relatively successful," which is a modest understatement. The city of Chicago has the strongest affirmative action program for minorities and women, the state of Illinois has a very strong program and Cook County has a program, Ratner says.
"Early on in the women's movement, only 5 percent of businesses were owned by women," Ratner said. "Now, it's over 50 percent."
Ratner has taken her mission to empower women business owners nationally and also globally.
"I've visited third-world countries to talk about women's empowerment in some very interesting areas: India, Belarus, Taiwan, Kuwait," Ratner says.
The most work-intensive division of the Women's Development Center is its certification program. The certification affirms that at least 51 percent of women employees are operated and managed by women.
The center certifies more than 1,000 women a year in nine states: Illinois, Indiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri and Nebraska. The city, state and county governments accept the certification or are in the process of doing so. Major corporations also accept it.
The center's sister organization, the Chicago Minority Business Council, certifies minority-owned businesses. Together, the two groups helped establish the Women's Business Enterprise National Counsel. The counsel has 14 other partner organizations throughout the country that certify businesses in the private and public sectors.
The Women's Development Center has become immensely popular. More than 55,000 women in the Chicago metropolitan area have taken advantage of the center's counseling, training, financial assistance, certification programs and events. The center holds two major events a year: an Entrepreneurial Women's Conference and Childcare Business Expo. Most services, including counseling, financial assistance and networking opportunities, are free of charge. Some events have an entrance fee, but discounts and scholarships are available. The center does charge for its certification.
Its clients range from economically disadvantaged women from low-income communities looking to support a family to high-growth women-owned multimillion-dollar businesses.
"Now, one in 11 women in this country owns a business," she said. "One in five of the women-owned businesses are owned by women of color, which is an amazing thing. Probably 85 percent of those are sole proprietors or sole practitioners that are very small. But that's ok because a lot of women want it that way."
Of all her accomplishments, Ratner says she is the most proud of "starting this organization and seeing it grow, and seeing the empowerment of women in business ownership.
"My inspiration is the empowerment of women for almost all my adult life," she continued.
In the future, Ratner is looking at extending equality and opportunity in the private and the public internationally as well as further integrating green, technology and health care issues into her advocacy. She also hopes that the new administration will provide more access to capital for women-owned businesses.
"Now that we are in such a down-turned economy, the role of the government needs to be even stronger; and it isn't, but it needs to be," Ratner said. "So if there is a recession and the businesses are adversely affected, the government has to come in and look at ways to expand opportunity."
"I want to be sure that women in minorities have a very important role to play if the Olympics come to Chicago," she continues. "And then I want to see more women in leadership both at the political and the corporate level."
"One thing that is critical to me is life balance," Ratner said. "I'm pretty good at it, but right now I'm a little stressed. But I'm pretty good at that. I believe you have to make time for your spiritual, cultural and intellectual self. You can't dedicate yourself in one direction and be productive if you don't have the rest as well."
"Spiritually, I'm not that great, but at the age of 60, I had my feminist ecumenical bat mitzvah," she said.
Ratner never had a bat mitzvah when she was younger, and she "wanted to do something significant for my 60th birthday, and that was significant."
She worked with her rabbi to develop a feminist version of the traditional ceremony.
"I had a reverend, a minister and a Catholic nun as well as my rabbi and my cantor officiating," she said. "They loved it."
By the way, all these religious leaders were women.
Ratner's advice to women is simple yet powerful: "Know your passion and live it. Don't allow others to dampen your dreams. Surround yourself with people that support your values and your passions. Look for ways to fulfill as many aspects of your life as you can."