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Forward-moving life: "We want to be is more cutting edge and also be responsive to the challenges and issues that the women business owners face," said Hedy Ratner, on the WBDC's future plans. | GIL LEORA ~ For Sun-Times Media

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If you ever have a chance to meet Hedy Ratner, don’t pass it up. At the very least, she will inspire you. At the most, she’ll change your life.

Ratner, 71, is co-founder and president of the Women’s Business Development Center. Headquartered in Chicago, it is the largest and most comprehensive women’s business assistance center in the United States. Its programs are designed to help individuals in every phase of the business development and growth process. She said that the WBDC has experienced some major changes in the last year.

“First of all, we’re restructuring,” she said. “I have a new chief operating officer. I have a new chief development officer. And both have fabulous ideas.”

“We’ve been in existence for 26 years. The climate has changed. The environment has changed. The nature of women business owners has changed and evolved,” she said. “Now what we want to be is more cutting edge and also be responsive to the challenges and issues that the women business owners face.”

One of the major WBDC initiatives is access to capital.

“We’re looking at ways that we can help finance early-stage businesses, emerging businesses and help established businesses that are hurting that need a little help,” she said.

“The issues around access to capital are even more difficult for small businesses and much more difficult for women-owned businesses in part because of the nature of their businesses, which is essentially service businesses,” she said, and explained that, as services businesses don’t technically have assets, access to money is especially difficult for them.

To combat this the WBDC is working to become a loaning office.

“What we’ve been trying to do is look at ways that we can provide direct loans through the Women’s Business Development Center,” she said. “I’ve done it from the very beginning, but I didn’t do it as well and I didn’t do it as much.”

The WBDC is looking to be licensed as a CDFI, which is a community development financial institution. If this happens, the WBDC will be able to offer direct loans. The staff has also been trained on how to do micro-enterprise loans.

The WBDC is also finding appropriate mentors to help the more established small businesses grow. Ratner said she wants to, “get the right people with the right protégées and with the right resources.”

Ratner said the WBDC is also coordinating a teaming program to help women business owners be more successful at doing business with corporations.

“Teaming is like a strategic alliance between companies that do have some synergy, so there will be an economy of scale when they are large enough that they can be competitive in the marketplace,” she said.

Ratner used the example of a small design business. On its own, it doesn’t have a chance to work with a corporation. However, if it teams up with printing and web design companies, the chance that the team can be successful at competing for bids with major corporations is greater.

The challenges women business owners face in the boardroom are mirrored by the specific lifestyle issues — motherhood, non-native speaker, sexual orientation or military service — that should not, but indeed does, affect a woman’s ability to do business with certain companies. The WBDC addresses these issues as well. Ratner said it is continuing and expanding its programs in Spanish, including collaborating with several Latina nonprofits, and its child-care programs.

“Another program that we are just starting — we need money for it and I’ll think we’ll get it — is for women veterans,” she said. “What’s horrible and horrifying is 37 percent of the women in the service that will return are unemployed. Thirty-seven percent.”

“There are many, many veterans’ programs, but very few that target women,” Ratner said. “Finding a job is hard for them. They have skills. They have experience. They have education. They have all the qualities that make them successful in the military.”

Therefore, the WBDC is trying to help women veterans become self-employed while ensuring they have access to the city, state, county and federal social service programs that they are eligible for and to which they are entitled.

The good news is Ratner does feel the business environment has gotten better.

“I think the economy has improved,” she said. “We’ve seen more starting businesses. We’ve seeing more of our established businesses surviving, where they weren’t surviving before. They’re still struggling.”