Q&A with: Women’s Business Center’s Ellen Fineberg

What started as a temporary position for Ellen Fineberg four years ago has developed into a permanent opportunity to make a difference in the lives of women who dream of developing their own niche in the business community.

Since 2001, Fineberg has served as executive director of the Portsmouth-based Women’s Business Center, an agency dedicated to nurturing the development of women-owned businesses throughout the Granite State and into Maine and Massachusetts.

Relocation and recognition have both played a part in the 10th anniversary celebration of the organization. The WBC earlier this year moved its operation to Lafayette Road, where it now rents 900 square feet of professional space above Ocean National Bank.

Citizens Bank and WMUR-TV recently named the WBC a “Community Champion,” recognition that brings with it a $25,000 grant, media coverage and promotional and volunteer support. For Fineberg, both are welcomed anniversary gifts and tools that will aid the organization in its continued quest to assist women in achieving their entrepreneurial goals.

She recently sat down with the New Hampshire Business Review to discuss her role at the WBC and the state of women-owned businesses throughout the Granite State.

Q. What is the purpose of the Women’s Business Center and how did it come about?

A. Its mission is to promote women-owned businesses as a way of maximizing personal potential and achieving independence at all economic levels. Local businessman Christos Papoutsy, who had two daughters starting out in business, started it 10 years ago.
He introduced a series of seminars at New Hampshire College for women focusing on starting a business. The seminars were so well attended it was apparent that there was a need for this type of organization.

Q. What services does the WBC offer?

A. Counseling on getting started in your own business, education, advocacy and roundtable discussions that meet once a month in Portsmouth, Concord, Manchester and Peterborough.

Q. Talk about one of the more exciting programs currently being offered.

A. Next Step is one we’re just putting together now. It is for businesses that are between three and five years old and will cover topics like adding to staff, moving, financing and marketing. A lot of our businesses are older now and need a different type of service. We hope this will address that need.

Q. When and why did you join the WBC?

A. It was June of 2001. I knew of the WBC through a course I had taken with them and through people within my professional circle. When an opening occurred they asked me if I was interested. Originally it was supposed to be a temporary position, but I’m still here.

Q. What kind of work did you do before joining the WBC?

A. I have a long history of working with non-profits and community-based organizations throughout New England. I’ve worked in educational program planning, administrative roles, long-term strategic planning and evaluation. It was all very exciting. The only thing I didn’t have was experience running my own business, so I don’t do counseling. I feel strongly that our counselors should have that experience.

Q. What is the WBC’s affiliation with the Small Business Administration?

A. All of us — the WBC, the Small Business Development Center and SCORE — are under the umbrella of the SBA. We all reach out to small-business owners. There are tens of thousands out there, so there is more than enough work for all of us.

Q. What is your staffing like?

A. We have three people on staff and over 150 volunteers.

Q. How has women entrepreneurship changed since the WBC was established?

A. You always see trends. The businesses that are being started are as varied as the women starting them. We keep seeing that variation grow and change.

I am always impressed by the diversity of women in business in the state of New Hampshire.

Q. Here in New Hampshire the number of women-owed businesses — a business that is at least 50 percent owned by a woman — has increased by 22 percent to 41.2 percent since 1997, according to a recent study conducted by the Center for Women’s Business Research. That makes us 42nd in the country for the number of women-owned businesses. And we’re 46th in growth. Why is that?

A. I think this is an area where we need to do more research. We don’t know why, but there are some possibilities. One is that the fastest-growing sector of women-owned businesses in the nation is the minority-owned business, and we live in a state with low ethnic diversity. Another possibility is access to capital. We need more options, like micro loans, for those who are starting and growing businesses.

Q. What was the most important thing you thought came out of the study?

A. The fact that we brought all the issues facing working women together in one document was very powerful. Hopefully it raised the consciousness. We’ve talked for a long time about New Hampshire being at the bottom when it came to growth of women-owned businesses. I hope this survey will put that out there and get the state to see that there is work to be done to develop a healthier environment for growing women-owned businesses.

Q. Why should people be concerned about the status of women-owned businesses in New Hampshire?

A. Women are a major contributor to the economic health of our state. If part of our population is unable to secure the resources needed to help them do what they have to contribute to the health of our state, that’s a problem.

Also, so many women nowadays are single heads of households. Empowering the women leads to empowering the family.

Q. In 2002 the WBC conducted a survey through the University of New Hampshire Survey Center examining key issues facing women-owned businesses. What were the biggest surprises?

A. We found a 98 percent satisfaction rate among women who owned their own business. That was just wonderful to see.

Q. If you could see one change in the women’s business world by the time your daughters begin working, what would it be?

A. Well actually, I have one daughter who is about to enter that world and another close behind. I think it is really important that the media do more to use women as role models. It helps when women are seen as having authority equal to men. It is so important for young women to see women that they can emulate.

Also, I think we need to look at the equity thing in areas of financing. Woman are equally deserving of the resources out there. They need a place at the table and on the board.

Q. What do you do in your downtime?

A. I’m taking rowing lessons through the Durham Boat Club. It’s actually sweeping – it’s with one oar and it’s all about teamwork.

Q. Last bit of advice for women contemplating their own business?

A. Make sure you reach out. Do your homework and remember you don’t need to do it alone.

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