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After discovering there was only a week left to apply for a small grant through the Small Business Administration in July 2015, executive director of Central Missouri Community Action Darin Preis figured that funding his most recent brainchild wasn’t in the cards.
“After I picked myself up off the floor and figured that it probably wasn’t going to be doable, since there’s only so many hours in a week,” Pries says, “I decided that building a Women’s Business Center was the type of thing I really needed to explore to ramp up our economic development activities.”
CMCA, a regional nonprofit, provides services and support for people hoping to get out of poverty in eight counties. The organization provides services ranging from basic needs to economic development. They offer assistance with family money management, budgeting, understanding health insurance, homeownership education, crisis management, and more.
When unemployment reached 9.8 percent in Missouri in 2010, CMCA reevaluated their strategies. Instead of exclusively training individuals to join the workforce, Preis, along with his staff, designed a microloan program to finance small businesses throughout central Missouri.
“When the recession and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act hit all at the same time, all this work that we’d been doing to get people ready for work was really for naught, because there wasn’t any work to be found,” Preis says. “We felt like this work was a little disingenuous because we were setting them up for no end in sight.”
The CMCA began holding classes to help Missourians learn the basics of entrepreneurship and how to achieve their personal goals in nontraditional ways. While several hundred people took the classes offered, the nonprofit only initiated six loans. Although the concept was relevant, Preis believed it required a significant upgrade to go any further.
In November 2015, the SBA released another round of grants, giving the CMCA a second opportunity to fund an increasingly desirable Women’s Business Center. CMCA entered into a cooperative agreement with the SBA to launch the Missouri Women’s Business Center (MoWBC), in mid-Missouri. In March, after consulting with Virginia Wilson, director of the Missouri Small Business and Technology Development Centers, representatives at the local SBA office; Mid Missouri SCORE; bankers; and chambers of commerce, CMCA received a grant of $672,000, spread over five years, to start the second Women’s Business Center in Missouri.
The grant requires a local match, half of which can come from volunteer offers and in-kind gifts. The other half must be matched in cash from the community.
“Everyone I talked to was really excited about this idea of helping women generating their own small businesses,” Preis says. “In a community like Columbia, where we have a very robust women’s business network associated with the chamber of commerce, it seemed like a good fit to build on what we have here. Women business owners are the untapped potential in our economy, and they’re often overlooked in the business community.”
The MoWBC office in Columbia is now open, and another will open by summer’s end in Fulton. The centers will serve Audrain, Howard, Boone, Callaway, Cooper, Moniteau, Cole, and Osage counties by providing women-focused classes, coaching, networking, resources, and a microlending program.
MoWBC Director Jaime Freidrichs was immediately interested in the opportunities unfolding at CMCA after reading about the grant in the news. She applied for the position, ultimately leaving her job as director of development at Woodhaven, a nonprofit helping adults with developmental disabilities in Columbia.
Freidrichs says, “Reading the description of what they were looking for in a director, it seemed like a really good fit for me and connected with what I have been interested in doing long-term in my career, with helping people growing their skills and maximizing their potential directly through teaching, coaching, and providing resources.”
Teri Roberts, the asset development coordinator at CMCA, will continue to work with the nonprofit but move the previously implemented microlending program and business classes to the MoWBC. Operation Jumpstart, a six-week program for aspiring business owners run by Roberts, is set to restart in the new center on July 9.
Over the course of its first year, Preis expects more than 1,000 people to have some contact with the center, a few hundred to take classes, and 20 small businesses to start as a result of MoWBC resources. While the center is directly marketed to women, it’s open to all members of the community, no matter their gender or income.
And the MoWBC offers more than just loans. Freidrichs says they will support business owners long after the loan goes through or a business plan is written.
“There are no limitations with who we can help with our services,” Freidrichs says. “While many of the CMCA’s programs have an income ceiling on who can access those services, with this, there’s nothing like that. And that includes helping men.”
While the CMCA expects a large turnout over time, the center only has two staff members: Freidrichs and Roberts, plus several interns to assist in setting up the new location. The MoWBC is designing another permanent position, which will become available in the fall.
“Once we’re fully staffed and operating at 100 percent, which might be over the course of the next 12 months, I do expect to get up to five people,” Preis says.
The CMCA held an open house and ribbon cutting with the Columbia Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors at the MoWBC’s main office on June 1, allowing the community their first opportunity to see the new center. SBA officials were there to support the project and expressed excitement to have a program in the center of the state. The SBA will be active in the work happening at MoWBC.
“We’re going to be recruiting women business owners [in the community] to share their stories, join a mentorship program, and share their knowledge and expertise,” Freidrichs says. “I see the center as a place to bring women together to share in that.”
The MoWBC expects to build and grow relationships across the state through their services. Currently, Mid-Missouri Legal Services has an informal agreement to provide the center a grant specifically for providing legal advice to startups. The Show Me Innovation Center, in Fulton, is also working on a joint partnership with the Fulton Area Development Corporation and the Callaway County Chamber of Commerce to improve the services offered by the MoWBC office there. Freidrichs says they’re working on forming an advisory committee as well.
“Columbia, I don’t know if it’s unusual, but it is very fortunate to have such a robust female business community,” Preis says. “In a lot of rural areas, that’s just not the tradition. I think that that’s probably where we’re going to see significant opportunity where it hasn’t been in the past, and we want to promote creative thinking about how to really improve the economic circumstances of those people living in the most rural communities.”