Commerce: WWBIC can open doors to entrepreneurship
For every new business that opens its doors, there are countless more that may never even materialize. Many people dream of life as an entrepreneur, but for untold numbers of them, that dream will remain out of reach. A lot of would-be business owners of modest means may be unable to obtain the necessary capital to finance a start-up, sometimes through no fault of their own.
Now, some of these people may catch a break, thanks to an organization that’s been operating in southeast Wisconsin for years. The Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) offers access to business loans as well as business education and one-on-one technical assistance to people who normally wouldn’t be able to obtain them.
“Our goal is to take someone who is low income and raise them up a notch so they can make a living wage,” says Beth Kost, WWBIC’s northeast Wisconsin rural small business consultant. “It’s very difficult for those folks to get financing from traditional sources.”
WWBIC’s client base is comprised largely – but not exclusively – of women and people of color. Despite the organization’s name, however, “We’re not exclusively for women,” Kost says. “About a quarter of our clients are men.”
Helping people achieve their dreams of business ownership appealed to Kost, who is based in Rhinelander and taught business management at Nicolet College for 12 years. Before that, “I was a banker in central Illinois for 10 years,” she says, noting that she worked at that time in commercial lending. “I used to joke that we lent money to people who didn’t need it. This is the opposite of that.”
WWBIC was founded in 1987 in the Milwaukee area as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation. The majority of WWBIC’s funding, 47 percent, comes from the federal government, with state and local governments chipping in 19 percent. Earned revenue accounts for 18 percent of WWBIC’s funding and 16 percent of the organization’s funding comes from donations.
More than loans
WWBIC helps entrepreneurs gain access to microloans, but Kost says potential applicants should be aware that WWBIC isn’t a low-rate loan provider. “The first question we ask is, ‘Have you talked to your bank?’” Kost says. “If they can go to the bank and get [the loan], they should.”
If an applicant can’t obtain a loan from a traditional lending institution, WWBIC may be able to help. Unlike traditional lending institutions, WWBIC will work with applicants who have gone through bankruptcy, which is allowable if the bankruptcy has been dismissed or discharged over 18 months, if there’s not a history of credit abuse and if the applicant has a reasonable explanation for the bankruptcy.
Those who apply to WWBIC for a loan must demonstrate they have sufficient cash flow to afford the loan payments. General business assets, home and other personal assets may be considered as collateral, and personal guarantees (including spouse) are required. Loans follow Small Business Administration eligibility standards. The organization does not accept deposits and is not FDIC insured.
Loans through WWBIC range from $1,000 to $100,000 for one to six years. Rates vary, depending on the amount and length of the loan. At press time, the interest rate on business loans through WWBIC was 7.75 percent for up to six years.
Among other eligibility requirements, applicants must submit a completed business plan along with a 12-month cash flow and three-year profit/loss projections.
If the amount of funding needed surpasses WBBIC’s limit, the organization will work with other lending institutions to try to accommodate the loan request. Loans cannot be used to purchase real estate, but are used instead for working capital, inventory, supplies, equipment, machinery and furniture. At the Northwoods Women’s Business Conference, held at Nicolet College in March, presenter Michael Hetzel, senior loan officer with WWBIC, noted that the default/delinquency rate for WWBIC loans is less than 3 percent.
Also unlike traditional lending institutions, WWBIC provides education and technical support to business owners. Educational courses are offered mainly online for little or no charge. To help serve clients, WWBIC counts on the services of experienced entrepreneurs. “In our more established markets, there’s a big group of volunteers,” Kost says, adding that the organization is looking for additional volunteers as they expand their presence in Wisconsin. These people serve as mentors and help entrepreneurs learn more about accounting, marketing and other aspects of business ownership.
One area entrepreneur who benefited from working with WWBIC is Laura Connor, owner of Connor Human Restoration, a chiropractic/nutritional care practice in Crandon.
“I started my business in Madison in June 2010,” Connor recalls, explaining that she relocated her practice to the Northwoods when her husband took a job in this area. She first heard of the organization from her mother, who is herself a business owner. “[WWBIC] gave me the initial funding for it,” Connor says. She was impressed with the organization’s loan application process. “The way they go about dispensing the funds is really responsible.
“It’s not just the responsible lending, but they offer a lot of education and support alongside it,” she says. “You’re not just left with your loan and your business wondering, ‘Well, now what am I going to do?’ They provide ongoing support.”
An increased presence
While WWBIC has largely served southeastern and south central Wisconsin, “It’s always been a statewide economic development corporation,” Kost says. After years of visibility in and around Milwaukee and Madison, but little in other parts of the state, the organization’s leaders became increasingly aware that they needed to expand their presence. A few years ago, they added a part-time staff member in southwestern Wisconsin. In October, they hired Kost to serve in the northern part of the state. At the time of this writing, WWBIC was also searching for a consultant to serve the central part of the state.
WWBIC staffers are finding that serving less populous regions, with greater distances between communities and infrastructure that differs from urban areas, is not quite like serving southeast Wisconsin.
“It’s a paradigm shift for the organization to think about to reach the rural areas,” Kost says. “We’re really working quite hard to change the way we deliver services.” Kost, who provides one-on-one assistance for WWBIC’s clients, is a testament to that. She puts on a lot of miles, serving clients in Florence, Forest, Langlade, Lincoln, Marinette, Oconto, Oneida and Vilas counties.
WWBIC ’s impact
It’s impossible to predict, of course, WWBIC’s precise impact on this area’s economy once the organization becomes more well-known and utilized in the Northwoods. But statewide, over the past 27 years, WWBIC has helped directly finance 2,500 businesses. In that same time, WWBIC clients have created and retained 8,000 jobs. In 2013 alone, WWBIC clients created or retained 1,800 jobs.
“Entrepreneurship is important anywhere,” Kost says, “but it is so important here in our small towns because we don’t have an abundance of large industries.”
Kost is clearly passionate about the work the organization does. “[WWBIC] really is a mission-driven organization. That’s what I loved about teaching – you could see your impact.” Through WWBIC’s work, she continues, “You can see people grow in their confidence and start believing in what they’re doing. It can change people’s lives.”
For more information on business education or loans, or to learn more about volunteering for WWBIC, log on to wwbic.com or call Beth Kost at (715) 490-5419.