Building Women, Building the City
The WBRC is bridging the gap between women and business.
From Broadmoor to Bywater, entrepreneurial support programs and facilities seem to be popping up everywhere. Yet there are still segments of the New Orleans population not well represented in this ecosystem, and certain industries new businesses seem to be struggling to break into.
The Urban League of Louisiana’s Women’s Business Resource Center (WBRC) is helping to address both of these issues.
Launched in 2001, the purpose of the center is “to support women and other underserved groups by providing the education and resources they need to start or grow a business,” in the words of Director Klassi Duncan. The center provides a variety of classes and programs, as well as one-on-one counseling. In addition, the WBRC connects clients to resources ranging from public relations and marketing to obtaining capital and bonding.
As is the case in any city, New Orleans city government is the largest single source of business contracts. This is especially true in the construction field. While the city has been aggressive in establishing DBE (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise) participation requirements for its contracts, too often the DBE subcontracts are cobbled together by the lead contractor in bits and pieces. Rarely, if ever, is a woman- or minority-owned business the lead contractor.
Recognizing this deficiency as an opportunity, in 2014 the Urban League established the Contractor’s Resource Center (CRC) as an extension of the WBRC. The instruction at the CRC focuses on the more technical aspects of the construction field, such as bid preparation, project management, safety, compliance, licensing, bonding and software-based estimating and scheduling. The CRC includes a lab where nascent contractors can get hands-on experience with the software by participating in simulated estimates and bids.
Another unique component of the WBRC is that it offers programming directed toward more established businesses that are experiencing particular challenges or obstacles.
“A company may have lost a big client or contract, lost market share to a new competitor,” Duncan explained. “Sometimes they may just be holding on to that one big idea they had that got them going in the first place, but that may not be where the opportunity is today.”
Regardless of what is causing the current challenges, the WBRC assists clients with analyzing their marketplace and their risks, and, as needed, changing their business model and their approach.
“Businesses must be flexible, be willing to adjust to changes in their field,” said Duncan. “We help them focus on remaining competitive and relevant.”
She also urged companies not to wait until the last minute to seek help. “If you see a problem, don’t wait!” she added.
The WBRC is clearly having a significant impact among its targeted clientele, having served nearly 600 clients in just the past year and supported more than 40 new businesses in getting their start.
To give just two examples of successful companies owned by women, Malone Electrical Services has been a WRBC client since 2011. In that time it has grown from a small startup to a regional business with 27 employees. NOLA Steel, Fabrication and Erection has taken advantage of training and counseling provided by the WBRC since 2016 and is now participating in projects with the New Orleans Airport and Army Corps of Engineers.
“We attribute a lot of our success to working with the Urban League and their staff and attending their trainings,” reported NOLA Steel President Karen Williams.
Both the WRBC and CRC are now looking to expand their reach beyond Greater New Orleans, and continue offering services to clients and industries that are typically underserved.
“Like the businesses we serve,” said Duncan, “we want to be sure we are looking to the future and to what may change.”
Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.