Are women business owners the future of incubators?

In the last five years, billions of dollars have been invested in entrepreneurial programs, incubators and business resources across the country to spur economic growth. “It should come as no surprise then as the entrepreneurship wave slows, people are now questioning their return on investment,” says Kristin Slice, owner of Empowered Lab Communications and founder of the PhXX Forward women’s collaborative.

To continue to receive funding and to survive past the initial “entrepreneurship wave”, organizations that provide these services are going to evolve. Many organizations applied for grants and set up entrepreneurship programs because the topic received funding at a time when others did not. Several organizations that are really good at fund raising and thought that they could throw together a training program for entrepreneurs will be asked to prove their true impact, Slice predicts.

Two of the major funding sources in the field, the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Kauffman Foundation, have both put out several grants and programs looking for further research into creating effective resources.

“Anyone who has worked in economic development and entrepreneurial support is not surprised and in fact is prepared for this ‘show me the money attitude’,” Slice continues. “Established agencies and service providers have been doing it for years. What is more interesting is the second large trend that funders are looking at this year–showing impact and the ability to serve a diverse set of entrepreneurs especially women business owners.”

The U.S. Census Bureau recently released the preliminary data from the 2012 survey of business owners. It showed a 21.7 percent increase in the number of Women Owned Businesses since 2007.

The SBA and the Women’s Business Council recently put out a request for organizations to research this area. The scope of work included this except:

“Many resources, programs, and initiatives exist, but the Council has heard repeatedly from women business owners that it is difficult to navigate the plethora of options available and to select the appropriate one for their businesses and current growth stages.”

In the Kauffman Foundation’s most recent Policy Digest they proclaim, “Women entrepreneurs are key to accelerating growth.” And they, too, have a call out for research on how resources are effectively serving more diverse populations.

“Resources that only serve and represent a small portion of the populations are not a sustainable model,” Slice emphasizes. “In the past, incubators and business programs have addressed concerns about diversity and ‘bro-grammer’ culture as simply not true and quickly brush off the critics by saying they welcome everyone.  In the next few years, they will be asked to not only show that they are open to women but that they can create a real impact by supporting women- led firms. Simply putting ‘women’ in front of a training program and being able to show at least some female participation will not be enough.”

Organizations need to be prepared for this change because research has shown that slapping together a new curriculum and a new brochure showing a women on the front does not create more economic impact.

“The good news is that now we have expansive research on women owned businesses,” Slice explains.  “We have proven knowledge of how these organizations are different, the challenges they face and how resources can effectively help them expand.”

This shift towards supporting women entrepreneurs requires a great emphasis on resources not only providing basic business tools but also providing business counseling and support navigating tools.

“Put simply, most basic business tools and small business curriculum are written for and from, white males,” Slice says. Meaning that if you are not a white male, it can be hard to relate to that tool or understand how to apply that tool for your business because it looks fundamentally different.

In addition, because women business owners have different strengths and different weaknesses, programs have to be able to effectively address those differences to help them create economic impact on a wider scale.

The organizations that will emerge victorious are the ones that will invest in training for their staff and will take diversity as a major initiative in their strategic planning for the future.

What this means for women business owners is that now is the time to get involved. “If you are struggling to find quality resources for your business or if you have a negative experience, share that story,” Slice says.  Greater collaboration between women’s business groups and a shift in focus away from “networking” and toward community organizing will help shape the shifting landscape in a way that can have significant impact for generations of business owners to come.