Q&A: Gwen Pokalo of Center for Women & Enterprise: We connect people – vtdigger.org


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Gwen Pokalo, director of the Center for Women & Enterprise. Photo by Anne Wallace Allen/VTDigger

Gwen Pokalo is director of the Vermont office of the Center for Women & Enterprise (CWE), a national nonprofit organization that helps entrepreneurs to start and expand their businesses.

Pokalo, who has a master’s degree in community development and applied economics from the University of Vermont, is a native of Conshohocken, Pennsyvannis. She joined CWE, which houses the Vermont Women’s Business Center, in 2016 when the newly formed organization won a $150,000 annual grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration for five years to provide business counseling services and classes to entrepreneurs in Vermont.  

The two-person Vermont CWE is part of a larger Boston-based nonprofit that has been around since 1995, with offices in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

CWE’s goal is to provide the networking and education that early-stage entrepreneurs need to get their businesses off the ground. Pokalo took some time to speak with VTDigger about the center and its future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VTDigger: Are your services for women only?

Gwen Pokalo: No, about 15% of our clients are men.

The business plan courses are for people who have a business idea, who might already be making sales, and who are ready to stabilize it and make it into a business.

We also have people who are already in business and are looking to introduce a new product or service line. So, for example, we have a 20-something-year-old who is looking to take over the family farm and update it to incorporate things like Airbnb and multiple revenue streams. We have a 70-something-year-old herb farmer who has been doing this for years and is now looking to kind of professionalize.

We have a physical therapist who is looking to go out on her own; that often is the case. People are working in the field and now looking to establish their own practice.

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We have a special niche for people who are freelancing or in the gig economy to solidify their operations and manage all of the many parts of whatever they are doing.

We have a lot of people who have had multiple businesses. They almost can’t ignore the idea. Of course, they need financial gain, but the majority don’t start businesses to make a ton of money. We almost have to say, “It’s OK to make money.” A lot of people feel guilty. There is so much baggage about money.

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VTD: What is CWE’s goal?

GP: Our goal is a safe, fun, interactive and deep learning environment. We connect people. In every class, we see people who end up going into business together. Sometimes it’s a formal partnership; sometimes people go in together on cooperatively ordering supplies.

VTD: What are the clients’ goals?

GP: Many of our clients want to provide value and want to make a living. They have to get some personal satisfaction out of it. Although they need financial gain — you wouldn’t start a business if there wasn’t some type of financial motive — inevitably it’s not the first driver for them. Sometimes we have to convince them that should be one of the top drivers.

There is a misconception that the only definition of success is that the company has been bought out or has reached a certain revenue. Those are indicators, and if that’s what the entrepreneur wants, that is amazing. But we serve entrepreneurs along the spectrum. The majority of our clients are in the startup stage through the first five years. Most are small businesses, making between $200,000 and maybe $1 million.

VTD: People have always started businesses. Is anything different now?

GP: Finding your niche these days is way different. Consumers really drive the decision-making, rather than the business owners. There’s this whole experience of needing to be seductive to the customer.

Consumers want to feel good about whoever they are working with. They want a story, a personal connection in a way that didn’t matter as much before.

VTD: Do business owners have to use social media?

GP: Some people choose not to. We’re seeing certain businesses move entirely off social media and they’ll still have a website that does sales; they focus on high-touch personal service.

Then we see people moving entirely online; they don’t have a storefront or any way to physically interact with them. They sell everything through Instagram.

There are too many ways that a business owner can communicate in a crowded marketplace. Business owners have to get super creative. Sending out an e-newsletter to a billion people no longer works.

VTD: So what does work?

GP: Really understanding who your customer is, and how they want to interact with you.

“Build it and they will come” doesn’t work anymore. There is this movement in business strategy about knowing your customer on a soul level. The business and entrepreneurship literature is all moving toward building empathy. There are entire courses and books about how to build empathy.

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That’s makes women good at business; we’re good at empathizing. A lot of women think they’re not good at sales, but it’s a confidence issue. They can empathize, they can understand, they can hear what value their customer is looking for.

VTD: Can you sell products if you aren’t on social media?

GP: Getting your customers to do your marketing for you is awesome, like providing them with easy ways to share your news like hashtags. What works for social media is a microcosm of what works in general in business, which is partnership and collaboration.

VTD: Where do most people get the money to start?

GP: Many of our clients started with zero money. It’s a slower start.

The way most of our clients get the money is through operations, through slowly making sales, and putting their own money back into it. Some might benefit from $1,000 from a family member.

Women tend to pursue outside financing way later and in smaller amounts than men do, and they get different financing products.

The myth of entrepreneurship is that you grow exponentially very quickly. But many people don’t want to do that because they can’t retain their founding values that way. We have quite a few clients who have extensive growth potential but it would require them to give up some level of ownership, through equity partnerships or some other kind of connection. They are scared about the business losing the values they have built into it, so they don’t grow, or they grow more slowly.

VTD: Are women entrepreneurs different?

GP: The research shows the No. 1 concern for women is personal financial security. The No. 1 concern for men is their standing in the community.

A lot of our clients have difficult financial situations so they wouldn’t be attractive to most lenders, and don’t even consider themselves worthy of outside money. So, another part of what we do to help build confidence.

And then there are massive discrepancies in the financial products, both equity and loans, awarded to women and to men.

So most women start with their own savings. We are lucky in Vermont and regionally to have a lot of people who are alternative-lending-minded, like the credit unions, the community banks and Community Capital of Vermont. They provide support, not just money. They have business advisory services, and they sometimes have grants for technical assistance.

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VTD: What’s next for CWE?

GP: We offer our 10-week business planning course in parts of the state that are underserved by these types of programs. We just graduated one in Hardwick that was for people in lands-based businesses. It was funded by the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative. Seventeen people took it – one man and the rest women. Fourteen finished the business plan and did a presentation.

We have established a hub in Rutland and are establishing a hub in Hardwick, so we’ll have more programming there. I wanted to work up in Newport, but we couldn’t get any traction. I spent a lot of time up there.

We’re also establishing regular programming in the Upper Valley, with the Space on Main in Bradford.