Monday, April 7, 2008

You don't necessarily have to have all the answers but you need to have some vision for it.

CHICAGO ( -- Women own nearly half of the businesses in the U.S. but 97 percent of them report less than $1 million in revenue.

They're being held back by factors ranging from culture to childcare and a lack of confidence, says Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence.

"There's this group called the missing middle," says entrepreneur and women's advocate Nell Merlino, citing U.S. Census data. "There are a lot of women who would like to grow their business; we found they weren't sure how to do it."

The need for financing and a support network of like-minded women business owners were the catalysts for Count Me In's Make Mine a Million $ Business initiative, a nationwide contest begun in 2005 by Merlino, who is known for creating Take Our Daughters to Work Day.

The group expects 2008 to be a banner year: Merlino is counting on some 5,000 women to apply for the chance to gain a total package worth up to $85,000, including financing, to jump-start their business at a time when small business loans are becoming more difficult to obtain.

The program aims to help propel one million female entrepreneurs to clear at least $1 million in annual revenue by 2010. Through 2007, some 3,200 applicants had applied for competitions in cities around the country, including San Francisco, New York, Boston, Madison, Wisconsin, and Austin, Texas, among others.

At each event, 20 applicants are chosen to present a three-minute pitch to a panel of judges and audience. Then 10 awardees are selected. To date, some 122 women have won the top awards.

Merlino says the winners gain publicity - the contest has been likened to a corporate version of the reality show American Idol - that helps them become role models for other women in their communities, adding to the overall ranks that will help hit the 2010 target.

Merlino herself hit a wall when her New York-based marketing consultancy reached the $700,000 revenue mark and she was at a loss at how to grow.

"That's one of the things that pushed me to do it," she recalls. "Here I was struggling to expand."

Applicants draw from a variety of backgrounds, ranging from those with a wealth of corporate experience and fancy dossiers to others with brilliant ideas but little hands-on business experience. Applicants, who apply by city, must submit an executive summary of their business plan. Typically they have been in business at least two years and are pulling in more than $200,000 in yearly revenue.

"The most important criteria we're looking for is you need to be in a business with the potential to get to a million," Merlino says. "You don't necessarily have to have all the answers but you need to have some vision for it."

Contest winners say the most valuable thing they gain is a growing network that provides advice for everything from distribution to staffing and marketing.

Julie Tucker Legrand, an early "Million" winner and co-owner of San Francisco-based SmartsCo, which produces board games for adults centered on themes such as wine and travel, applied because she and her business partner, Jennifer Elias, needed financing. But the former Silicon Valley techie says she walked away with the confidence to make smart decisions, a sense of healthy competition and accountability to others in the group.

"They're kicking your butt to keep going," she says of her "Million" colleagues. "Everyone has the goal and we're all trying to reach that and they're not letting you stop when they reach it."

Legrand, whose business last year pulled in $600,000 after several years below the $400,000 mark, has partnered with a large distributor and recently launched a consulting arm that helps corporate clients develop games.

"Count Me In came along right at the time I was trying to step up my game," recalls Maureen Borzacchiello, founder of Garden City, New York-based Creative Display Solutions, which builds corporate displays for trade shows.

Borzacchiello, a former top executive at trade show giant Nomadic Display, "bootstrapped" her startup from savings; she applied to the contest because she wanted the mentoring and marketing support.

She appears to have gotten it. A winner in December 2005, Creative Display reached $1.4 million in 2007 sales. The business, which started in her basement, recently made its second move, this time to a 12,000 square foot warehouse facility, doubling its space.

Count Me In, which began in 1999 by providing micro-loans to women-owned startups, has shifted its emphasis exclusively to the Make Mine a Million $ Business effort. And Merlino's consultancy has taken a back seat to the contest, which takes up nearly all of her time.

"This is the most exciting thing I've ever done," she says.

This year the "Million" challenge will come to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Arizona, Newark, New Jersey, Seattle, Albuquerque, Columbus, Ohio, Raleigh, North Carolina and Ft. Lauderdale; other cities are being negotiated.

Sponsorship is growing. American Express Co., which provides financing of up to $50,000 to each winner, along with Dell Inc., American International Group Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., JetBlue Airways, and Marriott International, are all backers.

"Basically for us this is strategic," says Ned Cloonan, vice-president of corporate and international affairs for AIG, which has pledged some $4.7 million in support. "We made a decision as a company that globally, both in the United States and in major markets around the world, a major focus is to support women in terms of their entrepreneurship and economic development."

Deborah Cohen covers small business for She can be reached at

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