A lot had to line up before Mimi San Pedro, the chief strategy officer for the Venture Center in Little Rock, could create the program she had been thinking about for years.
Now in its inaugural year, Woman Achieve is a mentorship program in which up-and-coming women entrepreneurs are paired with seasoned women professionals who mentor them for 12 months. While mentees can be any woman professional or entrepreneur seeking growth, the mentors are women who already successfully run their own business or hold high positions in fields like education, law, business and politics, among others.
There was a need for the program long before it was created, San Pedro said, but she needed more funding, more reach and more women in positions of influence around Arkansas to make it happen.
The Venture Center gave her reach, and when she saw more and more women being promoted or hired at founding companies like Little Rock law firm Wright Lindsey & Jennings and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, she knew it was the right time.
“We had been running a mentorship program for a number of years, but what we found is women really wanting to be mentored in a way that is more personal, a little deeper, a little more comprehensive,” San Pedro explained. She said the founders were listening to the women they knew, and long-term mentorship was the solution to a lot of their problems.
“If you want a successful mentorship, you have to disclose things you don’t want to tell people unless you trust them, both personal and professional, and you can only do that when you have a deeper relationship,” she said. “It’s like friendship.”
Meredith Lowry, a partner at Wright Lindsey and a founder of Woman Achieve, said her law firm’s own program, Woman Run, has done research that shows mentorship leads to more successful businesses, something that Rickie Smith, another founder of Woman Achieve and the director of public relations at Wright Lindsey, corroborated.
“It is so important to see someone else’s success and be able to model that for yourself,” Smith said. “For women in particular, we need good examples of people we can emulate. It is important to see that success and know that you can model that yourself.”
One mentee who has seen growth in her business since starting the program is Wendy Bryant, owner and founder of KrunkFit LLC of Little Rock, a total-body fitness program that merges cardio, kickboxing and floor-based exercises with music. She says her mentor, Tracy Ring, a managing director at the Bentonville office of Accenture, a professional services company, has helped her use social media to grow her business and obtain a trademark.
“She has challenged me to look at my business from angles I would not have imagined,” Bryant said. “Her guidance has helped me to secure a new lease and teach outdoors. She follows me on social media and consistently shows support and engages me into deep next-step conversations.”
More Than Mentorship
But the program provides more than a mentorship. Networking, capital and skill development are three other priorities.
Mentees of the program receive legal, media and financial literacy training from a multitude of speakers from different professions who are “willing and eager” to answer questions or offer expertise, Bryant said. Companies like KTHV-TV, Channel 11; Venture Noire; and Arkansas Capital Corp. partnered with Woman Achieve to provide this training. (The Soirée Women’s Leadership Symposium and Summits, an initiative of Arkansas Business’ parent company, is a program sponsor.)
Participants can attend any event the Venture Center puts on throughout the yearlong program. And everyone has access to a message board that stays open to create a lasting network.
Esperanza Massana-Crane, the director of the Minority & Women-Owned Business Enterprise Division at the AEDC, said the network of meaningful relationships Woman Achieve creates that would not have existed otherwise is one of the most critical things the program provides.
At the end of the program, three mentees will be awarded startup capital. One will win $10,000, another $7,500 and another $5,000 based on their dedication to the program. This is based on a “scorecard,” where significant interactions are documented.
Lowry said the lack of startup capital is one of the biggest disadvantages women face, so the award money is particularly important.
“Women get less money for business in general. That’s from banks, venture capitalists, any source of capital to start or scale a business. Women don’t get that money,” Lowry said.
“How many bankers do you know?” she asked. “[If it’s] none, that’s the case for most women wanting to start a business — they don’t know bankers. Most guys, they somehow do. Woman Achieve is helping expose these entrepreneurs to other people in the community. It’s not just removing bias and getting capital; it’s also paving the way for women to have relationships that would then lead to potential capital influx.”
Women Reinvest in Communities
“One in four Arkansas small businesses are women-owned, which means about 80,000 women-owned businesses contribute $10 billion in revenue to Arkansas’ economy each year,” Massana-Crane said, referencing a study by the Arkansas Asset Funders Network. “Supporting women-owned businesses allows our economy to innovate, grow and become more dynamic. That provides the state with a competitive edge.”
This is one reason the founders created the program, Smith explained. Women typically reinvest 90% of revenue into their families and communities compared to 35% for men. Smith believes that generational wealth will benefit everyone, a view Bryant agrees with.
“These women are also moms, daughters, nieces, granddaughters, sisters and friends,” Bryant said. “There is a circle of people who are impacted by this person. When you throw a rock in a lake, it only touches the water that it falls through; however, the impact is rippled out far and wide. Women Achieve is a rock right in the middle of women in business, and the positive impact will be witnessed for years to come.”
A Sense of Affirmation
The first class drew 120 applicants and only 20 were chosen, but San Pedro knows more will apply next year, and she aims to increase the number of mentees.
“There are more women in the workforce nowadays and we want them to progress,” San Pedro said. “We want more women in leadership roles and the right seats because there needs to be some equality when it comes to pay, to benefits, to voice.”
One thing each founder felt was a sense of affirmation that women did want and need help, and they were able to provide it through Woman Achieve. “It was amazing to see all the work that women were doing in the state and all the companies that were being started and run by women statewide,” Smith said. “It was eye-opening and wonderful to see all the women starting businesses.”
Massana-Crane feels the same. “I could not help but get emotional when each of these women had a few minutes to talk about their business and why they started it,” she said. “It was a very impactful and magical moment, because this is a group of amazing women that have impressive stories of strength, resilience and vision.”
San Pedro’s hope is that the program not only grows in Arkansas with more partnerships and regions, but that Woman Achieve is eventually a nationwide program that helps “more and more women.”