January 4, 1995

Women Make It Their Business To Help Girls Become Entrepreneurs

Sheryl Oring Chicago Tribune
 

You’ve started a business selling flowers door-to-door, and sales are great. Your big sister has been helping, but now she’s too busy with her boyfriend and you’re not sure you can handle it by yourself. What do you do?

After a hushed conversation, a team from San Francisco’s SR Martin College Preparatory School gave their answer: They’d call a friend and ask her to help. For Lakishaa Jones, 17, and Keitha Rose Higgs, 13, that answer was worth $1,000 in a board game designed to teach teenagers the basics of business.

Jones and Higgs were among about 100 Bay Area teen women who attended a recent conference on entrepreneurship sponsored by An Income of Her Own. The group, based in California and founded by Joline Godfrey, a business writer and entrepreneur, is dedicated to teaching teenage girls the skills they need to become self-sufficient.

It is one of 10 such conferences the group is holding around the country in cities including Los Angeles, San Jose, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Oklahoma City and at the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.

Jones said the game “gives you a better understanding about the things you need to look out for and about managing your money.” Jones, who said she wants to become a dentist, was a step ahead of some participants: She is learning first-hand about retail sales by making holiday crafts and selling them at area flea markets.

Alongside the teenagers were experienced businesswomen, who talked about the ups and downs of starting a company. They offered encouragement but made sure to tell the girls about the challenges.

“It used to be, when people talked about business you just thought about making money,” Godfrey said. “You didn’t try to do good or have fun. I’m here to tell you that you can make money, do good and have fun, all in the same organization.”

Caroline Phillips, founder of Cut Loose clothing, told the young women about moving to San Francisco in the ‘70s and making clothing that she sold at Fisherman’s Wharf. Soon, sales were good enough that she hired two women to help with sewing. And after a while, she got an order from a boutique.

“You have to enjoy what you’re doing,” Phillips said. “At the beginning you’re doing everything, and you have to be willing to do this. It requires a lot of work, but it’s very satisfying.”

These days, Phillips told a rapt audience, she has 36 employees and sells her clothing to more than 1,000 stores.

Also on hand were teenagers who have already started their own businesses. Tenthgrader Karimah Smith opened Ali’s Good Food Cafe in one of San Francisco’s tougher neighborhoods.

“I’m Muslim and I don’t eat pork, so everywhere I went I was always asking if there was pork in it,” Smith said. “I wanted to open a restaurant that would serve everything I could eat.”

At Ali’s, Smith serves hamburgers and steak sandwiches “made by people in the community.”

Smith says opening the cafe was “really difficult for me because I’m in school and I’m trying to keep my grades up.” She asked her mother for help, and now she’s averaging $400 a day. But it hasn’t been easy. “It’s difficult because of where we live and our surroundings; a lot of nice people don’t come to the community.”

Nonetheless, Smith remains devoted to keeping the business open in her community and dreams of opening another Ali’s cafe in Oakland.

It is dreams such as these that Godfrey wants to encourage.

“I got tired of watching little girls grow up to be poor women,” said Godfrey, who worked for Polaroid for 10 years, then founded Odysseum Inc., an international learning-game design company serving Fortune 500 companies. Godfrey sold her company in 1990 and wrote “Our Wildest Dreams: Women Entrepreneurs Making Money, Having Fun, Doing Good” (HarperCollins, $11).

Godfrey was inspired to start An Income of Her Own because of what she learned while doing research for her book.

“I came across the fact that most women don’t think about starting a business until their 30s,” she said. “I pulled together a group of colleagues and friends who own businesses in the Bay Area and started a grass-roots effort to do awareness-building conferences.

“Women have a 45 percent greater chance of being poor when they’re old than men do, and in the case of divorce, men usually make more and women usually have less,” she said. “Poverty is so situational. It’s not just a matter of class.”

And while many schools and organizations have started to encourage more girls to study science and math, economic education is virtually ignored, Godfrey said. “They haven’t yet begun to understand that economic empowerment is a separate and critical issue for young women.”

An Income of Her Own is trying to change that with its conferences and with a number of other outreach efforts. It has filmed an educational program that is being shown in schools around the country. The group was chosen by a gender-equity commission in California to offer an educational program in six California schools in 1995.

“Schools are slow to understand the difference between business education and economic literacy,” Godfrey said. “I believe all kids should have economic literacy education.”

Late this month An Income of Her Own is going on-line with Apple Computer’s eWorld computer network. Other programs include a summer camp for building business skills, a national business plan competition and alliances with Girls Inc. and Girl Scouts of America, both of which are working to make An Income of Her Own programs available to members.

In all of this, Godfrey said the goal is education.

“We’re not really concerned whether or not they start businesses. We want them to understand that it’s an option, and when and if they’re ready to open a business, here are some of the things to think about.”

For participants in the programs, the lessons they learn are important ones. Annie Mac, 15, of San Francisco, who wants to start her own accounting or architectural design firm, attended the recent San Francisco conference.

“Some people might accomplish a lot in business, and some people might not,” she said. “But you learn from your mistakes. And luck is very important too.”

For information about An Income of Her Own programs, call (800) 350-2978 or write to An Income of Her Own at P.O. Box 987, Santa Barbara, Calif. 93102.


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