January 11, 2022


Helping Women-Led Businesses Thrive in a Pandemic-Strained Economy

Every business had to become a technology company during the pandemic, says Abigail Ingram, director of DePaul’s Women in Entrepreneurship Institute. While businesses across Chicago and the country closed their doors due to the challenges the pandemic has brought on, all the women-led ventures the institute supported have continued to thrive. DePaul Download talks with Ingram and WEI board chair Joan Hannant about the success of the institute and navigating the current economic climate. LISTEN.



LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host Linda Blakely, vice president for University Marketing and Communications. Supply chain disruption, worker shortages and inflation are impacting businesses. On this episode of DePaul Download, we'll talk with a Chicago entrepreneur and the director of DePaul's women and entrepreneurship Institute, about how businesses are coping with these challenges. We'll also hear how the institute is supporting women entrepreneurs in helping their businesses thrive even in a pandemic-strained economy.

Joining us today are Abigail Ingram and Joan Hannant. Abigail is the inaugural director of the women and entrepreneurship Institute and an instructor at the Driehaus College of Business. Joan is founder and CEO of the Soma Institute, the only school in the U.S. offering a diploma in Clinical Massage Therapy. She's also board chair for the entrepreneurship institute. Welcome, Joan and Abigail.

JOAN HANNANT: Thank you, Linda. Nice to be here.

ABIGAIL INGRAM: Yes, thank you.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Joan, I mentioned some of today's economic challenges. For the Soma Institute, what's the biggest challenge you face?

JOAN HANNANT: Well, do we have an hour or two for that question, Linda? I think our biggest challenge right now is worker shortage. And on the flip side of that is our greatest opportunity is we have a flood of students wanting to be retrained in an area where they're making a positive difference in the community. So we're kind of stealing the workers to retrain them. And yet, for our staffing, that has been a challenge to get not our instructors, but our support staff has been really difficult too, especially because we are not hybrid, or online. We are in person. So that's been our biggest challenge.

LINDA BLAKLEY: And I think that is a challenge for many businesses. We're feeling it as well in my division and across the university as people are looking for challenge but also for opportunities. The pandemic has given people a reason to re-examine and look for ways to live their best lives. Business owners engaged with the Women in Entrepreneurship Institute are involved in a wide range of industries, from professional services to food and beverage to production. Abigail, what are you hearing from them about the state of the economy and the state of their businesses?

ABIGAIL INGRAM: Well, every company during the pandemic had to become a tech company, or at least a tech enabled company. So access to tech services, actually being able to reach their customers online where we all lived for at least a few months, and many of us continue to live, has been a huge challenge, but also a huge opportunity for us to provide those types of services for the companies that we work with. As far as other changes in consumer behavior beyond simply needing to be able to find someone online and having a digital presence. Customers are changing, the shared frustrations of the pandemic have led to a lot of our companies meetings are really trained themselves and their staff and customer service in a different way. People are running out of patience. And so that means that companies have to have even more grace. They have to be ready for customers who are bringing those frustrations, and really be able to serve them. If we think about it, and really let's be clear, the stats for women business owners pre-pandemic were not great. Challenges were already present. And the pandemic led to the need for things like paycheck protection loans, and other programs that women had a harder time accessing than men-founded businesses. So not only are women-owned businesses going through the exact same challenges that every business is going through during the pandemic, but we're still facing obstacles that were present even before it hit.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Could you provide some more information about specific services the institute provides?

ABIGAIL INGRAM: We have a pre-accelerator program and an accelerator program, and we're providing direct training for women to gain business acumen that they might not have had an opportunity to learn, topics like finance and sales strategy, marketing access to funding. But we're also providing a network of women entrepreneurs, and that is our truly incredible board, to not only teach those mechanics of business but also to create a community of women business owners. So during our programs, we require hours a week of the women who are who are in the programs to go ahead and get that training. There are many deliverables. Women need to come out of our program being able to name their differentiators, to have their messaging and their marketing together, to have their P&L and also their financial projections. There are a lot of different pieces that we require of women going through the program, all for the benefit of being able to meaningfully grow and scale their businesses.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So are you able to share with us today a success story?

We can share many, many. We haven't had a single business close during the pandemic. We've had 49 women business owners go through our accelerator program in under three years that we've been in existence as an institute. So of those companies, over two-thirds of them are actually making more money during the pandemic than they were beforehand. Which means not only are they surviving, but they're also still growing. And I completely credit the tenacity of the the women in the program, as well as the help from our board for those successes. So let's see, yesterday I saw one of our business owners products being enjoyed by Al Roker on national television. So that's a good one.​ But truly, we haven't seen a single company close. So we have nothing but success stories. Now it's just a matter of continuing to support the women in our programs so they can truly scale.

LINDA BLAKLEY: It's working. Joan, why is it important to start an institute focus solely on women entrepreneurs instead of business owners in general?

JOAN HANNANT: Well, that's such an important question. So my experience as a female founder was that so many programs that were gender neutral, the women that were in the programs were not staying to the end of the program, they would leave for reasons that sometimes it wasn't the reason that was stated. Often we think that was because they would didn't feel comfortable in a male-dominated environment, and feel comfortable really being able to identify and problem solve around their particular issues. So that seeing that the dropout rate really struck me. Why are women leaving? And do we need a program that will support women, so that they're comfortable in raising their issues and solving their problems in an environment that's run by other women business owners who've already been there and experienced some of those same issues? So we did make a very concerted decision to have a female, and and there was some pushback on this, but to have female-founded only business owners participating, including, even if they're co founders or partners that the woman founder had to have a 51% minimum ownership in order to qualify to enter the program. And what we found right away was where there was a 30 to 40% dropout rate in traditional programs, we had 100% retention rate in all of our programs thus far, for the whole, almost three years now. Nobody has dropped out from the program. They've all stayed to completion. That's huge.

LINDA BLAKLEY: That is huge. And wonderful. Abigail, you talk about the institute's work as a business accelerator. Other programs are incubators. What's the difference? And why is that significant?

ABIGAIL INGRAM: So in order to access the resources and the services that we have put together that really comprise the institute, women will at first go through our accelerator program. So this is historically been a couple months of intensive training. We've now added again, this pre-accelerator, which applications are always welcome, you can simply go to our website, which is go.depaul.edu/WEI to take a look at those programs and go ahead and apply. After completing that program, women business owners can access a range of resources. Most recently we have a program with the masters of writing and publishing program right here at DePaul, where women business owners can have their websites reviewed and have content suggested. Again right now is more important than ever, how we present ourselves in the digital world. We want to make sure that we can help women business owners do that. Women become eligible to apply for the Business Law Clinic. This provides them with legal services for a year or two. They essentially have in house counsel to handle either contracts issues or intellectual property. They have a team of students and supervising attorneys who work on their legal issues with them. And they're paying for what they would spend on an hour or two of legal services elsewhere for that year or two. So once women go through our program, and we want to make sure that they complete it successfully, as Joan mentioned, 100% of them have. So at that point, they go on and become eligible to participate in different programs at DePaul. They remain part of our network forever. We have an alumni program with monthly meetings. So at that point, it's more about what we've all learned a baseline level of knowledge; everyone has completed the program successfully. Now we can see what resources are needed for specific businesses and make sure that we continue to incubate them, that we continue to provide them that support so that they can go on and be successful.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I know partnerships are important for the institute, and you are continuing your partnership with the YWCA of Chicago. Tell me a little bit about that partnership.

ABIGAIL INGRAM: The YWCA has been an incredible partner. Dorri McWhorter was one of the women who stepped forward and helped us launch when we were first getting started. Of course, she's gone on to the YMCA now. And we can't wait to see what she does there. But we were having a conversation about what more we could do for women entrepreneurs and specifically at the SBDC that sits at the YWCA. And generally, what more can we do for women business owners on the south side of Chicago. So we decided that we would run a dedicated cohort for those business owners, most of them around half a million dollars in annual revenue, and provide them with the same resources, services, knowledge and network that we've been providing for women in previous programs. So that program was the very first accelerator for Black women in the city of Chicago. And that ran successfully in 2021. With our next cohort to begin, also populated with some of the YWCA amazing women business owners early next year.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So I'd like to end our conversation on a more positive note than we started with. We're starting a new year. So what opportunities do you both see for women entrepreneurs you work with?

JOAN HANNANT: So entrepreneurs we're eternal optimists and problem solvers. So every day is a new opportunity. Those sessions are run by board members. So we're not using outside consultants or instructors. We're using women that are teaching the classes own successful businesses. It's just so exciting to see somebody launching a company. This may sound odd, but it's exciting to see somebody stuck, and then trying to work with them to help get them unstuck. That's my biggest, those "a-ha" moments. When you get a group of women that have done a lot of heavy lifting, often without a sense of community. And somehow some of us survived. We want to impart that enthusiasm, and that resilience. And really, whatever the goal is of our participants, whether they want to scale internationally, or they just want to begin to hire a staff and have a company that supports their families. Seeing that growth and development, 2022 and the pandemic or just more opportunities.


ABIGAIL INGRAM: I have to say Joan is the queen of leading entrepreneurs to their "a-ha" moments. It is no wonder that her business has become the largest in its industry under her leadership. We've seen a lot of women leaving the workforce. This has been on the news quite a lot. In December of 2020, I think the number was 140,000 women in the month, every job lost that month, had belonged to women. Some of those have come back. But if we look at how many women are realizing that the corporate environment has not been built for them, is sometimes not friendly to them, we're going to see more and more women who are opting into taking the control over their lives that is becoming an entrepreneur. Our job is to help them go into it with open eyes. The old cliche is that an entrepreneur is someone who would rather work 80 hours a week for themselves than 40 hours for someone else. It certainly isn't an easier path, but there is an element of control, of respect that you can build within a culture when you run your own organization that more and more women are realizing is within their reach. And so we are here to help them reach it.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Well, we certainly hope to hear plenty more success stories in the year to come. Thank you both so much for joining us today.

JOAN HANNANT: Thank you, Linda. Thanks for having us on your show.

ABIGAIL INGRAM: Thank you, Linda.

LINDA BLAKLEY: For more about the Women in Entrepreneurship Institute visit go.depaul.edu/WEI. I'm your host Linda Blakely. Thank you for listening to the DePaul Download presented by DePaul's Division of University Marketing and Communications.