Program Aims to Help Women Entrepreneurs

Nonprofit group will provide Orange County classes in starting a business and making it grow.

A program that has helped 3,500 women entrepreneurs in Los Angeles County is expanding into Orange County, with classes beginning in September.

California AWED, American Woman's Economic Development Corporation, offers classes in starting a business and making a business grow. Though it markets its services especially to low-income and minority women, it is open to all.

"People are starting businesses as a way to employ themselves," said Judith Luther Wilder, executive director of California AWED, based in Long Beach. "So there's an issue of timing. This is not unique to Southern California, but there may be a greater need here."

There also may be more women here interested in entrepreneurship. According to 1987 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Orange County has the third-highest proportion of women-owned businesses in the country--after Los Angeles and New York.

Wilder said Southern California women are entrepreneurial because they recognized early that the glass ceiling on advancement is very low: Working for someone else, they would be unlikely to earn high salaries or do the kind of work they would prefer. Also, the huge immigrant population here brings in women from cultures where entrepreneurship is common.

For some of the women who study with AWED, the program is a quick and practical substitute for college or graduate school.

One of those is Nancy O'Rourke of Long Beach. When her marriage broke up, leaving her with two children to raise, she had only a high-school degree and experience as a voice-over artist and singer. The only way she could earn a good living, she decided, was to open her own business.

Today, she sets up sound systems for meeting and concerts, and makes demo tapes. Her 4-year-old business, Mr. Cat Productions in Long Beach, grossed about $39,000 last year.

She took AWED's yearlong course for business people with some experience. "The amount of education I took away from that experience is amazing," O'Rourke said. Also, she said of AWED's staff, "they're very rich with contacts and resources."

O'Rourke lost some equipment to theft and fire during last year's Los Angeles riots, and she lost business because of the weeklong curfew in Long Beach. AWED helped her find an $8,000 loan to keep her going.

Other AWED students are more established but are still grappling with the challenges of a growing business.

Janice Bryant Howroyd owns ACT I Personnel Services in Torrance, which has 12 offices. The business supplies temporary workers in light industrial and clerical positions. It had annual revenue of $26 million, Howroyd said, when she began her AWED class in 1991.

Her business was too close to breaking even, she said. The class helped her redefine her business plan, and she is now moving into more profitable areas.

Howroyd is also sponsoring another woman in AWED's beginners class, which runs for 20 weeks. She said she found much-needed allies when she was starting out in 1978, when the challenge of owning a service business as an African-American woman was great. Now, she says, she wants to help other women: "I believe everything works in a circle."

In Orange County, AWED says, it is hoping to reflect the 35% minority population here in its class ratio. The plan is to offer classes that are conducted in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Korean.

The organization is now looking for classroom sites in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Irvine and Costa Mesa. And it is seeking teachers--people skilled in business strategy, marketing, banking, law, sales, insurance or negotiating.

In 1990, the latest year for which figures are available, women-owned companies employed nearly 11 million people. In that same year, Fortune 500 corporations provided about 12.3 million jobs.

AWED, which expanded to the Los Angeles area in January, 1991, is a private, nonprofit corporation founded in New York in 1976. It is funded by a grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration and matching contributions from local businesses. The fund for the Orange County operation, $328,000, will support one year of programs.

Running the Orange County program is Letty J. Herndon, former member relations manager for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. She also ran her own public relations firm for three years and worked for Tom Bradley when he was mayor of Los Angeles.

"The initial response (in Orange County) has been, 'I'm so glad you're coming,' " Herndon said. "It's as though they've been waiting for us."

The AWED office can be reached at (310) 983-3747.

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