Nurturing female entrepreneurs

Special to The Times

Laura Yamanaka was a self-described “corporate geek” with her nose buried in financial statements. She didn’t know or care much about the issues of female business owners.

That changed when the executive launched her own firm, TeamCFO Inc. of Los Angeles, in 2000. Like many business-owner newbies, she found herself in need of customers as well as moral support.

Yamanaka discovered both among the women who made up the Los Angeles chapter of the National Assn. of Women Business Owners.


“I found a home in NAWBO,” the certified public accountant said. “Yes, it was a good source for networking, but it was more than that. It was a community.”

As the newly elected president of the 400-member chapter, she hopes to leverage her financial and organizational skills to strengthen the nonprofit as it moves to expand its reach.

Yamanaka will be installed Tuesday at a dinner reception at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The evening’s theme -- “Standing. Reaching. Growing. Lifting. Rising.” -- seems appropriate for a women’s business group that has begun to reinvent itself in the last few years.

Like the one-time start-ups of many of its founding members, the Los Angeles chapter has fought for legitimacy and stacked up a string of accomplishments since its founding in 1979, having grown to become the third-largest in the 80-chapter national association.

And like many a growing small business, the chapter hit a point in recent years when it could no longer run solely on the energy and sheer willpower of its founders and leaders. The chapter’s resources didn’t match its reach. And membership and corporate sponsorship levels were beginning to suffer.

Today, after an operations shake-up that saw the cancellation of popular regional meetings and the shutdown of its education arm, the chapter is poised to take a bigger, more public role in helping female business owners.

Some of the changes have been funded by a $1-million, 10-year matching grant received last fall from member Patty DeDominic, who started her company the year the Los Angeles chapter was formed and sold it last year.

Yamanaka talked recently about the challenges and opportunities facing her group and female business owners in general.


Is there still a need for the organization?

I think there is more of a need in a way because women business owners initially got access to the game, but just because you are in the game doesn’t mean you know how to play well or are ready to step in and compete at that high level.

We still have a lot of work to do getting our people ready to scale [up]. Look at the stats; I think it says 3% of women-owned businesses reach the $1-million mark. Those are horrible numbers.


Do women business owners get equal opportunities today?

I think it’s a lot better than it’s been in the past. I think we have made a lot of strides. Are we there yet? No.


What sign would tell you equal opportunity has been achieved?

When people no longer have the need to say, “Oh, did you realize she is a woman-owned business?” When your accomplishments don’t stand on whether you are a male or a female. When we get to that point. When it’s no longer relevant. When it becomes so common it’s not an issue. That’s when I’ll know.


How have women’s business issues changed?

When you look at women’s entry into the workforce and things like voting, things that I take for granted. . . . Now, I look at my daughters, who are 19 and 16. They’ve grown up taking different things for granted. But we still haven’t had a woman president. You look at India, Great Britain, Germany. They’ve all had top positions held by females, and we haven’t yet. So this becomes a much broader cultural and social issue.


What do you hope to accomplish as the L.A. chapter’s new president?

My favorite word is “institutionalize.” It’s not a glamorous word. It’s a nonsexy word. But I truly believe that you need to have the people who can come in and do it for the first time, but real success is stability and being able to replicate that process consistently with the same quality and hopefully for a reduced cost.

My goal is to help the organization institutionalize many of the processes and procedures that have helped us grow recently. I want the NAWBO infrastructure to be strong, to be able to withstand the weight of the increasing demands, expectations and operations we are going to be taking on.


What kinds of new programs and plans are underway?

We have so many things: our Women of Influence series, our public policy forum, Peak Leadership Academy and the Legacy Society. We have focused on capacity building through organizational development and strategic planning. But we believe that module, which includes technical, interactive and support, can be applied to many different subjects. Procurement, for example.


What spurred your group to recast itself?

About five years ago, we had a pretty large group get-together at Patty DeDominic’s house in Montecito to figure out where we saw NAWBO going in the next five to 10 years. We’d been around awhile. We were not thinking about survival anymore. And there’s this opportunity to do something. We can stay the course or we can do more. And we can really make use of the gifts and successes that all of the women in the room had.

I just think there was a drive to make something that would last beyond the people in the room. So there was a spark. If you are going to spend time, spend time building something big, great, lasting. Patty is big on big, audacious goals. The liftoff of NAWBO is that legacy in action.


When did you create a specific plan?

Over the past two or three years, we really narrowed down in a very formalized strategic plan. We started stepping back and looking at NAWBO as a business and asking, “If we are going to expand our reach, how are we going to do that? Who are our customers?” It really started that simply. What are our products and services? We needed to be able to answer those simple questions.


What did you find out when you asked those questions?

We found there was a significant gap. We found that people joined NAWBO -- many times they were relatively new businesses, and as they became larger and more successful, though they attributed their growth and success to NAWBO, we could no longer provide the same resources and support that perhaps initially they needed. So they drifted away. We were not able to retain that level of business owner or attract those people already at that higher level.


How did you fill the gaps?

We developed Peak Leadership Academy. We used a new model that combined three aspects: technical education, interactive and support in our new education program. We said, “What’s the need that growing businesses all have? Capacity building.” We were all graduates of Management Development for Entrepreneurs out of UCLA. We got together with Yvonne Randle, a professor at UCLA, and she customized her course for women business owners. We launched it last year. It’s been highly successful.


What is your challenge as an organization?

We need to present something different . . . because we have no desire to go head-to-head with anybody who is already successful in an area. Frankly, that’s not a very good business strategy. We’re looking for ways we can do it better.



Laura Yamanaka

Title: President, National Assn. of Women Business Owners, Los Angeles chapter; president, TeamCFO Inc., Los Angeles

Members: 450 paid memberships

Budget: $850,000