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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Women’s Business Center will close

After 15 years of serving women entrepreneurs and those who want to be entrepreneurs, the Women’s Business Center will be shut down at the end of August.

The Portsmouth-based organization’s board of directors voted last week in favor of closing the WBC’s doors and announced the decision Monday.

The organization is yet another nonprofit victim of the recession. The WBC’s membership numbers have been falling since its height of 450 in 2008, along with attendance at its programs, and some expected contributions have not come through, paving the way for the decision to close up shop.

Board Chairwoman Julie Vogt said the recession in general as well as the crisis in the financial services industry added up to a “primordial soup” with the message, “You know what, ladies? Your time has come.”

She added: “We’ve been working on this for nine months, and we realized we were going nowhere good,” she said.

The bulk of the WBC’s funding comes through a matching grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Much of the other funding comes from contributions from businesses, many of them banks.

Vogt said the size of the donations from non-SBA sources has decreased in the last year. “They didn’t have the ability to fund us like they used to.” And coupled with the even greater demand related to the economic turmoil, the funding picture didn’t look encouraging down the horizon she said.

“It’s hard when people need clothes, food, shelter and heat,” said Vogt. “There’s only a finite number of dollars to go around.”

The WBC may also have been the victim of its own success. According to Christine Davis, executive director for the past year and a half, there has been more competition from other organizations in the state that are offering some of the same informational programs the WBC pioneered over its 15-year history.

For instance, chambers of commerce and law firms around the state have been offering small-business education classes and workshops for entrepreneurs – the kind the WBC offers.

But the organization was seeing a continued, and growing, need for its small-business counseling services, with the WBC logging some 250 one-on-one sessions in the past year. “There was a lot of demand for that,” said Davis.

“The counseling was probably the biggest and strongest service we offered, as well as the mentor program,” said Vogt. “That was a huge hit in popularity. We matched a seasoned business owner with someone who needed help in that area, for instance finance or marketing. I think people found great benefit from that,” said Vogt.

She added that there was another aspect to the decision to shut down the WBC: a perception that “the need for a women-focused business organization is waning.”

“The younger girls today do not see the need for a women’s business association,” Vogt said. “Even my own daughter – she’s 20 – said to me, ‘I don’t know why you do this. What difference does it make? Men, women – it’s all business.’”

But women approach business differently, she said, and still face their share of discrimination at the hands of men.

“We do business differently, we manage differently, we negotiate differently, and that’s why I think there’s still a need for an organization like this,” Vogt said. “The younger women say no, and I would love to be dead wrong, but I fear that I am not.”

Nevertheless, she said, “We’re walking out with our heads held high. We’ve done a great job and helped thousands of women over the years.”

Added Davis: “It has been inspiring to see how many successful business owners the WBC has helped throughout our 15-year history.”