Click on the business directory on the Women’s Initiative for Self Employment website and you will find dozens of dots representing women-owned businesses throughout the Bay Area. What you might find surprising and inspiring is that all these businesses were started by women with the help of Women’s Initiative, a nonprofit with five locations in the Bay Area,, that trains and supports low-income women in business.
Economic self-sufficiency is the goal, and last year’s graduates created 4,300 businesses with each graduate creating an average of 2.5 jobs.
“The average (yearly) income of women who come to us is $12,000,” says Novato resident Julie Castro Abrams, the nonprofit’s head honcho for more than a decade who has increased clients by ten-fold while overseeing its planned expansion to both New York and Chicago.
“Our only requirement is that you have a business idea and are low income," she says. "We provide self-assessment sessions where you can evaluate your own readiness.”
What follows is an 11-week business-plan training course in which women are first encouraged to discover what they already know. This is simply the concept that people know more than they might think. For instance, you need to market your plan and think you know nothing about marketing until someone points out that you are marketed to all day long through multiple media platforms ranging from billboards to TV commercials.
“We help uncover their knowledge base and explore their relationship with money,” says Castro Abrams, adding that for women who have been in abusive relationships, “abusive relationships generally start with financial abuse.”
People do come with issues and problems to sort through and overcome, she says.
“Social isolation is a big issue for low income women,” Castro Abrams elaborates, ”People get insular and depressed. It’s both a symptom and a cause of poverty.”
During the business-plan training course the participants learn to rely on each other and can begin to work with mentors.
“Mentoring is really about chemistry,” Castro Abrams says.” You might meet 10 people, and maybe only one person is someone you jive with. We don’t force it; we put the plate out and let people take it from there.”
Once a business is up and running (70 percent of Women's Initiative startups are still in business five years later with consistent sales) participants can join a Success Link program where they set goals, solve problems and hold each other accountable. The Success link program is facilitated by volunteers, 425 in Marin so far this year representing 16,000 hours.
What do mentors — who can be male or female — get out of their experience with Women’s Initiative?
“It’s tremendously inspiring and fun to share your knowledge with people who have the courage to come up with a business,” Castro Abrams says with her gentle yet insistent voice and a wide, sweet smile. “It’s extraordinarily rewarding and at a certain stage in your life. That’s what life is all about.”
If someone has the courage to explore Women’s Initiative, that person already has a jump in the motivation department, Castro Abrams tells me.
“You have to be risk-taking ... what I call scrappy, willing to do it all and optimistic about what’s possible,” she says.
The San Marin resident seems to know scrappy. After graduating with a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, Abrams met her future husband who was visiting the Midwest from Mexico City. Raul Castro didn’t speak English, and she didn’t speak Spanish, but “he was cute.”
Abrams became fluent in Spanish and the two eventually married. That was 20 years ago. Their two children went through Novato public schools; son Kenneth is a junior at San Marin High and a star swimmer, and daughter Elizabeth went on to study violin at Oberlin College in Ohio following her San Marin graduation in 2010.
Getting back to her work at Women’s Initiative, Castro Abrams points out that there is a waiting list. The nonprofit doesn’t have all the resources to serve all the people who need it, she says.
Participants pay $100 for the business-plan training course but the true cost is $1,500. Even a $2,000 donation can help a woman start a business, she says.
Her voice is soft yet insistent, and again, that sweet smile is there when he thinks about her contribution to society.
“How great is it to know you did everything you could to make the world a better place?”
Snapshot of Women’s Initiative Clients
* 100% are low-income
* Average age is 39
* 80 percent are women of color
* 20 percent are single mothers
* 13 percent report a disability
* 12 percent are former welfare recipients
* 50 percent speak Spanish as their first or only language