Helping women-owned businesses succeed Featured

3:03pm EDT September 13, 2011
Helen Han, President and CEO, NAWBO Helen Han, President and CEO, NAWBO

Women-owned businesses have become one of the fastest-growing — if not the fastest-growing — segments of the economy. But Helen Han, president and CEO of the National Association of Women Business Owners, says it takes more than just attending business school to become a entrepreneur.

In addition to a touch of arrogance and a dash of blind faith, Han says entrepreneurs need to become better equipped with the tools necessary for running a business. And for women, that’s where NAWBO comes in.

Han’s organization represents the interests of women entrepreneurs in all industries, and it’s designed to help them achieve success in multiple areas of their lives.

“We hope to be hitting three prongs,” Han says. “In terms of the social, the political and the economic power platforms that we believe women can stand very tall on in upcoming decades.”

With Han as the helm, NAWBO aims to be at the forefront of advocacy issues pertaining to small businesses, working with government entities to look at how legislation and administrative initiatives can incorporate the needs of women entrepreneurs.

Beyond that, NAWBO works with corporate partners on educational programs to help train women on how to grow their businesses.

All of this is the other side of the coin for Han, who previously owned and directed a California preschool for six years and served as the senior program manager at the Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the UCLA Anderson School of Management. In practice, Han says knowledge is the prerequisite to successfully fueling entrepreneurial passion.

“If you can really tie the two together you can create unlimited potential in terms of what businesses can do,” she says.

Smart Business sat down with Han to discuss NAWBO, women business owners and how her entrepreneurial experience shaped her leadership philosophies.

Q: What unique challenges have you found that women entrepreneurs face?

Some of our women business owners are lifestyle entrepreneurs who choose not to grow too big. ... The tendency for women not to think big enough, to dream big enough or have the level of confidence that they can project into their business dealings, sometimes has the tendency for self limitation.

It would be helpful if the government and the business community can work with the women entrepreneurial community to open up access to capital, federal contracting opportunities and international opportunities in a way that puts us at equal par to competing in this economy.

Then, from our own perspective, I believe that women need to gain a better and a broader sense of a knowledge base in terms of how they should operate their business, what opportunities are out there and how to seize those opportunities in a way that accelerates their growth path.

Q: How open have you found the political process in working at the federal level, moving down to the state and then the municipality level?

What’s interesting is the government recognizes that women are the fastest-growing segment of the economy and that they must work with us. I found that, particularly through my work with the national organization, the federal government has been very open. It doesn’t mean that everything they do solves our problem immediately.

They’re very open and willing to work with us, and I think what is really important for us is to educate our members on the importance of raising our voice and engaging in the political process in such a way that we are heard much louder and much more clearly in terms of what the needs are.

Q: How do you think the experiences of being an entrepreneur have shaped your leadership abilities and outlook today?

For women entrepreneurs, sometimes you feel isolated. You can’t talk to your employees about the inability to meet payroll or all the woes and tribulations of what goes on behind the desk from a CEO’s perspective. And so it creates the ability for me to have empathy for what they’re going through.

What I also understood was that entrepreneurs are not always fully equipped with all the resources, the knowledge base and the information they need to succeed. There are outlets out there that they can tap into to get that level of guidance. It brings me a great deal of satisfaction to be able to offer that through an organization like NAWBO because that level of camaraderie, finding like-minded peers, is something that is critically important for entrepreneurs who are holding our economy together.

Q: What key piece of advice would you give to a woman entrepreneur on day one when she becomes CEO?

Don’t lose that dream, because I think that the spark of being an entrepreneur starts with a passion and a dream. If you can hold on to that and communicate it to others around you in a way that they can buy in to it, then there’s really no limit to what you are able to do.

How to reach: NAWBO, www.nawbo.org.

Interviewed by Dustin S. Klein / Story by Jessica Hanna