It’s all about the Benjamin$:

Springboard forum raises ownership vs. equity questions

by Tomi Morris Johnson

tomij@wingcomltd.com

©2002 WingcomLtd. All Rights Reserved.

 

March 15, 2002…To grow a successful business, owners often take on investors.  How much ownership should be forfeited in order to secure financing, however, is a delicate issue requiring well-informed, decision-making skills and networking alliances. Another sensitive, hot button is the definition of “minority or women owned” business if the investors are white males.  So said Amy Millman of Springboard, a non-profit educational group aimed at increasing women’s participation in the equity capital market.

 

Millman was the featured speaker at a forum held at La Madeline Restaurant in Buckhead.  A dozen women, including SecureWorks Founder and Chairman Joan Wilbanks, were joined by one man at the meeting.

 

Springboard started in 1999 with the intent to “make a significant difference in propelling women into the new frontier of venture capital,” Millwood said. “This was a challenge because there were so few women investors. This is an uncomfortable playground for women.” Millwood said Springboard began educating participants on procurement, bank financing, training, technical assistance, and infrastructure but soon realized “we weren’t dealing with the next frontier which is venture capital - ownership with an equity-based, enlargement assistance.” 

 

Headquartered in Washington, D. C., Millman said her organization’s goals are to increase women-led firm’s access to investment opportunities and to assist women entrepreneurs in navigating equity markets.  She focused on the importance of women thinking “it’s o.k. to only own 5% of a $1 billion venture. Just don’t be in business for the recognition of building something,” she said of some women’s egos.  Women also need to position themselves on boards of profitable organizations, but ultimately “it is all about what YOU want.”

 

“Eighty percent of the women we worked with during our first year got funded,” Millwood said. “They were screened, coached, polished, and taught the language that the investors were speaking. It’s also about the community that is being built around enterprising women. Now we must get to the next level by making strategic contacts, building relationships, making a pipeline to the right investors, and closing the right deals.”

 

Joan Wilbanks is Chairman and Founder of SecureWorks, an Atlanta-based, network security service started in 1999. The company is privately held but has funding from Mellon Ventures, GE Equity, SBK Capital, Alliance Technology Ventures, ITC Holdings and Noro-Moseley Partners. SecureWorks presently employs 50 people.

“I always felt that either you work for somebody, or you work alone,” said Wilbanks who has recently become engaged to be married.  “After working 20 years in a man’s world, I attended Springboard functions and found that woman gladly share information. You get a chance to connect and realize that you’re not going crazy!  We have two things that go against our nature all the time: 1) we keep insisting that if we want it done right, we’ll do it ourselves, and 2) if something’s done wrong, it’s our fault.”

“Springboard allowed me to get connected to other business leaders in the country and gain courage… Nobody was talking about the economics of the business; they were talking about their business as they see it,” Wilbanks said. “You’re taught in the world to strip down, cut your hair, wear a business suit, don’t laugh in meetings, but Springboard empowers you to say ‘who you are is good enough.’  Just use your voice.”

Wilbanks said it is good to discuss strategic plans with other women in business before you make an ownership/investment move you may later regret. “After I talked to another woman on the phone for 30 minutes, she finally decided, ‘I’m not stepping away from my own company by hiring a CEO.  If I have a problem, it’s my management team’s problem.’ She was tired of running the entire company - from sales, to business and technology development, to chairing the board.”

Wilbanks said you have to have a winning attitude to succeed in business. “You and your family have got to get to the point where there is nothing to lose.  You have to have the attitude that you’re going to do it with or without help.”

Moreover, how can you define a business run by a woman but financed by white male investors as a “woman-owned” business?  “When you do venture financing, it is no longer your business,” said Wilbanks. “When you take venture capitalist’s money, you report to their board. If you don’t like the way that feels, don’t do it. You can pass on that decision.”

Some of the questions worth pondering before trying to sell your business to venture capitalists are:

1.      How large is your market (in numbers)?

2.      What are you giving away?

3.      What are you building?

4.      How is the culture of your business (woman-owned) an advantage?

5.      Will an investment decision change the ownership of your company and its ability to get business as a preferred minority/woman contractor?

6.      What is the best way for you to raise money for your business: borrow it, give up equity to venture capitalists, provide a product or service at a profit, or a combination of all three methods?

Millman referred women entrepreneurs to the research of Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter. In an interview for CIO Magazine, Porter suggests that business success is based on marketing, service, designs, and customer support. “All those things are consistent, interconnected and mutually reinforcing. As a result, competitors don't have to match just one thing, they have to match the whole system.” (http://www.cio.com/CIO/porter_100195.html)

 

For more information about Springboard, contact GWU at Mt. Vernon College/Somers, 2100 Foxhall Road, Washington, DC 20007, or 202-242-6282, or go to http://www.springboard2000.org.

 

 

This information is the opinion of the author and, therefore, should not be construed as libelous.

 

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