By Lucienne Gigante
In the early 2000s Marisol Santiago from Villalba, Puerto Rico, was gainfully employed in the healthcare industry, providing for her family while investing in her future. However, following the onset of the global recession, which still plagues Puerto Rico, Marisol was laid off from her job. A single mother of two, she took on three part-time jobs to support her children to make ends meet. With a small loan from a community bank, Marisol was able to launch a pharmacy of her own. Now a thriving business, her company has expanded to include an infusion center, creating new growth niches in Puerto Rico and abroad.
In many areas, low-interest loans for women like Marisol — loans that so often make the difference in a family’s future — are difficult to secure. But in Puerto Rico, where unemployment hovers above 13 percent, Doral Bank has spearheaded a program, in alliance with the respective communities that it serves and the non-profit sector, to bring about new strategies that are spurring employment growth.
These initiatives are focused on providing the requisite financial support and peer mentoring, so that women are propelled as drivers of economic growth. As the Kauffman Foundation, which supports entrepreneurship and small businesses, published in a recent report, “women entrepreneurs have the potential to make even greater contributions to employment and economic development.”
Marisol’s loan was the direct result of these efforts. Over the last two years, through the program, Mujeres De Exito (Successful Women), more than 25 women have been selected to receive capital and mentoring to expand their businesses. This program has been successful in helping to create more than 30 new women-owned businesses and close to 100 jobs.
But the need for this financing far exceeds available funding; there is much more work to do.
While the number of highly educated women — women with the potential to start scalable ventures —has reached record levels, these women are not taking entrepreneurial steps, or being exposed to entrepreneurial opportunities through their limited networks. Indeed, the Kauffman Foundation has labeled this decade as “the decade of the women entrepreneur,” noting that the untapped entrepreneurial power of women “may be the nation’s secret weapon for achieving sustained economic growth.” Lesa Mitchell, Vice President of the foundation, enforces that point: “As more women engage as entrepreneurs to build on their discoveries, new jobs and economic prosperity will follow.”
Unfortunately, Marisol’s desire and ability to secure low-interest financing is neither typical across the United States nor in Puerto Rico, where men have historically overshadowed women in business development and entrepreneurship. Indeed, in the U.S., less than 5 percent of venture financing goes to women-owned businesses, according to the Kauffman Foundation. And in Puerto Rico, where women significantly outnumber men as recipients of bachelor’s degrees, only about one in 100 women own their own businesses. As a recent study commissioned by Dell Inc. points out, access to affordable financing is crucial for the success of female entrepreneurs, as even in countries where women have ample access to a bank account, venture capital funding is still low.
The Mujeres De Exito program is grounded in the belief that this imbalanced reality stunts the Puerto Rican economy as a whole. The tides are now slowly turning on the Island. While male participation in the workforce declines, the female segment is significantly increasing, and one in every three households on the Island is now financially led by a woman. With proper financial support and mentoring, these women and the communities that they support stand to accelerate their progress, gaining in leaps and bounds.
There are millions of bold and ambitious women like Marisol in communities across Puerto Rico and the United States who deserve a more supportive hand. Financial institutions can play a vital role in this effort. If fostering entrepreneurship and advancing women are made distinct priorities at the local level, women will be empowered to take action, rebuilding communities one household at a time.
Lucienne Gigante is SVP of Public Relations, Community and Marketing at Doral Bank.