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WINGS: Women Entrepreneurs Take Flight

by Fred D. Baldwin

When Aggie Fink opened her home-based sewing business in Pike County, Kentucky, in January 1996, she had a clear financial objective in her business plan: to earn enough money in her first year to invest in a critical piece of equipment.

"My only goal was to make $200 a month," she says. "I knew if I made $200 a month, I could get a phone. You can't have a sewing business without a phone, but I couldn't get the phone without the sewing business." The problem, Fink explains, was that she and her husband had built their house on a remote tract of land at the head of a hollow. The nearest telephone connection point was at the hollow's mouth two miles away. She'd have to pay for running a line over that distance—at a cost of $2,600. The Finks didn't have that kind of cash.

As things turned out, Fink did much better than $200 per month last year. She got her phone this past January, and her business is thriving.

One of the things that Fink had going for her was that she was one of the first graduates of the Women's Initiative Networking Groups (WINGS), a program that provides low- and moderate-income women in Appalachian Kentucky with business skills, contacts, and other resources they need to succeed as entrepreneurs. Based in Berea, WINGS is an independent affiliate of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED). Fifty-two women have graduated so far; 21 of these are now operating businesses, and 7 more plan start-ups this year.

"Women are not only the largest percentage of Kentucky's population," says WINGS director Jeannie Brewer, "but they're the ones who typically go back to school for that degree or become the community activist while at the same time finding a way to keep food on the table. Our region is filled with tremendously resourceful women, yet I think they've been overlooked for a long time as a resource themselves, in terms of being part of the economic development solution."

That sums up what successful businesswomen told MACED staff in 1994. They described many problems that were common to all would-be entrepreneurs in the region, male or female: geographical isolation, limited business experience, and inadequate access to capital. But they concluded that women faced a near-total lack of informally organized networks for sharing business know-how and needed training as potential operators of businesses that might be classified as not merely small, but tiny.

WINGS Takes Off

Supported by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, WINGS actually got off the ground in October 1995, with classes in Letcher County. Eighteen women enrolled, 14 began classes, and 10 graduated. In addition to Aggie Fink, other graduates included Barbara Sumpter, Darlene Dixon, and Pat Yinger. Their backgrounds and businesses differ, but they provide similar perspectives on what WINGS offers its members.

Sumpter, who operates a craft outlet called Oven Fork Mercantile in Oven Fork (Letcher County), started making and selling grapevine wreaths and hickory-bottom chairs back in 1991. At first she had no definite business goal in mind. "I just figured I'd make a little money and put it on the car," she says. "It surprised me that it was successful." She later took some business courses but found none oriented toward businesses as small as her own. WINGS training helped her recognize that she had the independent temperament and willingness to take calculated risks needed for business success, and improved her skills in areas like bookkeeping and finance. Starting with personal loans, later supplemented by a mortgage, she's been able to expand her display space from one room to three.

Her own success is helping others. In addition to selling her own crafts, she handles work on consignment for approximately 30 area craftspeople. She also has a part-time employee. "The great thing about WINGS," she says, "is to know that there are some women a phone call away, and that if they couldn't help you, they'll find someone who could. You didn't get that in a college class—the feeling that someone cared whether you made it."

Like Sumpter, Darlene Dixon had an ongoing business—Heuristics Computer Service, based in Hazard—before participating in WINGS. She has more formal education than most WINGS members. Fourteen years after high school, she began courses that would lead to an associate degree from Hazard Community College (HCC) and a bachelor's degree from Eastern Kentucky University, both in computer information systems. Hired by HCC to work in its computer lab, she later became coordinator of its computer center. She consulted on the side, helping people purchase and upgrade computer hardware and select and install software. She also helped with training. The market for her firm's services was there, but she couldn't afford to give up her full-time job. (She's now a management information specialist for a firm that operates mental-health clinics.) "When I read about WINGS," she said, "it sounded like just the thing to me. I felt like I was struggling. I had already started the business, but I was at a very insecure point. I needed words of encouragement, and I needed to find out how to network and what to do to help the business along—and how to get more financial backing to increase my inventory."

Although WINGS provided Dixon with no direct financial help, it helped her in other ways, on issues like taxation and alternative forms of business structure. Her own business is now a corporation in which she is the principal shareholder, and a salaried associate is a minority shareholder. She also mentions moral support in coping with doubters who questioned whether a woman could succeed in the typically male environment of information technology.

Pat Yinger has yet to get her business started, but she expects to open it this year. Her plans are to manage a day-care center in Whitesburg (Letcher County) capable of providing high-quality care for up to 30 children, employing two people full-time and others part-time. While keeping her present salaried job, she's studied the market, assessed her potential competition, and done her homework on issues like licensing. The business plan she developed as the final stage of her formal WINGS training helped her secure a commitment for financing from a local bank. "WINGS is the reason I keep plugging with this," she says. "Even if I were not to go ahead with the business, or were to go a different way, what I've gained as a person has been invaluable."

In that respect, many WINGS members have already taken on new leadership roles and new visibility. Yinger recently spoke at her local Rotary Club, something she would not have done before. Sumpter is on the advisory committee for the Rural Community College Initiative, supported by a Ford Foundation grant for economic development, and she plans to take an increasingly active role in local efforts to reduce domestic violence.

Brewer says that although the age range of WINGS participants runs from mid 20s to early 60s, most are between 35 and 45. Many married very young; as would be true for any group of this size, several are now divorced and on their own. Just over half of them have high school degrees or the equivalent, and at the time of enrollment, nearly 15 percent were receiving some form of public assistance or transfer payments.

New Challenges

So far WINGS has held classes at four sites in Appalachian Kentucky. Classes at a fifth site will begin this fall. It will be a challenge, Brewer says, to expand to previously unserved counties while meeting a need for new classes in previously served areas for women who didn't participate in the first rounds.

WINGS is also exploring technology training, primarily by connecting its members to the Internet. Knowing that access to computers and computer skills are increasingly necessary for business success, the WINGS staff is trying to identify organizations—libraries, community colleges, and others—with shared-use computers that could be used by WINGS members who don't have personal computers at home.

WINGS is working with Forward in the Fifth, another MACED affiliate based in Berea, to interest young people in entrepreneurship as a potential career choice. This fall two pilot programs, open to both boys and girls, will be offered at two regional high schools.

"The thing that most excites me," Brewer sums up, "is to see the growth of our members as they take charge of their own destiny. I really see women overcome tremendous odds and still make good things happen for themselves and their families."

Aggie Fink puts it like this: "You take the teenager straight out of high school—maybe she didn't finish high school—and she's a mother. She spends her lifetime raising her children. She just lost the educational time. Then all at once she finds herself in her late 30s or early 40s, and she even forgets she has a skill. All at once the children are gone, and now it's, 'Hey! What do I do?' The ones who are highly educated know which doors to knock on. I didn't. If I hadn't been to WINGS, I wouldn't know how to apply for a tax number. When you're a full-time mother, those are things that don't come up in your vocabulary.

"But any mother," she continues, "has about fifteen or twenty skills. The WINGS program can really bring those skills out. They make you think double-time. And then it's, 'Hey! You're worth a lot more than you ever thought you were!' "

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.