Reach for the Stars

Maria Otero quit practicing law in order to help women of diverse backgrounds reach their business goals.

Maria Otero realized her passion for helping disadvantaged women in communities after spending countless hours volunteering at Latinas for Economic Empowerment and Development, the Women’s Center, and The Women’s Building. After twelve years as an attorney, Otero quit her job in 1994 and followed her entrepreneurial instincts to start the Women’s Venture Fund.

A non-profit organization, the Women’s Venture Fund helps low-income women with various backgrounds start small businesses in their communities. Women receive training, loans, and guidance to help their small businesses take off. The first Women’s Venture Fund office opened in 1997 in New York, and a New Jersey office followed in October 2006. Since then, it has helped over 14,000 women in New York and New Jersey by providing business direction and loans. The Women’s Venture Fund has made about 150 loans totaling over $1.5 million, with an average of $10,000 per loan. Once a form is submitted, an interview takes place with the Women’s Venture Fund’s Loan Committee. The fund awards loans on based on character, including track record on persevering, dedication, and honesty. To successfully receive a loan, each applicant has to have an understanding of her business plan, the practicality of her business concept, and have the ability to carry the loan and meet a payment schedule.

The Women’s Venture Fund then provides assistance and guidance for women to support and grow their business. The fund builds on the life experience of each client to develop self confidence, expand understanding of business opportunities, and provide the skills, training, and resources to assume ownership of progressively more complex enterprises. The Women’s Venture Fund stresses the importance of resources and building a support system. “These women need support networks, including those people who support them and will help them get through tough times,” said Otero. By providing a support system through the Women’s Venture Fund and helping women utilize their personal networks, their outlook on business changes for the better. “When it comes down to it,” Otero says, “it is what we can do for these women to help them get back on their feet and understand their resources.”

The Women’s Venture Fund has been a success to thousands of women, as well as to Otero herself. “Personally helping the women succeed so they don’t have to struggle is a reward in itself,” she says. “It is always sad when you hear of women not being appreciated or their challenges in life to fulfill their dreams to be successful.” The Women’s Venture Fund provides women with many tools to help them succeed, such as a roadmap for businesses. “Many women who start businesses have little clue what to do, or how the business world works. By providing them with a plan and a roadmap, they achieve success much faster,” Otero says.

Since 1996, the Women’s Venture Fund has grown exponentially and been recognized by many across the nation. The United States Department of Treasury has certified the Women’s Venture Fund as a Community Development Institution. The Women’s Venture Fund has participated in roundtable discussions with Vice President Al Gore on micro-finance, and with President and Mrs. Clinton at the Women’s Economic Leadership Conference. Additionally, Women’s Venture Fund also has various events throughout the year, including the Highest Leaf Awards to recognize successful women who exemplify the goals and values of the Women’s Venture Fund, and the Defining Moments Annual Gala and Auction fundraiser.

Although the Women’s Venture Fund has had many successes, it has struggled with the economy. The previous banks and financial services the Women’s Venture Fund once worked with have since closed. But, Otero looks at this challenge in a positive light. “We are working with new partners, and developing new relationships with financial services. It is great to know that others are dealing with the economic crisis and are working together to help others,” says Otero.

One woman who received assistance from the Women’s Venture Fund to save her business is Jackie Sencion, the owner of La Lumia, a retail and design dress shop in lower Manhattan. Located close to where the World Trade Center once stood, the destruction of September 11 had detrimental impacts on the businesses in the surrounding area. In fact, six of the seven businesses around Sencion’s ended up going out of business. Determined, Sencion tried everything to stay in business, but was having trouble and was facing closure. Fortunately, the Women’s Venture Fund heard of Sencion’s business and quickly came to help La Lumia. Without a loan from the Women’s Venture Fund, La Lumia would have been out of business. A testimonial on the Women’s Venture Fund website proves their assistance to Sencion. “Our business, like others near the World Trade Center, was devastated. But the Women’s Venture Fund was one of the first organizations on the scene to offer financial and marketing support to small businesses,” said Sencion. “They helped me to get back on my feet. Without them I would have gone under.” —Cheryl Sowa

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