Local women hammer at barriers


Almost without exception, women in business will tell you they experience barriers to success that men just don’t face at the same level, from overt bias and sexism to lack of access to capital and wraparound support.

During the Business Journal’s Women Who Mean Business event March 19, panel guest and Local First President Elissa Sangalli Hillary said it’s not enough to tell women to lean in, try harder, ask for more.

She said that advice fails to acknowledge the barriers women face stem from legally sanctioned inequities throughout human history that we’ve only begun to address in the past few decades.

Women were not allowed to secure patents or trade licenses; own and control property apart from a husband or male relative; practice law and medicine; or earn and retain income apart from their husbands — among many other economic limitations — until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to a Wikipedia timeline of women’s rights in the U.S.

As late as the 1960s, women were not allowed to belong to business organizations (Inforum Michigan).

Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, women were not allowed to apply for credit (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation).

Before 1978 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, women could be fired for becoming pregnant (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

In 1981, until the Kirchberg v. Feenstra ruling, a man could take out a second mortgage on jointly owned property without his wife’s knowledge (Oyez Project of Cornell’s Legal Information Institute).

Just over 30 years ago, until the Women’s Business Ownership Act of 1988, women could only obtain a business loan with the signature of a male relative (Congress.gov).

With these economic hurdles only a few years in the past, it’s no wonder women often struggle to start their own businesses, Hillary said. The long-established systems that foster male success still are opening up to female entrepreneurs.

West Michigan women are attacking the problem from many sides.

In addition to well-known nonprofits like Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, the Women’s Resource Center, Inforum and Michigan Women Forward, grassroots resource and networking groups have sprung up, including Sisters Who Lead/Tough Skin Soft Heart, Women in Successful Enterprises and the Latina Network of West Michigan.

Other resources are just getting off the ground.

Andrea McGrew is chief legal officer/chief compliance officer at USA Financial, an Ada-based firm serving clients and investors, independent financial advisers and financial institutions.

McGrew said she has been employed in the finance industry for 15 years. While she works at a company where she feels her performance matters more than her gender, she still faces bias from people outside the organization — and she still is the firm’s only female executive.

“Because Matt (McGrew, COO) is my husband, and we work at the same place, I have a kind of unintended social experiment. I get to see how we interact with the same people, and I get to see how they interact with him compared to how they interact with me. And it’s different,” she said.

“He can call an adviser and say, ‘Hey, just calling to touch base with you.’ I call that same adviser — and this actually happened — I said, ‘Hey, I’m calling to touch base with you,’ and he said, ‘What base do you want to touch?’ That’s gross.”

Beyond incidents of sexism that McGrew said are “very typical” for women in her field, she also said she has noticed another trend that needs to be addressed.

“Studies have shown that when a man dies, I think it’s something like 77% of the time, the wife leaves and goes to a different adviser because she’s not comfortable with the adviser that her husband either chose or who they had together,” McGrew said.

“So, I think it’s a prime opportunity for female advisers to step in … and use what they have and be poised to help all of these investors who are inheriting the money.”

McGrew said she recently decided to do something about her conviction that women need more support.

“Only approximately 16% of all financial advisers are women, and we also know that women investors as well are poised to take over something like $22 trillion of wealth in the next few years,” she said. “As an industry, we need to do a better job of bringing tools and resources to women investors than we do now.”

With the goal of “dismantling the notion that women are simply a niche market” in the financial industry, McGrew created a new podcast for financial advisers, UnNiched, to “address some of the biggest challenges that face professional women working in the financial services industry.”

The first episode aired at beunniched.com/podcast on Feb. 12.

Guests so far have included Maddie Parker, a financial adviser; Mark Mersman, a financial wellness expert; Teresa and Jim Yent, a husband-wife team who co-own an advisory firm; three women who have faced or currently are facing breast cancer who shared how it affected them financially; and former Olympic coach Christen Shefchunas, who now runs a successful confidence consulting business.

McGrew said she hopes the podcast helps create a “tribe” or support system for women in the industry who feel like they’re working in “a vacuum or a bubble.” She said the participants all aim to share wisdom that will directly benefit businesswomen and entrepreneurs.

Amber Cook is a business insurance agent with Grand Rapids-based Doyle & Ogden Insurance.

She is helping Michelle Gordon, owner and lead real estate broker at Ada-based The Gordon Group GR/JH Realty Group, and Morgan Shotko, a relationship banker at Level One Bank in Grand Rapids, to establish a business resource group for female entrepreneurs.

The three met in a local networking group called Women in Connection. Gordon had the seed of an idea because she was seeing women buy commercial real estate from her for starting their businesses and then turn around and ask her for advice on how to start said businesses.

The three women are working to add an attorney and a CPA to their ranks and then will work on an official name for their group.

“It will consist entirely of women, and our hope is that we’ll be able to provide a sort of foundation or a starting point for female entrepreneurs,” Cook said. “What we’re trying to put together is essentially a packet that will serve as a roadmap to getting your ducks in a row when starting a business.”

Cook said it will be mostly a virtual support group but women who are interested will be able to book one-on-one appointments if they want more help with specific issues.

“We don’t want it to feel like it’s forced, that you use me as an insurance agent. We just want to provide a safe space for women to ask questions,” she said.

“I think that a lot of women (who) I know personally, and myself, behave as a perfectionist. You feel like you’re supposed to know the answers to all these things before you start any of this.

“We’re just trying to provide some direction on when you should be asking questions and who to ask those questions of.”

Cook said one of the things she notices with female business insurance clients is they often feel like they are on the defensive as they shop for services for their new venture because they are worried about being taken advantage of — another obstacle more common to women than men, she said.

She said she understands women have a lot of hurdles to clear, such as access to capital, being the primary caregiver to dependents while working, bias and harassment, etc. — but being perfect before you make a move to follow your dream doesn’t have to be one of them.

“You don’t actually need to have a business degree from Harvard in order to follow your passion and succeed at this,” Cook said.

“You just need to have the right connections and be talking to the right people and asking the right questions.”

Cook said her group will direct women to courses and other resources available from the Small Business Administration, as well as connect members with mentors.

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