A Woman's Education

Following the closing of Trinity College in Burlington, the Women's Small Business Program under the leadership of Pam Greene has changed it's affiliation but not its location

by Portland Helmich

Pam Greene, director of the Women's Small Business Program in Burlington, turned her early persuasions as a social activist into a full-time job teaching women how to start and run their own businesses.

If you can't find your dream job; create one.' Our faculty tells students that all the time," Pam Greene says. The excitement that rushes forth when Greene speaks about her work makes it clear that she, ironically, hasn't needed to create a dream job. She appears to have one. Director of the Women's Small Business Program (WSBP) since 1997, Greene's position provides her with an ideal outlet for her passion: social and economic justice for women, especially the disadvantaged.

"What I love most about my job is helping other women fulfill their dreams," she says. "Knowing you're making a difference in other people's lives gives meaning to your life."

The mission of WSBP is to enhance women's self-sufficiency through entrepreneurial success. "And the way we do that," Greene explains, "is through entrepreneurial training programs." The non-profit organizations's signature offering is Start Up, a $1,250, 110-hour, 15-week comprehensive business training course that ends in a "bank-ready" business plan. "It's very intense and very practical," Greene says, "and women are nothing if not practical."

Broken down into four areas marketing, finance, computer technology, and personal and professional development Start Up is taught twice a year by a team of contracted instructors who are business owners. The expertise of the faculty is what makes Start Up unique, according to Greene. "Yes, it's important to have curriculum, and we have a big handbook, and the students end with a business plan," she says, "but the two main outcomes students say they take away with them are knowledge from the faculty and the feeling of being part of a women's community."

Thembie Gamache is one WSBP graduate who offers this feedback. She used to sell jewelry from a cart on Church Street. Today, she is the owner of Jazza Tings Ltd., a unique gift store on St. Paul Street. Gamache says she turned to WSBP in 1993 because she knew she would receive help. "The best thing about it was working with women who've been there who are knowledgeable and understanding," she says. "I can still call faculty to network or ask questions. It's very important to have that kind of support."

Lori Rowe didn't have a retail background when she imagined turning her love of flowers into a business. Today, she is the proprietor of Vivaldi Flowers, an 8-year-old flower shop in South Burlington with a staff of 10. "It was like getting an MBA in 15 weeks," she declares. "It was an amazing opportunity to test my idea out in a laboratory setting."

Rowe says she not only developed a business plan and obtained solid information about financial management and marketing, but she like Gamache benefited from WSBP's network of "supportive and talented" faculty. "The classes were very indicative of the way women run their businesses," Rowe says. "They were collaborative, respectful, and there was always the opportunity to offer input."

WSBP was created 12 years ago within the Community Economic Development Office (CEDO), a city government department that helps low-income individuals improve their lives. "It was a recessionary period," Greene says. "People were starting their own businesses because jobs were hard to find." Moreover, Greene adds, an influx of women was asking CEDO for technical assistance and business development training. "They were being turned down for loans because they didn't have a proper business plan," she notes.

Soon after its inception at CEDO, WSBP became part of the Business and Economics Department at Trinity College, its home for the last 10 years. Courses like Start Up and Getting Serious, a six- to- eight-week workshop intended to help women decide if business ownership is right for them, were offered to Trinity students and non-matriculates.

At the end of June, Trinity College officially closed its doors due to declining enrollment in undergraduate admissions. When Greene received word that the school would be shutting down, she was shocked. "It was threatening to us," she concedes, "but there was never a thought of our closing, too."

What ensued was a period of searching for a new host school or agency to which WSBP could attach itself. "We knew we didn't want to go out on our own," Greene says. "We're too small for that." After six months, a "dream fit" hadn't presented itself and so just as Greene's faculty teaches its students to do WSBP helped to create one.

The result is Mercy Connections Inc., a non-profit educational corporation with a focus on social and economic justice for women. Founded by the Sisters of Mercy, the 125-year-old Catholic women's religious order that owned and ran Trinity College for 76 years, Mercy Connections was incorporated on July 1. In addition to WSBP, eight other non-profits joined the collaborative, including Vermont Adult Learning and Transition II, a program formerly under the Trinity umbrella that offers employment support to the disabled.

"It's a unique model," says Greene. "To my knowledge, there's nothing like it being done in the state." What Greene is referring to are the "roots and wings" that Mercy Connections provides WSBP and its other non-profits, which benefit from being part of something greater than themselves without sacrificing independence. "Out-of-state foundations will look so much more favorably on something that's a consortium because they know they'll be getting more for their money," Greene explains.

While each non-profit is in charge of its own payroll, various permutations will likely team up to solicit funding. "Since we share the same goals," Greene says, "we're also very excited by how our programming may come together jointly."

A Washington, D.C., funding arm of the Sisters of Mercy has awarded Mercy Connections a $15,000 planning grant. "It's seed money," Greene says. "If we do a good job with this grant, we can apply for up to $250,000 next year." WSBP will remain on the Trinity campus for at least one more year, as the Sisters of Mercy have yet to sell the school's 28 acres.

Greene is exuberant about the possibilities. "Throughout my career, I've done a variety of things," she says, "but I've never started something. I've never created an organization from scratch, so it's just been fabulous ... and scary."

"Scared" isn't a word acquaintances use to describe Greene. Extroverted and jovial, the Richford native began her career as a nurse. Encouraged by her parents to earn a technical degree, Greene went to Miami Dade Junior College, where she graduated with an associate's degree in 1971. Nursing supported her for many years but never became a calling. "As I became more involved in the women's movement and in my own self-development," she says, "I found nursing to be too much of a support role and not enough of a leadership role for me."

The field did provide entry into her first management position. In the 1970s, Greene spent a couple of years as director of the Burlington Community Health Center; later, she became heavily involved in her self-proclaimed calling: political activism. While working as a private duty nurse, she volunteered to help Madeleine Kunin run two statewide lieutenant governor campaigns. "I did everything," she recalls. "I licked envelopes and drove her all over the state."

It was during Kunin's years as governor that Greene became a government employee. Appointed director of the Vermont Economic Opportunity Office, Greene served as Vermont's chief advocate for low-income individuals for six years. "I loved going into government," she says. "I'd probably still be there if Madeleine hadn't stepped down."

Thembie Gamache (above), owner of Jazza Tings Ltd. in Burlington, and Lori Rowe (right), owner of Vivaldi Flowers in South Burlington, graduated from WSBP's Start Up course to learn how to open a business. "I can still call faculty to network or ask questions. It's very important to have that kind of support," Gamache says.

From 1991 until she answered an advertisement in the paper and landed the position at WSBP, Greene worked as community development director and later as assistant director at Burlington's Lund Family Center. "And what's the link here?" she asks. "I was working with disadvantaged young women, and we were hitting key issues like teen pregnancy, adoption, and child abuse prevention."

Her zeal for serving the chronically under-served has nebulous origins. Greene suspects that her father might have had something to do with it. "My dad always taught us to root for the underdog," she notes.

According to WSBP's most recent database review, 46 percent of WSBP students are low-income women; thus, scholarships and grant money are available to those in need. Greene says students range in age from 21 to those "well into their senior years" and a course like Start Up might find high school dropouts sitting beside women with doctorates. "Entrepreneurs come from every kind of background. They really are born, not made," Greene speculates. "They tend to be creative, independent, and driven. They like to take an idea from a dream all the way to reality."

Of the approximately 100 women who attend WSBP programs every year (men are welcome and a few have attended, though none has completed Start Up), about 60 percent go on to start their own businesses. For those who do not, Greene does not view the investment of time and money as wasted. On the contrary, she says, WSBP courses might prevent women from investing a much larger sum of time and money into an enterprise that will not ultimately be profitable. Moreover, students might realize that business ownership doesn't suit their lifestyle or personality. "If they find that they don't like to spend 60 to 70 hours a week at their passion this is just during the student phase then maybe business ownership is not for them," she chuckles. "It's fabulous to have your own business, but it's the toughest job you'll ever love."

Greene clearly loves her job, though not every minute. "I just get sick of raising money for payroll every two weeks," she admits. Another challenge is how to market WSBP on a limited budget ($250,000 a year). "Even though we have a fabulous reputation," she says, "there are constantly new people coming into Burlington, and how do we get our message out?" Finally, the director acknowledges that although her staff of five is "wonderful," maintaining longevity among employees can sometimes be difficult. "In a bigger organization," she says, "there's more of a career ladder so you can grow people."

These restrictions seem to have spawned Greene's creativity rather than suppressed it. The director has extended WSBP's mission and "gotten more done" by working in cooperation with other like-minded organizations. "Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration," she rhythmically remarks. "We've taken it to a fine art."

An example is WSBP's collaboration with the Micro Business Development Program (MBDP) and the Abenaki Self-Help Association Inc., a program supporting the preservation of Abenaki culture by turning traditional Abenaki skills into viable self-employment opportunities. Thanks to a $47,900 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, WSBP and MBDP deliver micro-enterprise training to northwestern Vermont's Abenaki population.

Beth Angolano is marketing and communications coordinator for the program. "She's the first voice people hear when they call, and she's the first person they're going to deal with," Greene says.

While MBDP provides one-on-one business counseling, WSBP's focus is classroom training. A website that will enable the Abenaki to sell their crafts and advertise their services is also in development.

"The Abenaki project stemmed from a conversation between Pam and me," says Jim White, MBDP's program manager. "We knew we could do it better together." White says Greene's unwavering faith in the project helped keep up his morale during some of the lows of the grant process. "She's very enthusiastic about whatever she's doing," he remarks.

"Pam's a big-picture person," he goes on to say. "She likes to exercise her imagination to create new possibilities and opportunities, and she's good at drawing competent people to her because of her persuasiveness and capacity to detect who's going to have ability. She's hard to resist."

The 49-year-old chalks up her attributes to a good upbringing and good genes. "I was blessed with a high energy level and a strong constitution," she says, "and I had great parents who made me believe I could do anything. They never understood gender stereotypes."

Neither does Greene, who graduated from Trinity with a humanities degree in June. "Full equality for women is a universal human right," she says, adding that quality educational access is the bedrock that most improves the lives of women and their families. In the end, it is the entrepreneurial training that WSBP provides that most inspires Greene to continue her work. "When you see a woman start on the road to fulfilling a lifetime dream, it's just fabulous," she says. "It makes you feel even better than the person you're helping."

Originally published in July 2001 Business People-Vermont