November 18, 2016

Center for Women & Enterprise opens new resource center

Mike Reilly Photo

Gwen Pokalo, the program manager of the Vermont Center for Women & Enterprise, is shown at CWE’s new office in Burlington.

BURLINGTON — The Center for Women & Enterprise, a regional nonprofit economic development organization, has opened its office in the Maltex Building in Burlington’s South End.

Gwen Pokalo, program manager of Vermont CWE, said the office will house the Vermont Women’s Business Center, which is federally funded through a Small Business Administration (SBA) grant. The grant funds a center to provide technical assistance to businesses throughout every stage of development.

Vermont is the newest office for CWE, which also operates centers in Boston, Central Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. CWE was founded in 1995 in Boston.

“The Center for Women & Enterprise is here to offer events, training, consulting and certification to help entrepreneurs — women and men — find greater personal growth, professional success and financial independence,” Pokalo said, adding that men constitute 20 to 30 percent of clients at some centers.

“So far, in Vermont, it’s more like 15 to 20 percent,” she noted.

“We were awarded the grant in late 2015, and began operations in January 2016 on (a) guerilla basis,” Pokalo said. “We were temporarily housed at Office Squared on Main Street while we looked for relevant, accessible space.”

The new office at the Maltex Building includes about 1,400 square feet of space and features a large training room.

“We have been operational, but with this physical location we are able to be more accessible and relevant to a wider clientele,” Pokalo said. “It’s an opportunity to both anchor and proliferate our program. It will increase capacity.”

Previously, Pokalo said, “We’ve been building up services and clientele, and finding out what communities need.”

While its office is in Burlington, Pokalo emphasized that programs serve entrepreneurs and businesses throughout Vermont. She said CWE has been assessing needs and identifying resources around the state.

“We’ve been traveling, going to events, talking with economic development people and community organizations from southern Vermont to the Northeast Kingdom,” she said. “There’s excitement for our program to support initiatives happening in those communities.”

The center offers clients no-cost, one-on-one business counseling, and low-cost topical trainings.

“These are typically two-hour, ‘deep dive’ trainings offered on topics covering the entire business development process — from deciding if entrepreneurship is right for you, to startup needs, to legal considerations, to getting ready to hire and grow, all the way up to stabilizing your exit strategy.”

Pokalo noted that the center also provides a series of “intensive” trainings.

“We offer a three-week intensive marketing course, a three-week financial intensive, and a 10-class business plan intensive,” she said. “We also offer ‘Power-Up,’ which is strategic planning for more advanced businesses looking to grow.”

CWE has already been active around the state. “We’ve had programs in Chittenden County, central Vermont, Rutland and southern Vermont,” Pokalo said, “and we’re just finishing our first Business Plan Intensive class in Waitsfield.”

Classes are based on well-designed curricula, taught by experts in the field, drawn from the Vermont community. Pokalo is one of the consultants providing one-on-one counseling sessions, but the others are also drawn from the local business community.

“We’re reaching out to advanced business owners who may like to get involved as volunteer consultants or instructors,” Pokalo said. “It’s also an opportunity for them to get personal interaction with other businesses.”

There is already a broad and growing network of people affiliated with the center, Pokalo said.

“It’s also good that our Vermont center is affiliated with a larger regional network,” she noted. “That means a huge network of capability — curricula, consultant expertise, and additional resources — to complement what’s already happening within Vermont’s really robust business community.”

In addition to its partnership with SBA to operate Women’s Business Centers, Pokalo said CWE offers a number of other services.

These include offering Women’s Business Enterprise certification, which helps women to access corporate supplier-diversity programs, holding an annual Women’s Business Leadership Conference, as well as webinars and advanced business trainings targeting established businesses and entrepreneurs.

While the CWE office is up and running, Pokalo said there will be a grand opening on Dec. 1.

“We’re really excited,” she said. “We plan an invitation lunch, and an open house and many grand-opening events beyond that. People will be able to sign up for “Speed Mentoring” sessions to get a half-hour session with business experts, and we’ll have events around WBE certification, and other opportunities to connect with established business owners.”

The new center is still gearing up, furnishing its space, and planning hours and on-site activities.

“Our hours will be flexible, and will include some nights and limited weekends,” Pokalo said. “Classes and counseling require pre-registration, but we also expect to offer a lending library, computer space, and drop-in working sessions.”

Expect unique and fun classes and networking events, too. Sessions such as Marketing on a Shoestring to Coffee and Cash Flow — where participants can bring their financials and drop-in for technical assistance — to Coffee and Connections for networking, mutual learning and support all fit the CWE model.

“We focus on doing business a little differently,” Pokalo said. “It’s a more holistic approach.”

The Center for Women & Business is located at 431 Pine Street, Suite 101, in Burlington. The phone number is 391-4871 and the website is www.cweonline.org.

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