Women, Minorities and Small Business

Starting a business can be the biggest risk you'll ever take—as exciting as it is frightening. On one hand, owning your own business lets you work how you want to work, set your own standards, and eventually, your own hours. On the other, there is no guarantee, no 401(k), no turning back. For women and minorities, starting a business can be even scarier. Historically, as groups, both have less capital and less experience starting and sustaining a business. Add old roadblocks of racism and sexism and the nervous entrepreneur can turn into an ex-entrepreneur, even before taking the first step.

Don't forget the good news. First of all, many people have succeeded before you. According to the last census survey of business owners, minorities own more than 15 percent of American businesses, women own more than a quarter. Secondly, there are many very helpful, free resources for the budding entrepreneur. In fact, many of these businesses counted in the census were started with the help of programs specifically directed towards helping women and minorities.

A major source of assistance for would-be entrepreneurs is the Small Business Association. The SBA has programs to walk you through every step of starting and managing your business. It offers courses both online and in local SBA offices about start-up issues, financing, management, and contracting issues.

The Small Business Administration is best known for its loan programs. The Basic Loan Guaranty program helps those who don't qualify for loan money through traditional channels to finance their businesses. This is particularly appealing to women and minorities who may not have the collateral or credit rating often required for bank loans and lines of credit. In addition, there is a Microloan program and a program to help business owners purchase real estate, machinery and other tools for production.

Once women and people of color are able to finance their ventures, many find they need ongoing training and mentoring. The Small Business Association has networking and counseling programs directed towards these two groups. You can find information on all of its programs at www.sba.gov.

A group connected to the SBA, called SCORE, is made up of volunteers from the business community who dedicate their time towards advising entrepreneurs. There are SCORE offices around the country that provide in-person counseling and advice. Volunteers can help formulate business plans, give advice on incorporation, license issues and even help with marketing ideas. If there isn't an office near you, the group has an online question and answer forum staffed with more than 1,200 cyber advisors.

Another good source of business advice is, unbelievably, the IRS. The Internal Revenue Service has an online section dedicated to educating business owners about the tax code. It provides answers to frequently asked questions about small business taxes and how to register your business properly. Naturally, the IRS offers instructions on how to file and pay those business taxes. Any forms you may need are generally available online at www.irs.gov

The best thing about all of these groups is that their advice is free. Whether you access it online or visit one of their offices, you won't need to spend a cent. Frequently, people new to the business world are duped into paying for information about government programs or help with their businesses that they could have gotten for free. This is often a problem with online sources. Just do a search for "small business loans" and you will find dozens, if not hundreds, of firms offering you money "for a one-time fee of $29.95." Don't fall for it - there is good advice available at no cost. You just have to know where to look.