Written by Patty Rasmussen Wednesday, October 19 2011Snapshot: Nell Merlino, founder, Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence
Nell Merlino is a passionate advocate for women entrepreneurs. In 1999 she founded Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence as a nonprofit microlender to women-owned businesses. Today, Count Me In provides resources to women-owned businesses with the goal of helping one million women entrepreneurs reach the $1 million revenue mark. Five years ago, Count Me In created an initiative, Make Mine a Million $ Business (M3), offering live events, conferences, and online resources designed to accelerate women’s business growth through coaching, marketing, technology assistance, and the power of an online community of 70,000 women entrepreneurs.
In many ways, Count Me In is a natural progression from another Merlino brainchild, Take Our Daughters to Work Day. Twenty years ago, the first Take Our Daughters to Work Day challenged girls to dream big and exposed them to the world of work in a fresh, exciting way. It’s not unlikely that some of the women Merlino now counsels to grow their businesses were inspired to start their own businesses by participating in Take Our Daughters to Work Day.
Merlino is the author of Stepping Out of Line: Lessons for Women Who Want it Their Way in Life, in Love, and at Work (Broadway Books). She lives in Manhattan with her husband, Gary Conger.
Womenetics: Who or what inspired you to found Count Me In (CMI)?
Nell Merlino: My dream then, and it continues to be, is that woman are able to handle all the economic challenges that come along in life. That they’re able to build businesses, make money, employ other people, and be active participants in the economy, not just waiting for something to happen.
Womenetics: How is coaching a woman business owner different from coaching a male?
Merlino: I don’t know. I’m an expert on women-owned businesses. I think a lot of what we do is very helpful to men; we just don’t work with a lot of men. Men come to our events, they say they get a lot out of it, but it’s not our area of focus. I do think there are some real powerful similarities but I wouldn’t know, as an expert, what they are.
Womenetics: What specific challenges do women business owners face? Are the challenges more internal or external?
Merlino: It’s a combination of both. Unlike a lot of other countries, there are almost no legal barriers to women owning businesses in the United States. There are no legal barriers to women owning property, that kind of stuff, so in the United States we have a wonderful legal road map and set of opportunities for (women-owned businesses). There continue to be barriers, culturally, that women have incorporated into their heads in terms of not thinking big enough. I think the reason a lot of businesses are so small is a combination of not having a big enough vision and not having enough money. The one thing feeds on the other.
The other thing that comes into play is thinking that you have to do everything yourself so you limit the size of what you can do. Your vision gets thwarted by the notion of, “How much can I do in a day?” If your vision is limited by how much you can do, how big can your business get? I literally meet women who think if they drink more coffee and sleep less they can grow their business more. The other issue that’s really big for women is that only 17 percent of women-owned businesses have an employee. It’s hard to think about yourself as a company, and particularly hard to think about yourself as CEO when you’re the CEO of yourself.
Womenetics: How do you address those issues through CMI and M3?
Merlino: We certainly raise the issues. People wonder why they’re feeling overwhelmed. Well, you can’t do it by yourself. So we talk about that. What are the breakthrough opportunities? Maybe it’s first hiring a virtual assistant who isn’t a full-time employee but someone who’s going to help you set appointments, particularly if you’re involved in a lot of sales activity. You need someone scheduling so that you hit all the opportunities.
Or is it finding someone to help you do trade shows or however you sell? Selling is clearly the most important thing when you’re growing a business. How do you break down what you do so you start to see places where it may be best to involve other people because they’re better at it than you or have had more experience or (have) a system that makes sense? We talk about those barriers.
We have a whole coaching program that addresses these internal barriers. There are some women who decide they’re happy doing it all by themselves and recognize how far they’ll get that way. That’s totally fine. But if you want to grow your business, you have to grow yourself. You have to step out of the comfort zone of thinking “I know it’s going to be perfect if I do it” versus it could be even better if you explain to someone else or a group of somebody elses what you’re trying to accomplish.
Womenetics: I liked that one of your five key points for women entrepreneurs is “to expect and listen to resistance.” Explain why that’s so important.
Merlino: When people are criticizing you they are engaged, so there’s something to that. Now if this is someone who hates your guts, who you’ve been fighting with for 40 years, I’d let that roll off like water off a duck’s back.
But if it’s someone who looks at the product and says, “You know, I really wish it had this feature,” or “It would be more appealing in this color,” don’t get defensive. Ask them why. Ask questions about what they’re thinking; ask them to tell you what they want.
I got an email about a month ago from a woman who’s been involved with M3, our signature program, since 2006. She hit a million in 2008 and has been growing steadily ever since. She said this year was the best she’s ever had. She’s over $2 million because she finally decided to listen to what her customer really wanted. She’s changed some of the services she offered based on feedback from her clients.
There’s a balance between having a system that works, which is important, but also finding out what really works for your clients. It’s paying attention to what the client needs, and once you find out, who do you need to help you deliver that. Do you have those people on your team already? This notion of criticism is extremely valuable because in some cases it tells you what’s going to happen when you go out to the public with your product. Maybe it tells you you’re accomplishing exactly what you wanted to.
I’m not one of those people who thinks you have to answer all criticism, but it is something that you really need to take heed of and understand. People who criticize you, you want to know why. It’s a risky thing to do, but it is not a bad thing to do.
Womenetics: What are the best things a woman business owner can do to help her company grow?
Merlino: You need to be very confident in yourself and your ability to do things. You really have to work on the confidence issue. That’s probably the top thing. Seek help, very strategically. You cannot do this by yourself. Make sure you have something people want to buy. The majority of women business owners in the United States, 70 percent of them, make $50,000 in annual gross revenue. If you’re serious about growing, you have to get past $50,000 in revenue.
Get yourself past where everyone else seems to be stuck or comfortable; I don’t know which it is, but get past that mark. Get to $100,000, get to six figures, and reach out for help. Look at companies that are growing that do something similar that you can emulate. Find out what they’re doing. Understand what systems you need to put into place to be competitive. Go to places like Wal-Mart that have a supplier diversity tab on their website. Find out what the requirements are to be sold in one store because now you can supply to one store, you don’t have to do all their stores. Go talk to your local Wal-Mart store manager about your product, whatever it is. Find out what they’re looking for. What do you have to do to be able to sell there, if that’s what you’re interested in, or QVC or HSN?
Find out what you need to do to get a government contract because that’s where the money is. And that’s a big thing; you need to know where the money is.
Womenetics: What advantages do women have in the marketplace?
Merlino: They come up with products that women and families really need. Entrepreneurs are problem solvers, and women are constantly solving problems. Often the products they come up with are important problem solvers whether it’s technology, food-related products, or whatever. Women see things – for example, food safety products go back to issues and concerns spotted from a woman’s point of view. We have a number of businesses in Count Me In that are creating healthy or organic school lunch products, either coming up with systems of delivery or doing it just at a couple of schools. And that’s just one facet.
Womenetics: In your literature you state, “The economic impact of accelerating women’s business success will generate a least four million new jobs and $700 billion in economic activity.” What are those figures based on?
Merlino: The most recent U.S. Census. Only 2.6 percent of all woman-owned businesses are at $1 million; 6 to 7 percent of male-owned businesses are at $1 million. On average, to grow a business to $1 million the minimum number of people you need to hire in addition to who you have – if you’re at $250,000 in revenue, you usually have a couple of employees, and depending on the business you could have a lot more employees – so you have to hire four. That’s the minimum. A million women at $1 million in revenue, puts a trillion dollars in the economy, and it’s at least four million new jobs.
And I think the job number is low. Getting women to parity with men would create that type of economic impact. In the study (conducted by Booz Allen) they said without any intervention, one million women would get to $1 million by 2045. They thought with the kind of intervention we offer that we could reach our goal by 2020. Twenty-eight percent of the women that go through our program have gotten to $1 million. The national average is 2.62 percent. A lot of it is the women themselves – they are ambitious and they want to grow, but with coaching and community and access to the types of things we offer, they get connected to this tornado of activity that we create with them and it propels a lot of them forward, faster.
Womenetics: You have so much passion for what you’re talking about, growing women’s businesses and empowering women economically. What about you? What are the lessons you’re taking away for yourself?
Merlino: To believe in myself and to believe in what you can do with a group of committed, engaged people. There’s nothing I’ve done myself. I’ve always had a close team of people I’ve worked with and then a team of supporters, including financial – be they corporations, foundations, or individuals. I listen to my own instincts and gut and test those out with other people, then I see who wants to come with me. Those things tell you whether you have something or not, and I don’t mean “you” personally; I mean the product or service you’re trying to sell.
The belief and enthusiasm you hear (when I speak) is what carries me. I really believe what I’m saying. I’ve seen it happen; I know it can happen; and I think that comes through. I’ve seen it too many times. I get emails every week from people who were at $300,000 and are now knocking on the door of $3 million, and it’s not been two years. The emotion and enthusiasm I have, I believe, gives other women permission to believe that about themselves and to see it in themselves. It’s inside them and just needs to be let out!
There aren’t big businesses in everybody, but there are big businesses in more women than we have seen yet. There are ideas for products and services that we’ve only scratched the surface of. It’s like a crack of daylight coming, and it is very exciting.
Womenetics: Do you ever take time for yourself and if so, what do you do?
Merlino: Absolutely! I’m in the gym every morning. No Blackberry. No nothing. I ride bikes any chance I get. I hang out with my wonderful husband. I have nieces, stepchildren. I do not work all the time. I work a lot, but I like my work. I don’t consider it all work. I found something I really liked doing, but I also was able to create this out of nothing, and that’s what entrepreneurs do every day.
It’s very exciting, liberating, challenging, and a huge responsibility. But to me, it’s better than waiting to see what some boss is going to do to you. Or not do to you. Or that you are waiting to see what someone else is going to do before you’re able to decide. That’s why I like working with entrepreneurs.
Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD, and Blue Ridge Country.