First Women’s Bank opens in Chicago with goal of fixing gender lending gap

First Women’s Bank opened its brand new headquarters in West Town on Wednesday. Its founders say it’s the first financial institution aimed at helping women entrepreneurs get the capital to start and expand businesses.

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Activists, First Woman’s Bank Board Members and City Officials cut the ribbon at a cutting ceremony at the First Women’s Bank at 1308 N Elston Ave in Goose Island

Mayor Lori Lightfoot celebrated the opening of the First Women’s Bank in West Town, a bank focused on supporting women entrepreneurs and ending a gender lending gap | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago is now home to the First Women’s Bank, a bank its founders believe to be the first and only women-led and women-focused bank in the country.

A Wednesday ribbon-cutting ceremony minted the bank in Chicago women’s history, and served as the grand opening for the bank’s headquarters in West Town.

“Never before has there been a greater need and an opportunity to address what we believe is the fundamental problem facing women-owned and women-led businesses, and that’s access to capital,” said Melissa Widen, one of the bank’s founders.

Widen and others at Wednesday’s event cited studies showing women-owned businesses received far fewer business loans than firms owned by men.

“Promoting gender equality at this bank, it’s not a marketing strategy. It’s in our DNA,” said Marianne Markowitz, the bank’s CEO. “We believe that the potential for the bank to drive social change and to bridge the gender lending gap is enormous.”

First Women’s Bank CEO Marianne Markowitz speaks about the mission fo the bank during a cutting ceremony at the First Women’s Bank at 1308 N Elston Ave in Goose Island, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Helping women start successful businesses is the central mission of the First Women’s Bank, CEO Marianne Markowitz said. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot cut the bank’s big blue ribbon during the ceremony and said the bank will “tell the world loud and clear” that Chicago is a place of “business and opportunity for everyone.”

“Opening up access to capital is critically important, and it’s got to be opened up to everyone,” Lightfoot said. “We cannot succeed and move forward as a city, as a nation, unless we are very intentional about making sure that no one is left behind.”

The bank will also provide support to women entrepreneurs through advice and networking resources, said Colleen Ryan, the bank’s chief marketing and communications officer.

The bank will also focus particularly on helping women of color start businesses. Southside Grinds, a Black-woman-owned coffee company serving communities of color, was able to hit the ground running with the help from First Women’s Bank.

“Our mission is to spread love and caffeination in under-commerced, under-beveraged and under-caffeinated areas,” said Ebony Blue, the company’s founder. “It’s really important to us because there are a lot of places on the South and West Side of Chicago that do not have beverages, let alone any types of commerce.”

The bank is supported by companies like Wendy’s and Comcast, and by International Tennis Hall of Famer and women’s equity advocate Billie Jean King, who invests in the bank and serves as one of its advisers.

Billie Jean King speaks about the power to bring change during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the First Women’s Bank at 1308 N Elston Ave

Billie Jean King, an investor and advisor of the First Women’s Bank, said the institution would help create economic opportunities for everyone. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“I know the challenges women face when it comes to financial solutions for small businesses,” King said. “I’ve lived it. I’ve been to banks –– it’s not easy if you’re a woman.”

“When the bank delivers on its mission, it won’t be just for women. [With] the small business community and the economy open, everyone has a chance to win.”

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