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Women's Business Development Center's new president on the work left to do

It’s still about access.

Former BMO Harris Executive Vice President Emilia DiMenco, who Thursday becomes president of the 27-year-old Women’s Business Development Center in Chicago, stresses this women’s work is far from done.

“All of us had hoped 27 years ago that today we wouldn’t need a WBDC,” she says. “There has been tremendous progress. But the same issues that existed back then continue.

“Do women have greater access to contracts today than they ever have, and minorities? Absolutely, but it’s still not equal. Do [they] have greater access to capital? Yes. Is it where it needs to be, are there biases out there? Yes. There is still a lot of work to be done for there to be true fairness and equality.”

DiMenco says she’s well-equipped to build on the legacy of WBDC former co-Presidents Hedy Ratner and Carol Dougal, who will continue to serve on the board. Ratner and Dougal founded the nonprofit, which is the oldest and largest such center of its kind in the country.

DiMenco has served as chief operating officer at the WBDC since 2010 after more than 30 years at BMO Harris, where she managed budgets in excess of $200 million, worked with large and small privately held companies and grew the bank’s women business initiatives. She was the first head of the lending institution’s business bank, which served commercial customers with revenues below $25 million, she says.

Because she has seen businesses succeed and fail, she understands “how complex it can be to manage and bring in revenues while managing your expenses in good times as well as not so good times,” she says.

DiMenco served on WBDC’s board for several years before becoming COO.

As COO, she helped launch two microloan programs with a pool of nearly $1 million in loans. Going forward, “We’re talking to our board about expanding our direct lending,” she says. “It’s a critical component to success. [Entrepreneurs] can win all the contracts in the world, but [they] still need capital” to handle those contracts.

The WBDC will provide more support services to established businesses looking to grow and expand through programs that cover risk management, mergers and acquisitions, capitalization, and succession, she adds.

The center will also make greater use of on-demand webinars, in particular for startup and emerging businesses, and collaborate on projects that serve low- and moderate-income communities.

“The mission isn’t changing,” she says. “We pride ourselves in making sure that we talk to our clients and understand their needs. We continue to be strategically focused on those needs.”

DiMenco offers these tips for those looking to start or expand businesses:

Do

– Clarify and narrow the focus of your product or service. Concentrate on telling people how your product or service will help solve customers’ problems or issues.

– Create a business plan that includes your value proposition, business strategy, marketing approach, investment requirements, projected revenues and expenses and funding gaps. This can help in getting financing, but also helps you “think through every aspect of your business creation,” DiMenco says.

– Conduct market research so you know the value you’re bringing to prospective clients and customers. Consider certification as a women and/or minority entrepreneur to differentiate yourself from the competition.

Don’t

– Expect a traditional bank to provide financing unless you have personal assets and/or a strong relationship. Most likely sources are loans from family and friends, microlenders, and community development financial institutions.

– Overestimate your capabilities or overlook the significant investments you must make in human capital, technology, support services and working space.

– Forget to stay on top of monthly cash flow. “Businesses fail because they run out of cash,” DiMenco stresses.