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The Women's Business Development Center founder lays out what it takes to be a female entrepreneur

Hedy Ratner knows what it takes for a woman-owned business to take off — she founded the nonprofit Women’s Business Development Center in 1986 with Carol Dougal with the intention of fostering the kind of environment in which female entrepreneurs could get a fair shake. Since then, the WBDC has grown to a staff of 24 and helped tens of thousands of women brave the business world.

In 2012, Sol Solis and Anna Hagopian founded Paleo Fit Meals, which produces ready-made meals for paleolithic dieters (that’s the pre-agricultural caveman approach). Grid sat the three down.

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Sol Solis: We are working on our transition business plan as we speak. We started with our Paleo Fit Meals, but we’re shifting now to this cookie and dessert line, which will also probably lead to a shift to a product line, making sauces and dressings and things that we can distribute more than just locally — things that we can scale. But we will be now crossing the bridge into manufacturing. We are as newbie as you can get.

Hedy Ratner: I’m interested to see that you have a really solid business plan, with the new niche and also being able to do some cash flow projections and some marketing strategies to be sure that you’re targeting the right people at the right places to sell. You’ll also [need to] figure out how to handle a way for distribution. Because you can’t stay in the kitchen and make cookies all day. You have to sell it.

You need access to capital. And in this day, it’s very difficult to find capital for a startup business. You’ve already got a little bit of a track record, but just a beginning track record.

Figure out who you’re going to sell to, why they want to buy it, what is unique about your product, and then we have to look at access to capital. Right now, most of our financial institutions are not interested in startup businesses. However, in Chicago, we do have some microlending programs. And those microlending programs could give you a kick start, but for smaller amounts of money. I know you’ve talked about venture capital or getting people to invest. How do you feel about that?

SS: I think [we’d consider] one of the pros. Anna and I, we didn’t go to business school and we didn’t come from that industry, so if you can partner yourself up with people who did, it’s something that we’d want to consider.

HR: Our organization, the WBDC, certifies women business enterprises. Your product fits in with the retail industry’s commitment to doing business with minority and women-owned businesses. You’ve started to get certified. That’s really important right now, because [companies like] Mariano’s [have] a commitment to doing business with women business owners. So do Walgreens and Target and Wal-Mart, all of those stores.

SS: Of all the things you’ve seen, what would you advise us to steer clear of?

HR: One of the major issues for many of the women that we’ve seen is they don’t know if they’re making money or not. They’re taking money in, and they spend money because of their expenses, but they don’t know if they’re making money or not. They don’t take the time to figure out what their expenses are, what their revenue is, what their tax implications are, what the licenses are — they don’t really know. There are so many women who come to us and say they think they’re successful. And then when we begin looking at their financials, they’re losing money all the time. Those are the ones who take nothing out of the business for themselves. And if they take nothing out of the business, why are they in business?

The other [problem] is people who work in the business and not on their business. You have to be able to stand back, look at your business, and evaluate where you need to be spending most of your time. And you’ve got to get out of the kitchen.

You’re unique. You have an enormous amount of enthusiasm, you do understand the basis for your business, that’s one of the other things women make mistakes about when they’re in business: They’re kind of stuck in an idea and they’re going to make it work, hell or high water. That’s a major mistake. You look at the economy, you look at the trends. You’ve got to be open and flexible, and you’ve got to adjust, based on what’s feasible for you.

SS: Did you have somebody, a role model, who made a big impact on your life?

HR: My parents came from Eastern Europe and like many immigrant families that came to this country, without education, without language, they couldn’t get a job because no one would hire them. So they started a small business.

When I started the WBDC, we used the paradigm of immigrants coming to this country. And what we see — certainly in the Mexican community and in the Korean community and the Vietnamese community — [is] that people start businesses. And this way, they can support themselves and their families and move on to other things.

So I guess my mentors were my parents to start with. I saw that business ownership was a way that women could achieve economic independence and could achieve economic equality and could change the way business is done. Because women do business differently. They look at their employees differently, as greater assets. They provide more flexibility for their employees. They look at how their employees can have a decent lifestyle.

Photo by Peter Holderness