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Women In Entrepreneurship Institute Celebrates Success

Women in Entrepreneurship celebration
Women-owned businesses were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, closing nationally at a rate that was much higher than ventures owned by men. More than 60 Chicago-area women business founders have bucked this trend, however, by applying lessons they learned at DePaul University's Women in Entrepreneurship Institute (WEI) to sustain and even grow their ventures during the pandemic.

The women are graduates of WEI's business accelerator programs, four-week and eight-week, business-building boot camps where women founders gain practical guidance on financial reporting, forecasting, banking, hiring, branding and finding investors. WEI celebrated their collective success during a Nov. 18 reception at DePaul, where accelerator participants were reunited with entrepreneurship faculty and WEI advisory board members who teach in the program. 

WEI has made great strides in empowering women entrepreneurs to launch and grow businesses since its founding at the Driehaus College of Business in 2018, Sulin Ba, dean of the college, noted in her welcome remarks at the reception. 

“When you look at the institute's positive impact, the numbers are quite impressive," she said. “WEI has empowered 62 women founders—representing 57 organizations—through its business accelerator programs to date. More than 60% of these organizations are led by women of color. Remarkably, all of the WEI accelerator ventures have remained open during the pandemic, compared to a 75% rate for women-owned businesses nationally. In fact, 85% of the WEI accelerator ventures have experienced growth, and 21% have increased their employment."

Reception attendee Tina Wong, founder and CEO of Grace + Ivory, is among the accelerator grads who weathered the COVID economic downturn. Wong said the program strengthened her financial skills to more effectively manage her try-at-home, custom made-to-measure wedding dress brand, which she launched in 2017.

“It refreshed my understanding of accounting practices and how to properly analyze and make planning decisions for my business," she says. “The entrepreneurs and professors shared best practices and how I can apply them to my business."

Beyond the classroom, Wong says the continuing opportunity to connect with WEI's network of accelerator participants, professors and board members has been valuable. “We met women who have built amazing careers, learned how they run their businesses, and we share ideas with each other." 

Valarie King-Bailey, founder and owner of OnShore Technology Group, was excited to see this networking in action at the reception. As the new chair of the WEI advisory board, King-Bailey is guiding the board's work with DePaul to refresh WEI's vision post-pandemic.  

“It's super important that we help the next generation of women business owners not only to find their footing but also thrive in this economy," says King-Bailey, a trailblazing entrepreneur who has been named twice to the Inc. 5000 list and in 2022 was honored as one of Inc. magazine's 100  Female Founders.

“One of my passions is helping women businesses with their finances," King-Bailey says.  Venture capital firms are often reluctant to invest in women-owned ventures, she notes, adding that she and other experienced women entrepreneurs on the WEI board share their strategies for securing financing with the accelerator participants.

Looking ahead, King-Bailey says the accelerator program plans to expand instruction on how women entrepreneurs can use technology to drive business growth, both locally and globally. “It's not like we want to make women business owners IT specialists, but we need to talk to them about how to leverage technology in their businesses. A lot of digital marketing activity can be done on a shoe-string budget and many women don't know that."

“I see WEI as being instrumental in moving the next generation of women entrepreneurs forward," she says, “We want to give them a solid foundation on which to build their businesses."