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January 11. 2014 1:20AM

Panel says New Hampshire needs more women-owned businesses


From left, Amy LaBelle, owner of LaBelle Winery in Amherst, joins U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Jeanne Hulit, acting administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, for a discussion at LaBelle Winery to address ways to encourage women’s business ownership. (KIMBERLY HOUGHTON)

AMHERST — Entrepreneurs gathered on Friday to discuss ways of encouraging women to take risks and follow their dreams by owning businesses in the Granite State.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Jeanne Hulit, acting administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration, hosted a roundtable discussion at LaBelle Winery, where owner Amy LaBelle is thriving in her new event facility.

“It is critical that women start businesses, not just in New Hampshire, but throughout the country,” LaBelle told the group, adding it hasn’t been an easy journey. Each day, LaBelle committed to making her dream a reality, in part so that the next generation of female entrepreneurs will have less of a challenge, she said.

Women business owners are important because they are known to give back to the community, and are responsible for organizing and assisting numerous charitable organizations, LaBelle said.

A loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration was a key factor in helping LaBelle build her new winery along Route 101 in Amherst.

Hulit said her agency was instrumental in passing the Women-Owned Small Business Contract Program with rules and increase limits, adding it has been working aggressively to ensure that women have the same opportunities as men to own businesses.

She encouraged those in attendance to use free business counseling services such as SCORE, a nonprofit organization offering services to small businesses in New Hampshire and other states.

“There are financing tools that are available,” said Hulit, adding that $114 million in credit was available from the SBA last year.

Shaheen said it is time to raise awareness about what is possible, noting there are many high profile positions now filled by women, including an all-female leadership team in New Hampshire.

“We have, obviously, more work to do,” she said. Women-owned businesses are the fastest growing businesses in the country, according to Shaheen. However, she explained that New Hampshire is slightly behind with about 27 percent of its new businesses owned by women.

Hulit agreed, saying there are many successful stories by hard working women such as LaBelle that need to be shared.

“We need to have more mentors. We need to have more positive role models. Times are changing,” she said. “We need to continue to celebrate that and recognize that.”

While there are many advances, there are also some challenges, according to Hulit. Currently, there is only one microloan lender in New Hampshire for SBA loans — Northern Community Investment Corp., or NCIC. SBA offers a microloan program for small startup businesses seeking small amounts of initial seed capital that may be turned down by traditional banks, Hulit said.

However, there is only one institution in the state offering those microloans, she said.

Mary Jane Ricker of the Bank of New Hampshire said that while the SBA has streamlined the process, bank policies and procedures have been tightened because of the economy.

“I agree, the biggest challenge is the microlending and finding that capital,” Ricker said.

Still, the SBA is at record levels for issuing loans, according to Hulit. Smaller loans under $150,000, however, are on the decline, she said.

Kriss Blevens, owner of Kriss Cosmetics in Manchester, said her company is debt free and institution free.

“I am my own bank now, and I don’t need a credit line,” she said. Blevins admits, however, that it has been challenging, and that she may need additional working capital if she wants to expand.

She suggested that a forum be created to promote the spirit of business in New Hampshire, stressing the passion to make a dream a reality should be prevalent for women.

khoughton@newstote.com