As recently as fall 2016, in-depth studies into the state of business financing for women entrepreneurs found that female business owners continue to seek and obtain funding at significantly lower rates than their male counterparts. Whether it's caused by pressure to avoid risk, cultural expectations or just plain gender bias, we know that women are asking for less money, facing stricter approvals and paying higher rates for debt financing than their male colleagues.
A few public and private organizations are leading the way forward in providing better financing options for women, both by making more funds available and by creating entrepreneur development opportunities that encourage female business leaders.
Let's take a look at the grant organizations, lenders and angel investors providing the best financing options for women.
Grant Programs for Women-Owned Businesses
Though limited in their availability, grants for women-owned businesses are often seen as the best scenario for business financing. By obtaining funding through grant programs, women entrepreneurs can fund their businesses for growth without divesting equity or subjecting themselves to the pressure of a strict loan repayment schedule.
The Amber Grant
For certain microbusiness owners, the smallest amount of funding can make the difference in achieving their business goals. That's the idea behind the Amber Grant program, named in honor of a nineteen-year-old aspiring entrepreneur who sadly passed away before her dream was realized. Through small grants of $500 to $2,500 awarded on a monthly basis, this grant program continues to help young female entrepreneurs move forward in the journey of launching their small businesses.
SBA InnovateHER Business Challenge
The U.S. Small Business Administration runs the InnovateHer Business Challenge, an annual program that offers $70,000 total in grant funding to three winners. Applicants must work with one of the program's host organizations — including several universities, accelerators and local business development organizations — to submit an innovative business plan. Successful applicants will go through local semifinal and final rounds of selection before competing for the national prize.
Eileen Fisher Women-Owned Business Grant Program
This annual women-owned business grant program awards $120,000 in grants to up to 10 grant recipients. Woman-owned businesses with less than $1 million in annual revenue may be eligible for grant funding to expand their businesses. The selection committee places particular emphasis on businesses with an environmentally or socially conscious mission, as evidenced by the application's executive summary and personal essay components.
Angel Investors and Venture Capital Options for Women
One unfortunate factor holding back women entrepreneurs is the extreme disparity in their likelihood to seek capital funding compared to their male counterparts. This disparity was described by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who once shared the story of going to the office of a venture capital firm for a meeting, only to find that the firm's principal could not direct her to the women's restroom. He didn't know where it was because no one had ever asked; no women had ever come into his office to seek funding before.
While there may be no quick fix to this incredible gender divide in the capital investment world, these organizations are doing their best to elevate women-owned businesses through tailored financing opportunities:
Since 1999, this nonprofit organization has focused on Astia's mission of promoting angel investment opportunities for women-owned businesses and propelling high-potential women entrepreneurs through a unique approach to capital financing.
Through Astia's proprietary Expert Sift program, women business owners can be quickly screened and connected to the program's network of angel investors. And because these investors have demonstrated a particular commitment to women entrepreneurs, those who apply can obtain not only financing but also expertise tailored to their particular needs and challenges as women in business.
Similar to Astia, Golden Seeds is another angel investment organization that offers seed funding along with connections and coaching opportunities to women entrepreneurs. Golden Seeds has invested more than $70 million in women-led companies since 2005, and that number continues to grow.
Golden Seeds focuses specifically on early-stage startups with large growth trajectories, so it's not the choice for women entrepreneurs on more of a small-business track. But if you're a woman on a mission to build a major enterprise, applying for funding through Golden Seeds may be the best decision you ever make for your business.
Who could be better to fund the endeavors of aspiring female entrepreneurs than women investors? As an all-female investment network, 37 Angels is on a mission both to increase the amount of funds available to women-owned businesses and to get more successful women entrepreneurs involved in the angel investing community.
Every two months, 37 Angels holds a pitch forum in which a select few aspiring entrepreneurs have the opportunity to pitch their ideas. Successful applicants come away with $50,000 to $150,000 in seed funding as well as a new network of resources and advisers to help grow their businesses.
Small Business Loans for Women
For some women in business, debt-based financing in the form of a small business loan remains the most tried and true method of obtaining funding. In addition to the many available borrowing options for entrepreneurs through banks and online alternative lenders, these loan programs offer some of the best financing options for women:
Elizabeth Street Capital
Through a partnership with Bank of America, women's apparel designer and business titan Tory Burch launched Elizabeth Street Capital with the goal of making small business loans more accessible for up-and-coming women entrepreneurs. The program matches women entrepreneurs with at least two years in business and a satisfactory credit rating to local community lenders who have specific experience with underserved populations.
Union Bank's Diversity Lending Initiative
Though the rate of approval for small business loans from traditional banks continues at its historic low, Union Bank has more recently chosen to stand out from its industry in the effort to support small businesses — and women-owned businesses in particular. Union Bank's Woman-Owned Business Financing program offers loans and lines of credit of up to $50,000 for qualified applicants who have been in business at least two years.
SBA Loan Programs
While not specifically designated for women-owned businesses, the U.S. Small Business Administration's loan programs have historically made concerted efforts to equally represent female entrepreneurs and other minorities in its loan approvals. Women-owned businesses should consider applying for SBA-backed funding through the SBA 7(a), 504 or microloan programs to meet a wide variety of business needs.
Along with these options for business financing for women, the SBA's Woman-Owned Business Program is a great opportunity for female entrepreneurs to access education and other business development resources. Contact your local SBA office to determine what resources may be available to your small business through this program.
The SBA's loan programs saw a 66 percent increase in capital made available to women from 2009 to 2014, and that trend toward more financing options for women continues to rise. As momentum grows, we're likely to see more and more public and private opportunities for women entrepreneurs to gain business funding through grants, investors and specialized small business loans.
Financing from these funds and grants are subject to availability. Check source websites for details. Stay up-to-date on all the latest trends and insights for small and midsized business owners: Subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter.