The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Sunday front page ran a feature on Women’s Initiative for Self Employment, with the headline Female entrepreneurs needed the Initiative. The gist:

A microenterprise training and microlending organization, Women’s Initiative has helped low-income women start or expand more than 1,600 businesses in Northern California.

The nonprofit is based in the Bay Area and is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Women, many of them Hispanic, pay $100 for a 20-week course in getting a business growing. It’s a fascinating story, with lots of examples. Here’s just the beginning of one of them:

A 37-year-old immigrant from Chile, Chef Guisell H. Osorio runs Sabores Del Sur, a food and catering company that specializes in South American cuisine.

“I’m surprised people say I can sell because I didn’t think I could,” Osorio said one morning at her weekly stand in San Francisco’s Alemany Farmers’ Market.

Osorio and thousands of other women have learned to do more than just sell. Through a 20-session business management course at Women’s Initiative, they’ve figured out how to come up with business plans, target their markets, analyze the competition, price their product or service, handle cash-flow projections, and do all the other things that entrepreneurs must.

When they graduate, some receive microloans from Women’s Initiative to start their enterprises. And all of them can benefit from the network of successful women who will be with them from graduation to the grave.

Reporter Patricia Yollin has a nice flair for details that make these examples come alive.

In San Francisco last year, eight graduates received first-time leaseholder grants of $9,000 apiece, with the assistance of the Mayor’s Office of Community Development, to help overcome a frequent problem: prohibitively high commercial rents.

“I looked for a year for a space to rent,” said Carmen Rios, 38, who grew up in Mexico City and received one of the grants.

She opened Rose Nails in August on Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. Her clients get manicures, pedicures, waxes and facials. The specialty is Latin American art nails, or encapsuladas, which can contain ribbons, flowers, snake skin, leaves or whatever.

Rios graduated from the business management course at Women’s Initiative in 1996. She worked at a travel agency and sold clothes before opening her salon.

“It took me 10 years,” Rios said. “It is very difficult. It is hard for Spanish women to find someone to believe in you.”

She said Women’s Initiative gave her confidence–and advice that continues to this day. “When you come to the United States, you are alone,” Rios said. “This was the first organization I can come to where they talk my language. I felt like I’m alive and I can survive.”

Her 17-year-old daughter helps out in the salon, where candles create an amber glow and the scent of rosewater is pervasive. Statues of San Martin Caballero and Our Lady of Guadalupe keep company with foot repair cream and dozens of bottles of nail polish.

Rios works more than 60 hours a week and has one employee. The salon operates nine hours a day, and has just started opening Sundays as well.

The headline seems wrong, vaguely critical of female entrepreneurs. But after reading the whole story, I’m sure that’s not intentional. For the record, when I started with newspapers long ago, reporters didn’t do headlines. Copy editors did. I’m guessing that’s still true today. So, needing initiative might sound too tough, but clearly these are women who can really use the help:

The agency has served more than 16,000 women in two decades. The average client is 41 years old, and 78 percent are women of color. Twenty-nine percent are single mothers, 15 percent have a disability, and 46 percent speak Spanish as their first or only language–which is why Women’s Initiative offers programs in Spanish. All of the women are struggling, with an average household income of only $13,000 a year, and some are illiterate.

I think this is a great story. We have some excellent organizations doing something like this already–especially the national network of Small Business Development Centers–but obviously there is room for more. And the focus on Hispanic and economically challenged means there is more to gain.

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Tim BerryTim Berry
Tim Berry

Tim Berry is the founder and chairman of Palo Alto Software and Bplans.com. Follow him on Twitter @Timberry.