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SBA rolls out Online Women's Business Center

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by Clarissa A. French

SBJ Staff

Business is not just a man's world anymore.

The Small Business Administration rolled out the Online Women's Business Center on the World Wide Web Jan. 5, combining the business expertise and best practices of the nation's 63 SBA Women's Business Centers.

Offering 24-hour assistance in a free, interactive forum, Online Women's Business Center gives users access to SBA's Women's Business Centers in 36 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Located at www.onlinewbc. org, the site provides small business owners and entrepreneurs with information, resources and even online counseling, said SBA Administrator Aida Alvarez.

A little over a week after the site was unveiled, Alvarez and SBA staffers held a conference-call press conference with reporters who dialed in from all over the nation, including Missouri, Texas, Florida, California, New Mexico, Illinois, Washington, Alabama, Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia.

A warm reception. In its first week and two days of operation, Online Women's Business Center received 104,000 hits from 42 different countries, according to Sherrye Henry, director of SBA's Office of Women's Business Ownership. Hits came in from France, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Canada, Latvia and others.

In its first week, the center also received a Best of the Net award from Worldwide Women, whose site (at www.wwwomen. com) offers a directory of websites focused on women.

The establishment of the online center, and its almost instantaneous popularity, "points up the importance of women in the national and international business arena," Alvarez said. "One-third of all small businesses are women-owned, growing at twice the rate of all small businesses" in the United States, she added. According to SBA, one out of five American workers is employed with a woman-owned firm.

The Jan. 5 rollout of the Online Women's Business Center was announced by Alvarez and Vice President Al Gore. Alvarez said Gore's participation is significant, "part of his strong vision promoting the Internet and the information superhighway."

The online center was developed by the North Texas Women's Business Center.

How it happened. Alvarez said the SBA requested proposals for the online center from its women's business centers about a year and a half ago. "The best proposal came from the north Texas center in Dallas. They proceeded to develop a center in all the other centers," she said.

The cost of the online venture to date has included an allocation of $480,000 directly to the north Texas center, $200,000 in grants to women's business centers to transmit content to the site in Texas, and $315,000 in financial and in-kind contributions from corporate sponsors IBM, J.C. Penney, NationsBank, GTE and Avon.

Financing of actual Women's Business Centers is initially through a five-year grant. The federal dollars must be matched, and at the end of five years a center is on its own. In order to remain part of the network of centers, each operation has to have the credibility and staying power to exist on its own, Alvarez said.

"A while ago, there was a discussion that went on in the public arena about whether women should have their own centers or simply use existing centers," Alvarez said. The bottom-line resolution was that Congress decided to fund women's centers, she added.

However, access to the online business center is in no way restricted to women only. While the site will offer resources specific to women, it also offers resources and services useful to any businessperson or entrepreneur, Alvarez said.

Training programs. In addition to the various resources offered by SBA including those of the Small Business Development Centers and Senior Corps of Retired Executives, financing programs, marketing programs and online business counseling the Online Women's Business Center will also offer specialized seminars and online mentoring groups. "Long-distance learning is where we're headed," Alvarez said.

Meanwhile, for those who need training on Internet access before getting online, SBA's Women's Business Centers, Business Information Centers and Small Business Development Centers can help, Alvarez said.

Additionally, Alvarez said, the businessperson or entrepreneur does not necessarily have to own a computer to access online services. Internet access can be obtained via SBA centers, public libraries and schools.

Transcending geographical boundaries. "Geography has transcended the actual landscape; we are now traveling in space, if you will," Alvarez said. "The fact that this center can and is being accessed internationally is significant."

SBA is now working on translating the Online Women's Business Center site into other languages.

Alvarez said it would be a little while before the site is translated into Spanish, but "anyone online can access a Spanish-speaking counselor" via the Women's Business Center in Puerto Rico, accessible through the online center.

And there are plans to translate the site into other languages.

"All our international connections are begging for it," said Henry, of the Office of Women's Business Ownership. She said the site would probably be translated into Spanish in two months and into other languages in up to six months.

Alvarez added that SBA has met with representatives of other countries to talk about a trade net, bringing American and foreign companies together via the Internet.

"There is no doubt that the direction in which we are heading as a country, which I am here promoting at SBA, is globalization of business," she added.

Other programs. In addition to the Online Women's Business Center, SBA is using a network called Ace-Net to connect small businesses in search of venture capital with investors. And a pilot-program procurement network, Pro-Net, is connecting small, disadvantaged and minority-owned businesses with government departments for the purpose of establishing government contracts.

"Pro-Net is something that is still evolving, but we have 170,000 companies on it," Alvarez said.

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