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One Hundred and Three Days

By Dr. Terry Neese, Serial Entrepreneur, Small Business Advocate, International Relations Executive and Past NAWBO National President

It is widely believed there is no way a regular person can make a difference in Washington, DC. The concept that only large corporations, the wealthy 10 percent and large donor-backed organizations run Washington politics has become an accepted notion. Try to tell that to the women who persevered to navigate their way through Congress in record time and changed the small business community forever.

During the 1986 White House Conference on Small Business, a smart group of determined women gained invaluable experience while playing an instrumental role in the process. The group learned from their experience—discovering key issues holding back the growth of small business, especially a new class of women entrepreneurs. They took this knowledge and targeted passage of legislation designed to enhance this much-needed growth. The women’s secret weapon? SDWGGWT: Silk dress, white gloves and guerilla warfare tactics.

The challenge: 

Displeased does not describe how the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) felt after the leadership was presented with the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) press release highlighting data for U.S. small business ownership in the third-quarter of 1988. SBA statisticians failed to look at the demographic breakdown in their small business microscope. Since there was little data or focus on how fast women business ownership was growing in the United States, NAWBO’s then-president Gillian Rudd called a press conference on the U.S. Capitol steps to demand that the SBA focus on the exponential growth of women entrepreneurs in the country, as well as the need for access to capital and other key resources that would enable them to continue their growth and create jobs for Americans. In 1988, women were not able to borrow money without the signature of a man, whether he be a father, a spouse or a son. Just 28 short years ago, these women serving as agents of change helped change the face of small business in America and paved the road toward economic diversity.

The play-by-play:

  • At lightning speed on July 14, 1988, House Bill 5050 was introduced in the 100th Congress of the United States of America. The bill amended the Small Business Act; establishing programs and initiating efforts to assist the development of small business concerns owned and controlled by women.
  • On August 10, 1988, a committee voted to issue a report to the full chamber (U.S. House of Representatives) recommending that the bill be considered further. Only about 1 in 4 bills are reported out of committee.
  • On October 3, 1988, the legislation passed the House of Representatives and went to the Senate.
  • On October 11, 1988, the Senate passed H.R. 5050 with changes and sent it back to the House for approval. Acceptance was made by Voice Vote, meaning that no record of individual votes was made.
  • On October 12, 1988, the bill was passed in the House by Voice Vote.
  • On October 25, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed H.R. 5050, making it the law of the land.   

A record that still holds today, only 103 days from introduction to passage, this unprecedented piece of legislation gave women business owners in the United States critical resources to build their enterprises. The group of women who strategized, working night and day advocating for this legislation, made their mark on history. Many in our nation’s capital began to ask, “Who are these women? What caused this movement?”

The players: 

NAWBO was founded in 1975. By the mid-‘80s, it had grown to include a significant number of chapters across the country. Their advocacy moved H.R. 5050 legislation quickly.

NAWBO leaders Gillian Rudd, Virginia Littlejohn, Susan Hager, Hope Eastman, Susan Winer, Laura Henderson, Olive Rosen, Charlotte Taylor, Susan Chaires and so many others championed this legislation through Congress at light speed. Polly Bergen, actress and entrepreneur, testified on behalf of NAWBO as well. 

NAWBO’s path to history was set. They had drawn a line in the sand, proving that women entrepreneurs were a force and could effectively and efficiently rally both grassroots and congressional leadership support to make a monumental and lasting impact (in only 103 days). Prior to this historical moment, data incorrectly classified most women business owners as daughters and housewives doing macramé or some type of domestic work, generating at most $1,000 dollars in annual revenues. H.R. 5050 shocked the nation when new statistics revealed women business owners in diversified industries were creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and generating billions of dollars in annual revenue. 

H.R. 5050 ensures the following resources:

  • The elimination of all individual state laws that required women to have a male relative sign for a business loan.
  • The establishment of the Women’s Business Center program.
  • The requirement that the U.S. Census Bureau include C corporations when presenting data on women-owned enterprises. Prior to the inclusion of this data, statistics for women business owners were not accurate and diminished the vital contribution women were making in the business world.
    • Per NAWBO, by including women-owned C corporations, new data revealed “more than double the number of people employed by women-owned businesses and one-and-a-half times the dollars in revenue.”
  • The creation of the National Women’s Business Council (NWBC). This bipartisan council consists of women entrepreneurs and women’s organizations that advise the President, Congress and SBA on policy and program recommendations. 

My takeaway:

In 1988, serving NAWBO as Vice President of Appointments allowed me the privilege of ensuring that more women were selected to serve in the Reagan and Bush Administrations. By 1990, being sworn in as NAWBO’s national president meant spending a great deal of my term working with the SBA to implement the new tenets of H.R. 5050.

Since that time, NAWBO has continued to grow. It was involved in the 1995 White House Conference on Small Business. The organization has and will continue to advocate for greater access to health care options, more access to government contracts and fewer regulations strangling the growth of small business. Thanks to NAWBO’s efforts and partnerships with other women’s groups, today we know there are more than 9 million women business owners employing over 20 million workers and generating more than $1 trillion in annual revenues. 

Women entrepreneurs don’t want a handout. Like all entrepreneurs, women want a level playing field because they can play and win on any field, at any time. Thanks to H.R. 5050, women’s business ownership has become a career that many young girls aspire to, not only in the United States, but also around the world.