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BALDWIN HILLS : Entrepreneurs Find Power in Numbers

March 21, 1993|ERIN J. AUBRY

After struggling three years as a first-time entrepreneur, Cathy Williamson finally found relief.

Four years ago, Williamson discovered the Assn. of Black Women Entrepreneurs Inc., a nonprofit organization founded by Dolores Ratcliffe, owner of Corita Communications, a publishing and entrepreneurial training company.

"When I first started out, I really felt alone," said Williamson, 41, owner of Citymed, a group of medical and chiropractic offices in the Crenshaw area. "But when I found Dolores' group, I found so much information, support and caring. We shared a lot of common problems."

The association provides networking, business workshops and emotional support for those who take the small-business plunge, Ratcliffe said.

"Entrepreneurs are so busy trying to make a buck, we need to provide opportunities for them to grow," she said. "Black women frequently have to start businesses from scratch. It was never dinner table talk in their families. They need constant guidance."

The association, which meets at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, started as an "economic round table" among Ratcliffe and four other business owners. The five agreed to buy only one another's products and services, turning to the outside only when they needed something that the cooperative could not provide.

By the end of a year, each member had increased individual sales by 20%, twice as much as they had hoped. With the same idea of mutual support, Ratcliffe launched the association in Los Angeles in 1984. The organization, now nationwide, has a roster of 500 members, two-thirds of them in Southern California.

Although the association was formed to address the unique problems of female African-American business owners, Ratcliffe began accepting applications from men a year after the organization was formed and they now make up about a third of the membership.

"The networking opportunities are great," said Gary Rafe, co-owner of three janitorial supply stores and a member of the association for four years. "I've made contacts with people all over the country. With the newsletter they put out and events they stage, you get it all."

The association stages conferences and seminars, awards scholarships to inner-city students and sponsors an annual program called Win-Tech, in which eight to 12 members are chosen for intensive hands-on training with corporate sponsors.

Another service that comes with the $56 annual membership is the "S.O.S. call," a trouble-shooting hot line that matches callers to professionals who are qualified to address their problems.

Sometimes, however, problems go beyond balancing a budget or interpreting spreadsheets. "One of our members who had a business in Beverly Hills walked in one morning and found swastikas on the wall," Ratcliffe said. "We made arrangements for her protection and helped her publicize the incident. You can hear and talk about things like this, but it's very different when you see it. Women tend to feel victimized, and quit, more quickly than men."

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