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On course to empower women business owners

An expanding partnership with Cornell University is helping more women of diverse backgrounds flourish as entrepreneurs

Women-owned businesses continue to help the U.S. economy grow at a healthy clip. They employ 9.4 million people, generate $1.9 trillion in annual revenues and account for 42% of all U.S. businesses.footnote1 A notable bright spot has been Black women’s entrepreneurship, which has more than doubled over the past decade.

Even with this progress, entrepreneurial-minded women face a myriad of cultural and structural obstacles, with Black and Hispanic/Latino women affected disproportionately. A 2019 study noted that women entrepreneurs routinely experience exclusion from networking opportunities, face barriers to funding, and are underestimated and overlooked.

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Skills-building to advance small businesses

To help women overcome such bias, Bank of America has expanded its Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell to offer 50,000 women an opportunity to participate in the only online Ivy League program offering a certificate in women’s entrepreneurship at no cost. The initiative is a demonstration of how the company continues to deliver on its $1.25 billion, five-year commitment to advance racial equality and economic opportunity. Additionally, the Institute has developed a Spanish language curriculum and hired Spanish-speaking teaching assistants in order to more effectively reach Hispanic/Latino entrepreneurs. To date, 85% of enrollees have been Black.

Since launching in 2018, the program has offered enrolleesfootnote2 courses focused on areas such as finance, product development and marketing, leadership, communications and legal and compliance requirements as well as opportunities to build professional networks. Registration is open to anyone worldwide, regardless of gender, educational background or business stage.

Participating in the Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship has already paid off for these three graduates. Each has made strides with her business, be it expanding an established operation, launching a second venture or finding the confidence to forge ahead.

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Denisse Lamas, Hispanic Family Counseling

Courtesy Denisse Lamas, Christina Marie Noel

Filling a vital gap in her community

As a counselor working for social service agencies in the Orlando area, Denisse Lamas saw a need in her field: bilingual and culturally competent therapy for the local Hispanic/Latino community. Born in Puerto Rico, Lamas moved to Orlando in 1996 and went on to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work. Yet barred from accepting anything from clients on home visits or sharing a customary kiss on the cheek, Lamas felt constrained. “In my culture, turning down a cup of coffee is like turning down the person,” she says. “It’s disrespectful.”

To better serve this community, Lamas founded Hispanic Family Counseling in 2012. Nearly a decade later, the agency has more than 60 clinicians and more than 100 staff members within all departments, and it has served more than 9,000 clients in Central Florida. But because her background is as a clinician, Lamas knows she still has room to grow as an entrepreneur. “I’m always looking for ways to network, to advocate for the Hispanic community and to learn more as a leader,” she says. That led her to enroll in the Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell.

Taking what she learned in the program, Lamas refined her organization’s mission statement and added a new service that conducts the kinds of psychological tests needed for schools, pre-surgery exams, immigration applications and other outlets. “It gave me the tools to set up the program,” she says. “It’s not only helping us grow but also helping the community.” Plus, Lamas has been energized by the experience of working with other women leaders. “Listening to other females experience the same frustrations, discrimination and challenges, that’s really empowering and refreshing,” Lamas says. “It’s good to know you’re not the only one going through this.”

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Anh LyJordan, Accelerate the Climb

Courtesy Anh LyJordan

Forging a new path to help others like herself

As a first-generation college graduate, Anh LyJordan followed a familiar path after earning a degree in labor relations from Cornell University: a corporate job, law school and a position at a prestigious law firm. “I was doing what I was supposed to do to be the high-achieving first-gen graduate that everyone in the family expected,” LyJordan says. Unfulfilled, she became a trial attorney with the Department of Labor. Then nearly five years ago, she turned off that path altogether, moving her family from Washington, D.C., to Raleigh, North Carolina, where the lower cost of living would give her breathing room to figure out her next act: how to support first-generation college graduates.

Accelerate the Climb is the nonprofit she started that aims to build a supportive community for first-gen college grads making the transition from school to a career without the benefit of advice from family members who’ve made the same leap. With Accelerate the Climb, LyJordan is doing something she’s passionate about by helping schools create and build alumni networks.

Her career as a lawyer hadn’t prepared her for entrepreneurship, however, so in 2020 LyJordan enrolled in the Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell. Not only was she able to learn about the financial aspects of running a business, but she was also inspired. “Having these smart and confident women telling you that you could do it and giving you the knowledge was a really strong component,” LyJordan says. She also appreciated that the format allowed her to dip in and out of classes as time permitted. “It feels like a program for real working women with real lives,” she says.

Since completing the Cornell program, LyJordan has embarked on a second venture: providing legal and practical advice to anyone who has experienced workplace discrimination, with a focus on women and people of color. To get Exit Wisdom off the ground, she and a partner are first publishing an e-book, then expanding to a consulting business in 2022.

Fila Antwine

Fila Antwine, Emotional Wellness Coach

Courtesy Fila Antwine

Building confidence and finding belonging

For New York City’s Fila Antwine, one of its most beneficial aspects of the Cornell program was the sense of being a part of a community. “Women are often made to feel as though they aren’t suited to running a business,” she notes of her experience trying build her emotional wellness and personal coaching business. “The Cornell course shut that narrative down completely. Sharing so many common experiences with other women in the course, I came out of it with a greater sense of confidence and belonging.”

Antwine says that having access to industry professionals’ expertise and feedback as well the ability to give and receive support and guidance from other participants broadened the scope of her plans. A solo entrepreneur, she’s now taking steps to grow her team in key support areas such as administration and customer service so she can provide coaching and advice at scale — a critical opportunity she identified after seeing her customer base move online during the coronavirus pandemic.

The expansion of the Bank of America Institute for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Cornell is part of the bank’s $1.25 billion, five-year commitment to advance racial equality and economic opportunity for Black and Hispanic/Latino communities. Learn more about the bank’s commitment to local nonprofits, small businesses, entrepreneurs and more.

While the coursework was designed with women entrepreneurs in mind, the online program is open to participants of any gender identity.