By Emma Vallelunga
At one point in time, business was a man’s world. Women dreamt of being more than just the secretary who only took his phone calls, scheduled his meetings or fetched his coffee. Today, those dreams are a reality, and women who run their own businesses can achieve greater success with the help of the WISE Women’s Business Center.
Funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration and hosted by the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, the WISE (Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship) WBC has provided business and economic resources, connections and counseling for women entrepreneurs in the Central New York area for more than 15 years.
Along with an advisory board of about 16 members, the center’s management team consists of three experienced and highly qualified women who are inspired by entrepreneurship, female empowerment and love of Syracuse.
Meghan Florkowski was appointed WISE director in November 2019. Her entrepreneurship experience came from her work leading various training programs at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at SU, including the Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship program, or V-WISE, which focused on inspiring women veterans to seek opportunities in business. As a former USO operations manager, a military transition career-training leader stationed in Germany and a military spouse, Florkowski saw the value in working for service organizations and helping people solve their problems.
“My favorite part of our work is when we can make those connections that we feel are truly going to take those businesses ahead,” Florkowski said. “Sometimes it’s just as simple as opening the door to an introduction that can make all the difference. I feel honored to get to do the work we do every day.”
For Kim Dryden, being WISE’s program manager was a perfect option for her when she joined the team last October. After receiving her MFA in documentary film-making in North Carolina and working as head of video for a tech start-up company in California, Dryden moved back to New York as a self-employed digital marketing and content creation consultant for small businesses and nonprofits in the Syracuse area.
“I wanted to find a way to plug back in to the Syracuse community after growing up here but not being here for so long,” Dryden said. “When the WISE position popped up, everything clicked. Entrepreneurship is one of the most empowering things you can do with your life if it’s what you want to do, and I didn’t know that was on the table for me either, so I love the idea of celebrating stories of women entrepreneurs that come from all different types of backgrounds.”
Carolyn Tucker became WISE’s administrative specialist in September. With a bachelor’s in communication studies from SUNY Oneonta and career backgrounds in customer service, operations and human resources, she served as a student services coordinator with SU’s University College where she became passionate about Syracuse and later heard about WISE’s open position.
“I really enjoyed that environment of teaching and learning, and I’ve always really liked being able to help people,” Tucker said. “One of my favorite things is getting to know the community and getting to see all the connections that I was already aware of downtown and in the greater area, so [it’s] knowing that you’re helping people to grab hold of some of that economic power that [women] are so often denied.”
The women working at WISE collaborate almost every day, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, their in-person interactions have become limited or nonexistent. The environment of both nonprofits and small businesses across the country has changed dramatically, but the center took those challenges in stride with many changes to its programming and accessibility for its clients.
Because Dryden’s position as program manager is grant-funded until the end of the year, her main role at WISE is all about combating COVID. Dryden said many women have reached out asking for business advice, questions and counseling for problems that seemed more complicated because of the pandemic.
In order to dispel some of that confusion, the center created the Small Business Resilience Course on its website. The program offers seven easily accessible and free-to-download modules that give entrepreneurs lessons and tips on topics like mitigating the economic impact of the pandemic, protecting employees and even working remotely. Dryden said the SBRC was a good example of the center’s responsiveness to people’s needs by providing them with important information.
“If you look at the modules, they at first maybe feel a little scattershot, but the way that it happened was through focus groups, so it’s very tailored to what the local community needs,” Dryden said. “We’re taking a lot of that material, and [we’re] updating, repurposing and trying to find new ways to get it out there.”
Another initiative the center provides is free small business counseling. Its three counselors, Barb Stone, Caeresa Richardson and Lacey Roy-Ciciriello, are experienced business owners in the Syracuse area who work with WISE to help others achieve their goals. Tucker said each client who fills out a counseling intake form on the center’s website is matched by the management team with a counselor.
“They can talk about strategizing for their business, help with a business plan, get marketing assistance, really anything that they need, they can talk about with their business counselor,” Tucker said. “We also do our best to connect that client, in addition to the business counselor, to other mentors or resources, so it allows them to get really personal connections outside of their counselor as well.”
In year’s past, the center organized a WISE Symposium in collaboration with the Whitman School every April. It featured a wide range of keynote speakers and networking opportunities for women leaders to share insights and empower others in their own business models.
But the pandemic put the 18th annual symposium on hold in 2020. Florkowski said there are no solid plans to host a symposium in 2021, but the center is brainstorming other event opportunities for the future and is hoping to gather safely in-person again soon.
To learn more about the WISE WBC, visit their website at wisecenter.org, email them at [email protected] or call (315) 443-8634.