Updated March 28 at 6:28pm

Five Questions With: Nell Merlino

Founder and President of Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence talks about the challenges women in business face.

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Five Questions With: Nell Merlino


Nell Merlino is the founder and president of Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence, a nonprofit provider of business education and resources for women. Count Me In was founded in 1999 as the first online micro-lender and today continues to inspire female entrepreneurs to grow their businesses to the million dollar threshold with its Make Mine a Million $ Business (M3) program and other business growth initiatives throughout the country.

Merlino is a featured “innovator” on Providence’s Business Innovation Factory’s website and spoke at the 2009 BIF Conference.

“While there are more than a million men running businesses earning a million dollars a year in this country, 70 percent of women-owned businesses earn $50,000 or less each year. Women who do better usually get stuck at the $250,000 mark. Part of Merlino’s mission is to unravel the logic that creates that situation,” BIF-8 said.

Merlino spoke to PBN about the specific challenges women in business face.

PBN: You founded the first online micro-lender. How did that work? What challenges did you face?

MERLINO: We started as an online micro lender believing that access to financing was the greatest challenge facing women entrepreneurs. But what we came to understand was that there were actually plenty of women out there who could get financing in some way, shape or form, but their businesses weren’t growing. They remained small, in survival mode. So we evolved into an organization to help women grow their businesses into larger, sustainable enterprises, which yield’s much more impact in terms of economic activity.

PBN: What are the keys to the kingdom, so to speak? What are three unheard-of golden rules every startup should live by?

MERLINO: 1. Don’t work in isolation. After so many years of working with women entrepreneurs, we know that having a solid, reliable community resource is a key component to success for women entrepreneurs. Sitting alone in front of your computer trying to do everything and solve every challenge on your own is just not the way to grow.

Christine Cunneen is a 2006 Make Mine a Million $ Business Awardee whose company, Hire Image, provides background screening, drug testing and employment verification services and is based in Johnston. She told me that having access to the M3 community literally changed her life. “I was no longer alone in business, my struggles were no longer just my own,” she explained. “I now had a sisterhood that related and understood what I was going through every step of the way. Even today, I still turn to my M3 community for support, services and guidance. When my office building burned down, my M3 family was with me every step of the way helping me rebuild to bigger and better than before.”

You should also hire for any task that is taking you away from growing your business. So many women try to run every aspect of their business themselves, but by investing in the right staff, you can actually grow your business – and your revenues – much faster. Christine is also a great example of how this can work. “As a CPA I thought I didn’t need a bookkeeper,” she explained. “But I did. Bookkeeping was not going to help me grow my business; me out there selling is going to grow my business! This philosophy has helped my business to grow beyond the million dollar level.”

2. Test your ideas and expect and listen to resistance. There is great value in seeking advice from people with more experience, different backgrounds and various dispositions. But keep in mind that whenever you try to change and grow, you will undoubtedly experience some resistance from others, and perhaps even from yourself. Anticipate this, listen to the concerns, and have a strategy to incorporate the valid ones into your plan.

3. Know and go where the money is. Whether it's your banker, investors or customers, you need to know where your money is coming from. How are you developing and deepening these relationships? And what about generating revenue by increasing your sales? What are you doing to promote your products? This is crucial in letting potential customers know what you offer and showing banks and investors that you are a sound investment and on a solid growth track.

You also need to be sure you are doing what is going to make you the most money. To grow your business sustainably and increase revenues and profits you need to have a plan and focus your energy on implementing it effectively and on a clear timeline. Splitting that focus on three different “options” is like trying to be in three places at once: you’ll end up exhausted and with less quality, more confusion, and very limited growth. Commit to a plan and keep your vision clear and at the forefront.

PBN: In a place like the United States, what are the challenges that women entrepreneurs face? Do they really need that million-dollar “nudge”?

MERLINO: The fact of the matter is, while women-owned businesses represent nearly 40 percent of privately held companies in the U.S., the vast majority only reach up to $50,000 in annual revenues. Only 2.6 percent of their businesses reported more than $1 million in annual revenues, according to the 2010 Census. That’s compared to 6 percent of men-owned firms. Women entrepreneurs still have more limited access to business growth resources designed specifically to move small, single-employee businesses to larger sustainable ones.

Our country needs women owned businesses to move out of this rut to create jobs and help stimulate local economies. Moving 1,000 more women-owned businesses beyond the million dollar threshold would generate $1 billion in economic impact and at least 25,000 sustainable jobs nationwide.

PBN: You talk about a lot of women having psychological barriers to matching, or surpassing, men’s success in business. What are those barriers and how do we get past them (and not instill them in future generations?)

MERLINO:Fear of failure, lack of confidence, and the idea that as women that we have to do it all by ourselves.

In facing challenges, I find it helpful to ask myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Once I face that possibility and the consequences that go with it, some of that fear subsides because I know I can handle it.

I think it’s also important to trust your gut. If you don’t have confidence and respect for yourself and your own judgment, you’re less likely to listen to your heart and gut and you can miss out on a lot of good opportunities. By trusting your instincts, you can also avoid some serious messes. We’ve all had moments where we hesitated because something didn’t feel right, but for whatever reason we ignored it. Any time you have that feeling, step back and listen. Don’t make any decision until you’ve had a conversation with someone who knows you really well, who can help you figure out whether you’re being paranoid, or if you should actually walk away.

Finally, I tell every woman business owner I meet, “You can have it all as long as you don’t try to do it all.” This is a fact that seems to be a revelation to so many women. Ask for help! Whether it’s extra hours for a baby sitter, a virtual PA at work, or even having your groceries delivered, it can make a big difference in giving you more time to work on your business.

PBN: Have you done any micro-lending to women entrepreneurs in Rhode Island?

MERLINO: We have two Providence-area M3 Awardees that are both doing very well: Christine Cunneen of Hire Image LLC, in Johnston who is a very active member of our community, leading webinars and helping other women with advice and insights on growth; and Kelly Driscoll of Digication Inc., an education software firm, is based in Providence and has also gotten a lot of great attention for her company and is growing with some exciting national contracts.


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I think it is worth mentioning that women start businesses for very different reasons than men do. For example, many women start businesses because they need flexibility in their work schedules to care for children or other family members. Men rarely start businesses for this reason. The desire or need to care for family members and esp. to be available to their children also greatly inhibits or restricts women's ability - or even in some cases - their desire - to grow their business.

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