New Study Says Arkansas Women of Color Face Uphill Battle for Entrepreneurship

The Women’s Foundation of Arkansas partnered with the University of Central Arkansas to create the “Women of Color Business Owners and Entrepreneurs in Arkansas” report, which describes the challenges, opportunities, barriers and resource gaps Arkansas’ women of color business owners and entrepreneurs experience. 

“Many of the resources that Arkansas offers to entrepreneurs aren’t reaching women of color business owners,” said Anna Beth Gorman, executive director of the WFA. “Women of color business owners have basically had to figure it out on their own because of systemic barriers.”

Small businesses owned by women of color were hit particularly hard by the economic impact of the pandemic, and those women received very little support. But even with the addition of health, employment and child care burdens on top of the many existing barriers to entrepreneurship, women of color continue to open businesses at extraordinary rates, according to the study.

The report, which builds on previous research by UCA identifying entrepreneurship as a key driver of women’s economic mobility in Arkansas, highlights the voices and experiences of women of color entrepreneurs and business owners. Researchers surveyed and interviewed more than 150 entrepreneurs to reveal a clear picture of Arkansas’ fragmented entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Some of the primary issues revolve around problematic gaps that exist in policy, culture, skillset and financial resources that women of color business owners are able to access. 

These women continue to encounter ongoing racial bias and discrimination in accessing capital and critical business support, challenges that have only been amplified during the past year. According to the new survey, access to capital was the top barrier for participants as they started their businesses in Arkansas. Racial and gender biases were cited as the second most significant barriers for women of color business owners and entrepreneurs.

The new findings demonstrate that Arkansas’ business ecosystem was not designed to serve populations who struggle with connectivity and capacity issues, such as those exacerbated by the pandemic.

In response, the WFA will utilize its connections within Arkansas’ entrepreneurial support ecosystem to engage entrepreneurial support organizations in Arkansas and provide the technical assistance women-owned businesses need to thrive, along with training, support and collaborative design. 

Credit: Jason Masters

“Our aim is to work with women of color to create an innovative model of end-to-end entrepreneur support while also working to dismantle barriers they face to accessing critical resources,” Gorman said. “This report shows that the state and philanthropy need to take immediate action to support women of color entrepreneurs.”

The WFA launched the Arkansas Women’s Economic Mobility Hub this year, which will center on Women Owned, a model program developed in response to the pandemic. It will focus on helping women get greater access to financial, social and human capital, and will educate the ecosystem on how to collaboratively support women-owned business, particularly those owned by women of color.  

“Of course individually people care about their personal success and the success of their families, that is a common desire,” Gorman said. “So it should follow that everyone should care about the challenges that particular groups of people face achieving success, because it does impact individual success. Understanding the challenges and barriers unique to women of color pursuing business ownership makes everyone more aware of the larger entrepreneurial ecosystem. Women of color historically have had limited access to capital.”

In addition to the WFA report, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation released commissioned reports on who in Arkansas is accessing capital, where you can see women of color are the least likely to receive traditional lending support. Only when we start to recognize the challenges and failings of that ecosystem can we work to improve upon and create a more robust system that will impact all communities.

“Thriving businesses mean thriving communities, this is the nature of economic development,” Gorman said. “Our state will never reach its potential, something we all want, if groups of people are systemically deterred from participating.” 

Explore more of the resources and research by the WFA on their website


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