Profile: Wendy Baumann, Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation

Wendy Baumann is the President and Chief Vision Officer of the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC), a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that provides business and financial education, as well as access to fair capital and financial products, to entrepreneurs, business owners, and individuals who often face barriers to accessing traditional financing and financial resources. She has led WWBIC for 25 of its 31 years and is a graduate of University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee’s bachelor’s and master’s programs.

IFF: You studied education, psychology and sociology at the University of Milwaukee and have worked in Milwaukee for nearly 30 years. How has the landscape changed for nonprofits and small business over the years? What do you think is the greatest opportunity and greatest challenge for our city’s nonprofits and small businesses?

Baumann: Community economic development has become very hot. Entrepreneurship is on the map in the past 10 years – locally, statewide, nationally, globally – and that wasn’t always the case. Twenty-five years ago, WWBIC was one of the only lenders really supporting start-up businesses and micro businesses; now there are many more in the field supporting them and utilizing community economic development as part of a macro economic development plan.

In my mind, the old way of economic development for the city of Milwaukee and for the state was always about bringing back, if you will, the Foxconn – finding some big company to relocate here and be a huge employer in the area and all is good. We still want that – of course it’s very helpful to have a major corporation here – but now people are seeing that’s not the only strategy. More and more, people are seeing the importance of independent and locally-owned businesses, the importance of small manufacturing companies and small professional services and small business-to-business. We are realizing that these employers are an integral part of the overall plan.

I think there are more opportunities for entrepreneurs because there are more resources. There are pluses and minuses to this. The challenge might be sometimes weighing all those different resources to find the right fit. It might seem confusing and convoluted, and business owners might not be sure where to turn. But the positive is that there really is an ecosystem, and I think it is working together better – it’s a little bit norming for entrepreneurs.

IFF: You have grown WWBIC from an annual operating budget of about $200,000 with two staff to a staff of 50 with an annual operating budget of more than $5.7 million. How have you managed the growth while staying mission-focused?

Baumann: I think we’ve stayed very mission-focused. WWBIC was actually born out of the women’s economic empowerment movement and born out of the micro-lending movement. From the beginning, we were always focused on women, and more specifically minority women and women of lower income or lower wealth. WWBIC is now 31 years old, and we remain dedicated to those for whom there is still inequity and still an unlevel playing field – still very much focused on women, but also on minorities, lower-wealth individuals, Veterans, formerly incarcerated individuals.

In terms of growth, I’ve said many times at WWBIC that we are not about growing to be an empire; we are growing and advancing our resources to serve a need. I still feel we could double, triple in size and still not meet all the need state-wide in Wisconsin, or in urban centers like Milwaukee and Racine, or in rural communities where there are far less resources.

Our growth is not only in financial resources, but also in systems and platforms. Fifteen years ago, we had people mail us their loan applications – 15 pages of documents – and that was the way the world worked then. Now, of course, individuals can go online 24/7 to apply for a loan, and we can collect information in two stages to see if there are some steps we need to take before we advance a full loan application – maybe they need some classes, maybe we need to deal with some things we are seeing on their financials.

With that growth has been growth in people. Twenty-five years ago, it was literally just me and a part-time person; now our staff is over 50 people in five physical offices. I think we have a pretty strong presence in our target areas of greater Milwaukee, greater south east, and greater south central, and we’re picking up some good speed opening the new office in the northeast, specifically in Appleton, that’ll embrace 11 counties there. We already offer loans in those areas, but having a physical office will just swell that business education and lead to more loans in that market. We have a full-time person working virtually in the southwest area near Viroqua, and we have somebody way up north too.

So there’s been growth in dollars, growth in impact, growth in number of clients serviced, growth in loan portfolio, growth in physical offices, and a lot of growth in infrastructures and systems.

IFF: When has that growth been painful?

Baumann: It still is! I’m not sure ‘painful,’ but it would be foolish for any of us to think that this has just been rainbows and unicorns. There is a lot of perseverance and resiliency that goes along with hard and dedicated and challenging work. There have been many “no’s” along the way. We say at WWBIC that no is a prelude to yes. We do a lot of debriefs when things don’t go the way we want or the way we feel they should, and we learn from that. We’ve made our share of mistakes, but I’d say overall no fatal mistakes. One thing that really helps is being very well organized and planned – we plan the year, we know what our year goals and objectives are, we have three-year strategic plans, we have clear deliverables that roll up to overall goals, and we really work that strategic plan. And, as a CDFI, we’re very proud of being Aeris rated; there are over 1,000 CDFIs in the nation, and less than 100 are rated, so we put ourselves in that elite group of being a rated CDFI dedicated to micro and small business.

IFF: Tell us about your work at WWBIC and what you’re focused on right now.

Baumann: Our strategic plan has three key legs to it.

One leg is aligned growth – and that word ‘aligned’ is very important. We’re not growing just for growth’s sake. Part of that plan is already realized this year with some nice wins – opening our office in northeast Wisconsin, for example. We also became a Veteran’s Business Outreach Center (VBOC), which is funded through the Small Business Administration. For Veterans and military families, there’s often an un-level playing field, and our VBOC is all about providing business entrepreneurial resources to them – and that’s what we’ve done for 30-plus years, so it’s a very good fit. There are 21 VBOCs in the nation, and we were very thrilled to receive the five-year award for $1.5 million.

The second strategy is exemplary customer service. We really pride ourselves on customer service, and we continually think about how to serve them best. We’re analyzing our speed around lending – from being able to apply for loans online 24/7, to providing support during the loan process, to fine-tuning our closings and disbursements. I think we’re good, but we’d like to be great.

The third area of our strategic plan relates to measuring our social performance and impact and sharing it with the world. We’ve decided to hone in on three basic social indicators that can show some black-and-white impact: businesses started, jobs created, and credit scores improved.

IFF: You have shown incredible leadership in elevating the role of the female entrepreneur in the local and state economy, and in creating a different kind of public space, such as the Milwaukee Public Market. What advice would you give to other burgeoning social entrepreneurs that have traditionally been left out of the discussion?

Baumann: The first thing you need to do is really understand what resources are out there. There are incredible resources available online at your fingertips 24/7. And there are a lot of organizations, like WWBIC and CDFIs and other women’s business centers, that are able to really help you live. Then you need to decide what’s the right fit for you. Some people really need to press the flesh. Others need to do a lot of sharing and learning in a classroom setting. There are a lot of resources out there, and you need to take advantage of them in a positive way.

The second piece of advice would be about planning. It’s not about a business plan; it’s about business planning. Sometimes parts of the plan don’t exactly align, and you’re going to have to re-group, but you’ve got to keep planning, planning, planning. If you’re ahead, that’s good. How much ahead? Why? Could that be increased? If you’re behind, no good. Why? What can we do to intervene? And if you’re able to do that on your own, great. If you’re not, then it goes back to the first main point of resources – someone to help you go through those financial statements compared to projections and use your financials as a management tool.

IFF: You’ve been dedicated to this work and WWBIC for more than 24 years. What keeps you motivated and inspired?

Baumann: First, the entrepreneurs themselves. Sometimes when I read an article, or drive past a place, or speak with someone, I think: If it weren’t for WWBIC, they would not be in business. That’s a pretty cool feeling.

The second is our incredible staff. We have an amazing team, and I truly enjoying seeing them and spending time with them – more time than I get to spend with my family. We have many people who have been with us for 20 years, 15 years, 10 years, 8 years. There’s a real sense of pride in our work.

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