Empowering Women

Daisy de la Rosa turned a “secret family recipe” into a business with a microloan from ACCION Chicago (image: ACCION Chicago).

By Maureen Kelleher

There’s no shortage of Chicago women making their mark on the global scene: Michelle Obama and Jennifer Hudson lead the list. But the women most likely to determine Chicago’s future as a global power are the ones you’ve never heard of.

The author

Maureen Kelleher is a freelance writer. She recently covered early childhood for Education Week. Previously she was an assistant editor at Catalyst Chicago, a newsmagazine covering urban education.

Like Daisy de la Rosa. This former medical receptionist and mother of four spearheaded the process of formalizing her family’s business selling gorditas, a type of Mexican cookie. While other family members baked the treats, she navigated the complex licensing process that would give them access to shelf space in chain stores selling groceries. “I love doing the paperwork,” she says.

“Doing the paperwork” required more money than the family had, but the business was too small for conventional lenders to touch. So de la Rosa turned to ACCION Chicago for a $2,500 microloan. With that small infusion of cash and support from her mother, who runs a clothing factory in Mexico, her packaged cookies were accepted by Walgreens on her second try. Today, her product, Gorditas Salazar, can be found in over 100 Chicago stores, including about two dozen Walgreens stores.

A supportive boyfriend and extended family have helped de la Rosa succeed. Other women like her—unmarried mothers raising one or more children—have less support. In the region, more than 60 percent of families in poverty are headed by single, working women earning less than $50,000 annually. Chicago’s leaders, both women and men, know that just as empowering women builds peace and prosperity in the developing world, so empowering women here can build wealth and security for the two-thirds of the region still locked out of the global economy.

Cuts in government programs and services are making this task harder. Recent changes to child care subsidies for working-poor families put many mothers in a catch-22: if they get a raise or a promotion, they could lose their eligibility for discounted child care, making the cost of working so expensive they’d have to quit their jobs altogether. Women losing services and benefits are only part of the problem. “When you cut those [government] jobs you’re cutting women workers,” notes K. Sujata, executive director of the Chicago Foundation for Women.

While chain bookstores close, Stacy Ratner, founder and president of Open Books, is thriving. The nonprofit social venture, located downtown at 213 W. Institute Place, funds its literacy programs by selling used books. (Image: © Paul Natkin via Open Books)

Support for entrepreneurs

At the same time, more women are following de la Rosa’s lead and launching their own businesses. “Some people say going into business in this economy is nutty, but it’s really not,” says Hedy Ratner of the Women’s Business Development Center, the oldest women-focused business center in the United States. There’s a raft of support available to Chicago’s women entrepreneurs, from established leaders like WBDC to growing partnerships like Mujeres Avanzando, a joint effort of three local nonprofits helping Latinas grow in leadership, career skills and financial savvy.

New efforts from government, the private sector and nonprofits are bolstering women as entrepreneurs and pioneers in non-traditional careers. Goldman Sachs is investing $25 million to develop 10,000 new businesses in five cities including Chicago, where women make up the majority of the inaugural cohort. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is retooling the Community Colleges of Chicago, partnering with private industry to ensure students get the job training they need for high-growth, high-wage careers. Health sciences at Malcolm X College and logistics at Olive-Harvey College are leading the way. Universities and independent nonprofits have earned the national spotlight for their efforts to mentor and support girls and women entering careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Late last year, Mayor Emanuel launched the Diversity Credit Program, which offers incentives to companies who subcontract with women- and minority-owned businesses on private projects. For every $3 companies subcontract, they will earn $1 of credit toward a bid on a city project, up to five percent of the bid. These credits could make a company the lowest bidder on a project. The idea was first proposed by Julia Stasch, now at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, when she worked on federal procurement in the General Services Administration under President Clinton.

Project Exploration mentors women and people of color exploring science fields. Pictured here, an intern at the University of Chicago Fossil Lab, 2009. (Image: Project Exploration CC by/nc/sa)

Summit contracts

Even the NATO Summit itself has become an opportunity for women. Lori Healey, chief of the host committee for the summit, has been on the front lines seeking women-owned vendors to participate in summit-related contracts.

While women insiders like Healey and Stasch wield considerable influence in City Hall, Chicago hasn’t seen a female mayor since Jane Byrne rode the blizzard of ’79 and her opponent’s poor showing on snow removal to a landslide victory. The future looks promising for women in government, though; 15 of Chicago’s 50 City Council members are women. With female representation at about 30 percent, Chicago has met a target the Federation of Canadian Municipalities hopes to meet by 2026. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is the metro area’s most powerful woman in government, and has made headway tackling the corruption and waste long a hallmark of “Crook County.”

The picture is bleaker for Chicago’s corporate women. In 2011, women made up only 15.6 percent of directors on the boards of Chicago’s 50 largest public companies. Less than 10 percent of those companies can claim women as top earners. While the share of new board positions held by women had been rising, last year it dropped to 20 percent and the number of women CEOs also fell.

Ameena Matthews, a former gang enforcer, challenges a group of young men to end violence. Her work is documented in a film, The Interrupters, which follows CeaseFire and the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention (Image: courtesy Kartemquin Films).

In the neighborhoods

Out in the neighborhoods, Chicago women bear a hefty share of the city’s intractable problems—violence, poor schooling, economic and health disparitites—and they are also leading the way on solutions. Take Angela Hurlock. An architect raised in the leafy suburb of Oak Park, she now lives with her family in a green home in South Chicago, a neighborhood on the city’s far southeast side that is slowly recovering from the devastating loss of its steel industry.

As executive director of Claretian Associates, a nonprofit housing developer and leader in community-building, Hurlock not only builds affordable, eco-friendly homes, she creates jobs, social services and peacemaking strategies to strengthen her community. She partners with CeaseFire, recently featured in the award-winning film “The Interrupters,” to intervene when residents’ disputes turn violent. Violence interrupters do whatever it takes to stop the cycle of violence. Sometimes this takes creativity, like encouraging families of gunshot victims to give blood. “If you give blood, you’re too dizzy to go out and shoot someone else,” she observes.

Often, family violence is the root of the problem. “When we think about domestic violence we think about women, but it goes all through the family,” Hurlock says. “Hurting people hurt other people. You have to deal with the situations that are hurting people while you are helping them not to hurt others.”

Women downtown want to ensure their neighborhood sisters have a strong voice in the city’s latest round of planning, from economics to culture. “We sit side by side with 100,000 or so women every year,” says Christine Bork, executive director of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago. Her goal is “to carry these voices we hear every day into an arena where people in power can make changes to help them.”

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