I went to the Wichita Community Foundation’s Focus Forward program on Monday. What I discovered in that hour and a half, shook me to my core. I left that meeting feeling like I’d woken up from a long abusive relationship to finally realize how futile it is to hope that things will ever change in Wichita. This city I love, and that I’ve worked hard to make a better place, is not a friendly place for women in business.
I went home, and immediately opened my computer to research communities that are friendly to women-owned businesses. From the list I picked three cities and asked my friends on Facebook, “Would you rather live in Tampa, St. Louis or Minneapolis?” Immediately I got responses about the weather, quality of life, and other reasons for my friend’s geographical preferences. (For those of you playing Family Feud at home, Minneapolis was the #1 answer.) Then, a few people started asking if I was thinking of moving. The answer is “yes.”
I’ve known for a while now, that it’s hard to do business as a woman in Wichita. For the past 20 years I’ve been helping men and women entrepreneurs start and grow businesses; locally, nationally and Internationally. Clients I’ve advised, have gone on to create businesses that have made the quality of life better in Wichita, and to give our city more flavor and color. Literally. I am very proud of my contributions to our city’s economy. While I’ve been bad at keeping track of the number of businesses I’ve helped open, in 2011 I did keep track. That year I helped start 12 businesses, creating 95 jobs. It was a good year for start-ups!
Over these years, I’ve experienced the struggle of being a woman in business first-hand. I’ve seen how much easier it is for men to get start-up loans, rather than a pat on the head. I’ve had bankers explain, in great detail, how loans work, even when I tell them I’ve helped people obtain funding for 20 years. I’ve stood up to landlords and contractors who bully women and treat them like idiots, even when it’s obvious they aren’t. I’ve been told that articles about the Finishing School are only appropriate in March, during “Women’s Month,” as if a business promoting women’s empowerment isn’t valuable enough news the rest of the year. I’ve seen myself, and other women, be totally ignored in business meetings by men who can’t even feign interest or respect in doing business with women. I have been stubbornly ignoring this, telling myself, “Well, that’s just the way it is, but I won’t let that stand in my way!”
Seeing the data at Monday’s presentation, slapped me with reality – what I knew all along. And I was in a dark, dark place. I felt like I’ve been beating my head against the wall for 20 years, for nothing. It was gut wrenching, huge crisis of faith. For the first time, I’ve had to ask myself, “If I were trying to run my consulting practice and the Finishing School in any other city, would it be much, much easier? Would I be happier somewhere else, if it didn’t feel like I was constantly walking through tar to do business? Do I really want to start fresh at this point in my life?” The answer to all these questions for the first 24 hours was, “yes.” I’m not the only one who has been thinking this either. There are more people I know, who are working hard on passion projects in the community, that have come to the same realization as me.
At the meeting I learned that Wichita’s economy has been in negative growth since 2010, a situation only a handful of cities are in. We are still in a recession. Some of the reason for this, is that Wichita doesn’t let women play. We have the fourth-largest wage gap in the United States! Women in Wichita make only 64 percent of what the men here do. (FYI: The national average is 79 percent.) We’re losing talent, especially educated women and minorities under 45, because of this situation. Our economy could be twice as powerful, if only the half of the population that are women, would be allowed to participate. It may not be a silver bullet to a thriving economy, but it certainly is a start.
Maybe because I was worn out, when I hit the 25th hour of being enraged about this reality, the thought hit me, “No! We’ve got to try to change this.” Thanks to the Turning Anger into Power class with Sarah Ellen, I started thinking about how to can go from “oh hell no,” to “now what?” I saw Finishing School member Britten Kuckelman on Facebook, talking about the meeting, and offering to meet with any of her friends that wanted to get together to discuss it. I knew I needed perspective. Since part of why I opened the Finishing School is to come together when the going gets tough, I offered to host a group discussion.
We jumped to action and lined up a panel of amazing women in business who immediately agreed to be part of this event. By Thursday morning, we had everything lined up and I put a call in to woman-friendly Eagle business reporter Carrie Rengers, leaving her the message, “Carrie, I’m fixin’ to make some trouble!” Of course, I knew that would get an immediate return call. By 1 pm that afternoon, the digital version of the story was on Kansas.com, and it came out in print on Friday. I am thrilled to say that within 24 hours of our announcement, the class has completely filled up and we’re looking for another place, close to downtown, to allow as many women – and men - as want to come be part of the discussion.
The event, Conversation to Action, will take place on Thursday, June 28, location to be announced. Doors will open at 6:30 pm, and the program will start at 7 pm. We’ll wrap up 8:30ish. We’ll have a short panel discussion, then get to the real work of coming up with solutions to impact this situation. For this event, in lieu of a ticket fee, we are asking for a $5 donation that will go to a local charity to benefit women.
To make this happen, we must come together. I don’t see this as a onetime event. If you can’t make it this time, you will have another opportunity. It is my goal to bring together women that are active in many women’s organizations and want to work on action steps. If there are too many people, trying to do the same things, our efforts become dispersed and weakened. We’ve been trying this for too long, and it doesn’t work. If we can get more organizations working within their memberships, while coordinating together, we will rule the world!
I know this isn’t easy to read. Believe me, it hasn’t been easy to write it. I haven’t made any hard decision to stay or go, but I am going to see what we can do in the short-term. I can’t ignore this anymore. I don’t have time. Thanks to my natural Polly Anna attitude, I’m still hoping we can claim our city - to make it better for everyone. I don’t know what that looks like right now, but I’m really hoping to get some perspective and clarity at the Conversations to Action. Won’t you join us for the first conversation?
Join us for this panel discussion on what may be holding women back in Wichita, how to make the current climate work for you, and insightful action steps for shaping the future of Wichita’s business community.