Starting a business can be difficult, and female business owners often face specific challenges. Nell Merlino knows that all too well. As a business owner herself, and a staunch supporter of women in the workplace, she knows the barriers women entrepreneurs often face and she’s determined to do something about them.
Merlino is the president of Strategy Communication Action in Manhattan and is also founder and president of Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence, a nonprofit committed to helping women grow their micro businesses into million-dollar enterprises.
As a lead proponent of women starting businesses, she was also the creative force behind the Ms. Foundation’s “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” campaign, which has encouraged millions of Americans to introduce young women to diverse career opportunities since its inception in 1993.
Merlino is also a member of the U.S. Department of State Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy, and was appointed a Pathways Envoy by the U.S. State Department to promote women’s business growth through South and North America.
Merlino’s passion for helping other women grow their businesses began after she encountered her first earnings standstill at her company. She realized, after conferring with other female business owners, that she was not the only one having trouble growing her business.
“I had come across U.S. Census data that noted only 250,000 or approximately 2.6 percent of all 10 million women-owned businesses were making $1 million or more in gross revenue compared to the 1 million male-owned businesses at $1 million,” Merlino said. “I knew there had to be a way to help myself and the thousands of businesswomen struggling to grow their businesses.”
With these disparate numbers in mind, Merlino set out to do something that would tip the balance in favor of women in business. And in 2000, she founded Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence as an online micro-lender for female entrepreneurs. Since then, the organization has evolved to cater to the needs of female business owners in the U.S. and provides a platform for women to learn and teach one another how to build successful businesses.
Count Me In offers three distinct programs for women. Make Mine a Million $ Business, the organization’s most lauded effort, provides female business owners with the tools, coaching and community they need to reach and cross the $1 million revenue threshold. The Women Veteran Entrepreneur Corps is a three-year business growth program for women who are military veterans or veteran spouses. And Urban Rebound is a coaching and training program that helps women with micro businesses reach $250,000 in revenues quickly and sustainably.
Through her position as president of Count Me In and CEO of her own company, Merlino has witnessed firsthand the unique challenges that women in business face. In her experience, the biggest obstacle for women in businesshas to do with many female business owners' desire to take on all aspects of the business. Merlino finds she is constantly coaching women on becoming better delegators.
“You can have it all as long as you don’t try to do it all,” Merlino said. “Women can feel like they have to do it for themselves or are the best person for every job, which leads to more time being spent working in their business rather than on their business,” she said.
Merlino said that the first responsibility female business owners need to start tasking others with is the production of goods or the delivery of services. She believes that time is a business owner’s most valuable resource, and is constantly encouraging women to put their time to good use by developing a system of delegation that is as brilliant as the product being made.
“If you’re in the cookie business, that means getting out there and selling your product and looking for opportunities to get you to the next level,” she said. “To grow, you need to hire a strong team to make the cookies. It’s working on your business, not just in it.”
Too often, Merlino said, business owners view hiring employees as a strain on revenue instead of an opportunity to make more money. In fact, she said, this lack of critical thinking about money is one of the greatest challenges facing the businesswomen she meets. She encourages them to step out of their comfort zones and take charge of their finances.
“Know and go where the money is,” Merlino said. “Whether it’s your banker, investors, or customers, you need to know where your money is coming from. You should constantly be developing and deepening these relationships.”
Women who own businesses also must learn how to make their money work for them, Merlino said. Though many women believe they need grow their business no further once they’ve made enough money to support themselves and their families, Merlino disagrees. Such women, she said, while successful, are misguided in the belief that by keeping their businesses small they are able to have more time with their families.
“This is the fallacy that I think is the worst,” Merlino said. “You believe that keeping the business small will allow you to do everything you want to do. But if you build the business bigger, then you will have more money and more time.”
So Merlino coaches women away from this line of thinking and teaches them how to grow their businesses gradually and logically.
“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,” said Merlino. “Commit to a plan, and keep your vision clear and at the forefront.”
Merlino’s years of experience also mean that she has seen and heard many ideas for businesses. She said the best way to know if a business idea will be successful is to ask questions and do research in the field.
“Ask yourself, ‘Is this product needed and wanted? Is there truly money to be made with this idea?’” she said. “A business that has the potential to appeal to different demographics and can be offered up in a variety of distribution channels is an indication that there is a potential for the business to grow and thrive.”
Merlino encourages women to be open to the professional feedback and constructive criticism they receive while trying out different business ideas or expanding an existing business, but she also believes that they need to be confident in their abilities in order to be successful.
“Having the right mindset is incredibly important,” Merlino said. “Be confident and don’t let fear of failure get in your way of succeeding.”
Merlino is confident that through programs like the ones offered by Count Me In, more women will become leaders in the world of business and in the world at large.
“I see how the world is changing,” Merlino said, “And I do my part to keep pushing. The women who grow their companies do the same.”