On March 22, the Women’s Social Entrepreneurship Center (WSEC) held their grand opening in East Oakland. Members of the community gathered near the corner of International Boulevard and Seminary Boulevard for a ribbon cutting ceremony, to tour the redesigned space and then mingle at Dogtown Sausage.
“For me, this is such a special moment because, as an undocumented woman, I never imagined that I’d be here opening a space like this,” WSEC Program Director and Mills College Alum Laura Flores said. “It is with women of color that we can uplift each other, that we find a space to grow, and I think that’s sort of the approach that we center here.”
WSEC has a mission to support self-identified women and non-binary individuals of color that want to start and grow their own social entrepreneurship ventures. To help accomplish this and foster social transformative change, the center offers a safe place where their clients can access the guidance, resources and community they need to progress past the historical, institutional and structural barriers that exist at multiple intersections of marginalization.
Guidant Financial, a small business financing company, found that female small business owners face challenges such as lack of capital, time management and managing benefits. In 2014, only 16% of conventional small business loans went to women. Funding is even more difficult for women of color to attain.
“There’s a lot of entrepreneurship services out there, but our approach is different in that its intersectional and it’s holistic and it’s about social impact not just starting your business,” Flores said. “It’s being able to tailor our trainings and our services to the experience of these women that have different intersecting identities and experiences with marginalization.”
On a high-level, WSEC offers consulting services. Going deeper, their staff also plans to fully access and understand the needs of their clients. Flores explained that this could include finding an English class for a non-native speaker or helping someone learn personal financial management before that of a business.
“Their personal finances, their emotion well-being, are all taken care of first, and as a priority, before they move onto building a business,” Flores said. “We believe success means all those things—making sure that they’re okay as a person.”
June Lee and Angel Burns, co-creative designers of the WSEC, formed a space for the center’s clients that is meant to be trauma-free, communal and inspirational. For instance, the room contains toys, in case clients need to bring their children, and a chalk board wall encourages people to be creative.
“It’s about changing the world. That’s all,” Lee said. “So, when you build spaces where people feel like they can come and be honored and try new things and take a risk and stuff things are going to change. Things are going to be transformative in that way.”
Rowena Brown, WSEC program coordinator and Mills student, said that as a result of the grand opening, and even prior, the center has been able to connect with a lot of community members and organizations engaged in similar work.
“It’s pretty cool just how many people showed up—‘I can help with this thing. I have this background. We want you to come and do a workshop with us,’” Brown said. “So, the workshops that are to come will be absolutely phenomenal.”
The center has formed partnerships and referral programs with Working Solutions, a provider of entrepreneurial microloans, and Uptima Business Bootcamp, which teaches high-level business development training. WSEC intends to build more partnerships with other organizations that align to their mission.
Mills students and alum from the Lorry I. Lokey School of Business and Public Policy founded and incubated WSEC under the direction of Dr. Darcelle Lahr, Mills professor of business and director of the Center for Transformative Action (CTA).
The CTA brings together students, policy makers and other leaders to contribute ideas that help community organizations addressing societal issues, be profitable and sustainable. The CTA also supports faculty-student research, plans workshops and arranges internships.
Conducting research for her dissertation at Mills, Lahr learned about the traumas that often pull women, particularly women of color, into the carceral system. These women are further traumatized in prison and, once again, coming out of the system. This led her to pilot one of WSEC’s signature programs, ReEntry and Beyond—Liberation through Entrepreneurship (RE-ABLE) as a component of her doctoral thesis.
Those formerly incarcerated, particularly women of color, face structural barriers to finding employment. The Prison Policy Institute found that the unemployment rate for people re-entering society is nearly five times higher than that of the general U.S. population.
“All my life I have been personally, deeply concerned with the multiple ways that our society can strip people of their health and of their dignity,” Lahr said. “I realized that I could make a difference by providing a path to true self sufficiency and economic mobility for returning women through entrepreneurship.”
WSEC is located at 1406 Seminary Ave. in East Oakland.
District 6 Councilmember Loren Taylor attended the center’s grand opening and shared in the support for WSEC.
“Social entrepreneurship in East Oakland is absolutely critical as we create a more vibrant economy here,” Taylor said. “I know that what is going to come out of [WSEC] will make a great contribution to our neighborhood, to our district and to our city.”