A conversation with Jen Earle CEO of the US National Association of Women Business Owners

Jen Earle is the CEO of the US National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). She started a carrier as business owner, at the age of 25, in the music's industry. Ten years later, she launched, Savvy Ops, a consulting group to provide virtual operational support to the non-profit business world. As a philanthropist, Jen co-founded a family-friendly series of workshops, Kid-Formation, and she joined the start-up team to launch Fertile Action, a non-profit designed to help women affected by cancer become mothers.


 

You have been in the business world as an entrepreneur since you were 25. What motivated you to take this path?

I have always wanted to be a part of something bigger than me. And to be a part of something that did good, meaningful work. I wasn’t afraid of hard work—to be honest, it was all that I knew—and I wasn’t afraid of what I didn’t know. Knowing what I did about working for others versus being an employee, doing my own thing sounded very desirable. I think opportunity, challenge, freedom (or the thought of freedom), excitement and newness all motivated me into the world of entrepreneurship.

Your first experience was in the music industry. Can you tell us about this?

My first experience in running a company was when I was about 25 years old. I believed (and still do) that anything was possible. It was a 24/7 kind of business, but it was what I was used to after spending years after college working in production. We worked with clients and/or musicians at all hours of the day in a very fast-paced environment. We did really well, and that was thrilling in itself. But there were definitely growing pains and challenges—like having to find a spaghetti whistler within an hour or finding a studio to record an 80-piece orchestra with a limited budget and no time. We built out a music studio, and construction was a challenge with sound proofing, isolation booths and getting the vibe, look and feel right. Everything takes twice as long for twice as much. At the end of the day, however, it was like anything else. You have to produce a good product/service, have amazing customer service, work within the constraints of the contract and just keep going.

Have you experienced difficulties as a woman in this field?

I didn’t know that as a woman, I “should” experience difficulties in the business world, so I would say I didn’t know what I didn’t know. My partner at the time and I were young, and that was enticing for those in our world. They liked the story of a genius music composer (my partner) creating edgy scores. We were good at what we did, and we were really lucky. Looking back, I would say had I known there were organizations like NAWBO, I would have learned so much and felt a lot more support. I had to learn the hard way. I have to give credit to my parents though—they both always told me that I could do anything I wanted, and I believed them, so I was never looking for difficulties or impediments. Everything I encountered I considered a learning experience, but I didn’t put emphasis on the reason why. Was it because I was a woman? Maybe, but at the time, I didn’t think of it like that.

You’ve been the CEO of NAWBO since 2008. How did you come to join this organization and what motivated you?

I started working with NAWBO in 2008 as an independent contractor. When I parted ways with my then-partner and the music industry, I had a young son. I needed to figure out how I was going to find my way financially and raise a child on my own. What I knew was business, so I started offering virtual “assistance” if you will to small businesses and non-profits. That way, I could be there for my son, work from home and reinvent myself.

I didn’t know about NAWBO until I met a young entrepreneur who hired me to help with her business development. Alice (more on her later!) had a network of NAWBO members who were friends/clients from the NAWBO LA chapter. When NAWBO National was going through a transition from an outsource management company to an internal operating structure, Alice was hired to help and brought me along. I really owe my tenure with NAWBO to her. Without her, I am not sure how long it would have taken me to discover this amazing organization.

Once I started working with NAWBO, I saw that it aligned with all my buckets. I got to work toward building something so much bigger than me and do purpose-driven work to help make the world a better place. The board asked me to serve as CEO about six years ago, and to be honest, it was the board at the time that motivated me. We say, “Teamwork makes the dream work,” and I really felt a part of a dynamic team of dreamers and doers who believe as I do…that anything is possible.

Many studies talk about the negative impact of the pandemic for women business owners around the world. What’s the impact in your country?

We have seen a tremendous impact on women business owners in the United States, especially women business owners with school-aged children. NAWBO recently partnered with Gusto, the all-in-one small business payroll and benefits platform, to survey 1,199 female business owners. What we found is that 61% of women business owners with children at home report that school closures have impacted their business, and 30% of those owners reported scaling back due to childcare needs. Moreover, 20% of businesses reported women leaving jobs due to childcare needs, and 40% of businesses said that female workers were forced to reduce their hours to care for children. The United States government put together programs to support business owners, such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Still, unfortunately, our survey found that among women with school-aged children, just 59% reported receiving PPP loans. This rate is significantly below the 72% of all U.S. businesses that received a loan.

Before the pandemic, we would boast that women business owners in the U.S. represented the fastest growing economic sector, employing 9.4 million and generating $1.6 trillion in revenue. However, it seems the pandemic has erased a lot of these gains. According to a National Women’s Law Center analysis, the women’s labor force participation is at a 33-year low. According to Gusto’s data, through October 2020, women-owned businesses have recovered unemployment at a 133% lower rate than their male counterparts.

NAWBO continues to advocate on behalf of these women. We are continually talking to lawmakers in the U.S. to find ways to bring women business owners back to pre-pandemic levels. It will take children returning to school and the changing of societal norms around household responsibilities for women to reach the growth that was pushing the U.S. economy forward in the past several decades.

For the first time, a woman has been elected Vice President in the U.S. What impact do you think this will have on the advancement of women in key positions around the world?
We are proud to see Vice President Kamala Harris as the first woman and the first Black and Indian woman of color serving in such a critical role in our American democracy. As a women’s advocacy organization, we genuinely believe our nation hears women business owners’ voices when we have a seat at the table during tough conversations. We are encouraged by the Vice President’s willingness to work with our organization.

Also, Vice President Harris isn’t the only woman serving in a critical position. The Biden Administration has propped up women in many roles, including Isabel Guzman to lead the Small Business Administration (SBA). At NAWBO National, we work in close collaboration with the SBA and believe the new Administrator’s role will be crucial during this time of economic uncertainty as we continue to work to get capital into women business owners’ hands across America.
When we see women like these in critical leadership roles, it emboldens us to believe we can do the same. There are numerous young women in the United States today who now believe the presidency is within their reach.

You’ve been involved for a long time in many causes. Can you talk to us about them?

As a college student at the University of Notre Dame, I had a course on the Theology of Social Service. I think this course had the most impact on my life. I was charged with finding a “cause” in the community and then volunteering and journaling about it. What I learned is that I felt most alive when doing good—helping in a positive way or serving others. I chose a shelter for abused and runaway teenagers. It was the most fulfilling, but also the most difficult thing I have ever done. There were so many experiences of real-life sorrow, hardship and pain. My heart broke on a daily basis, but I also never felt so alive. I continued on with this work for a few years, and eventually moved back to California.

During my stint in the production world, I felt a lack of purpose. I was working to build something bigger than me for sure, but it was in the commercial production space, not in my true purpose of service. When I transitioned out of the industry, my canvas was blank—I could do anything. I met and began working with Alice, the amazing entrepreneur I previously spoke about. She was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after, so I spent a lot of time helping with her business, but also assisting with her medical needs when I could. I went with her to oncology appointments, and since she was just 30, to doctors who could help with fertility preservation since treatment could leave her infertile. We learned through the process that the preservation procedure would cost $20,000 and because of the income Alice earned the previous year, she didn’t qualify for financial aid. She was forced to ask her credit card company for a limit increase to pay for it.

That’s when we dreamed up My Vision Foundation (now Fertile Action) to educate people, increase access, create financial aid programs and work on legislative issues. We got the website up and running, and Alice pulled together a board of women who had gone through cancer treatment and preserved their fertility or were currently in the process. Four weeks later, we held our first fundraiser, where we raised enough seed money to start this important work. While I was only involved for a short time, Alice has created a fierce movement. Fertility preservation was a positive focus for me that felt more about the hope of life as opposed to the struggle for it.

It was Alice who introduced me to NAWBO, and my first few years of working with the organization, I had time and energy to devote to other causes. I was engaged with a local organization that had community service projects each month I did with my nieces. It was more of a parent/child thing, but my son visited his dad each weekend, so I borrowed my nieces to do it with me. We boxed food for the hungry, did art with homeless children and planted vegetables that were used by local soup kitchens. It was amazing to see the girls find light in service work and fun to share my passion for service with them.
My life now is all about the work I do with NAWBO. We are working to build our philanthropic arm, the NAWBO Institute for Entrepreneurial Development, which is a 501(c)3 non-profit educational foundation that seeks to provide opportunities for capacity building and organizational development for emerging and established women entrepreneurs. Through the NAWBO Institute, we aim to strengthen the wealth-creating capacity of women business owners and to promote economic development within the entrepreneurial community so that we can build a legacy of success for the next generation of women entrepreneurs.

Last question: Do you have a female role model who inspired you for your chosen career?

This is an exceedingly difficult question for me. I am surrounded by inspiring women on a day-to-day basis. An inspiring woman to me is any woman who creates the life she imagines for herself, starts something, builds a business from scratch or buys a company and makes it extraordinary.

I am inspired every day by the stories I hear of perseverance, innovation, success and even failure and how they pick themselves back up. These are real women, doing real life every day. It is hard, but they do it, and that, for me, is so inspiring. I am also inspired by our volunteers who give of themselves to help and inspire other women business owners for the sake of service and giving back.

My aunt dedicates her life to service—to helping others, helping the community and serving her family. She is purpose-driven in everything she does. She is always encouraging and assisting others in finding ways to give back to communities at home and abroad. People respect her for her kindness and love, and she will forever be my guiding light. Because of her, and all the amazing, selfless women in my life, I know I will live my best life if I live it with my heart.

 

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