Although any entrepreneur, female or male, faces challenges when starting a business, women are forced to overcome their own unique set of obstacles on the path to business ownership.

Research has found that overcoming these challenges isn’t always easy. In the fourth annual American Express OPEN State of Women-Owned Businesses report, released in March 2014, Iowa remained at the bottom when it comes to women-owned businesses. The state is ranked 49th in growth of the number of women-owned businesses and 51st in overall economic clout. Economic clout is based on growth in the number of businesses, the revenues of those businesses and the number of people employed at those businesses during 1997-2014. 

Two years ago, Iowa was ranked 50th and 51st, respectively, in the same study.

While Iowa is trying several ways to move the state from the bottom of the list, one solution is tailoring education specifically to potential women business owners to ensure greater success in overcoming challenges.


Learning the skills needed to tackle challenges is essential to starting a successful business, according to Rowena Crosbie, founder and president of Tero International Inc., a Clive-based business specializing in interpersonal skills training. Speaking from professional experience, as well as from the perspective of a woman who started her own business, Crosbie said the challenges facing potential women business owners usually fall into two categories: challenges they can overcome and barriers women can’t change.

“The first set of challenges lie within the entrepreneur herself,” Crosbie said. “There’s this misconception that all she needs is a (business) plan and access to capital. That’s not true. There are a lot of skills and knowledge she needs, and she needs to acquire those skills. She may be excited, but if she doesn’t have the skills to sell her business, she’s going to hold herself back.” 

The skills they lack vary from woman to woman, but common ones include lack of confidence and low self-esteem, according to Amelia Lobo, director of small business programs at the Women’s Business Center, a resource offered through the Iowa Center for Economic Success. They may also lack the skills needed to write a business plan, implement it and effectively market the business once it’s started. 

Tom Swartwood, assistant director of the Buchanan Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Drake University and founder of the college’s Startup Business Boot Camp for Women, said women often lack access to role models, mentors and a support structure.

“Iowa and the Midwest in general tend to be more modest,” Swartwood said. “We don’t toot our own horns, but that doesn’t work in startup mode. You have to tell people your story, but you need an audience to do that. Men are more comfortable finding and telling that audience.”

The second set of challenges are more external barriers, including funding, government and legislative challenges. Access to capital is a tough barrier to overcome, Crosbie said, since most women start businesses in the service sector and it’s hard for banks to determine the risk when lending to these women. Often, they’re asked for their husband’s income or to put their home up for collateral, Crosbie added.

“The banking industry, for the most part, still follows the method of lending which revolves around assets, the collateral they need in order to offer a loan,” she said. “We still don’t have a good system in place that can appraise the risk of a service business.” 

Crosbie said women have resources at their disposal; many are just unaware of what’s available. The best type of education, though, should focus on helping women learn the skills needed to overcome both sets of challenges, she added.

“Where we see them getting cut short are on the soft skills, but these end up being harder to learn and more important to the business,” Crosbie said. 

What’s available in Greater Des Moines? In addition to statewide business organizations such as the Iowa chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners and Ascent Iowa, at least two entities offer specialized forms of education to help women overcome challenges in their quest to own a business. 



 Iowa Center for Economic Success
 8345 University Blvd., Suite F, Clive
 515-283-0940 |

The Women’s Business Center and its parent organization, the Iowa Center for Economic Success, is a nonprofit not only in its tax status but in its mission too, according to Executive Director Megan Milligan. 

“We believe Iowa needs more business and more business leaders -- that is our goal,” she said. “We believe the community wants to support more business and more women in business. And here, you get a lot for a little in terms of investment.”

Started more than 25 years ago, the Women’s Business Center began as part of ISED Ventures, now called the Iowa Center for Economic Success. The organization was created through a public-private partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration, and still receives a 50 percent match in funding from the SBA, up to $125,000 per year. 

The Women’s Business Center started primarily as a way to move women out of poverty, said Lobo, the organization’s director of small business programs. While many states have several centers, the Women’s Business Center in Des Moines is the only one of its kind in Iowa.

The Women’s Business Center takes a holistic, long-term approach to educating and nurturing both potential and existing women business owners, as well as those simply hoping to acquire better business skills. The center offers resources for women who need assistance developing skills ranging from writing a business plan to approaching bankers for financing to addressing digital literacy gaps.

“The women who come to us are not just trying to make a lateral transfer in their lives,” said Milligan. “These are women who want to elevate their financial game. They come to us because they want to make more money, but they also have to figure out how they’re going to do that and get their kids to day care.”

A large part of what the center offers is done through its BusinessPrep and BusinessLaunch courses, both of which are available to women considering business ownership.

The BusinessPrep class usually is the starting point for most women coming in with an idea or dream to start a business. Lobo said the course covers topics such as what it means to run a business and what the characteristics are of a successful business owner, and it does so without forcing women to commit to a longer course.

“She will come in with a general idea but not a concrete plan. Maybe she has entrepreneurial experience, but maybe she wants to explore a new idea but really lacks a specific skill set, like knowing how to communicate professionally or how to market a business,” Lobo said. “If they take the BusinessPrep class, we can identify the issues they need to work on in order to be successful in business.” 

The BusinessLaunch course is longer and offers more specific training for women. The six-week course teaches them what Lobo calls “hard skills.” The current course, which ends in April, has 23 participants enrolled and costs $350 per person, though many receive assistance through the center’s scholarship program. 

During the course, the staff also brings in industry experts as instructors. These include an accountant to talk about business taxes, an attorney who teaches participants how to correctly complete legal forms and university professors to show women how to market their businesses.

Participants also learn how to read a balance sheet, create a projected cash flow, write a marketing plan and read a profit-and-loss statement, among other things, Lobo said. 

Prior to enrolling in either course, women go through a verbal assessment to determine the best path. 

Once women take the courses, they continue using the center for other resources, including the one-on-one counseling and access to public and private financing, marketing and graphic design services, as well as legal resources. There is no additional cost for the women to use these services, and most are offered on a flexible schedule that includes nights and weekends. The center also hopes to soon offer child care to women who use it.

Last year’s BusinessLaunch courses netted 16 new businesses, Lobo said, resulting in 50 total jobs. Owners were able to access about $150,000 in capital through the center. 

As the Iowa Center for Economic Success, along with the Women’s Business Center, moves into the coming months, its staff is open to creating partnerships with businesses and individuals who want to serve as resources for future business owners. 

Meanwhile, Milligan said its up to women to do their research and determine what types of education and resources offer the best fit for their lives and skill sets.

“The ones who choose us need more than short-term. They need to stay with us for a while and build those relationships,” she said. “This place becomes an environment where women are able to, naturally and over time, get over those confidence issues and become professionally whole in an environment where they can let down their guard.”



Drake University
2507 University Ave., Des Moines 

Now in its third year, the Drake University Startup Business Boot Camp for Women is designed specifically for women who are considering business ownership and those who have already started navigating the waters of entrepreneurship.

Swartwood, assistant director of Drake’s entrepreneurial center, said the four-day boot camp, held over two weekends and twice per year, takes a specific approach to educating women who want to start a business. Part of that approach is connecting women with other successful women.

“What is critically important for us to see more women-owned businesses and women leaders is to see more successful women sharing their time and putting themselves out there as role models,” Swartwood said. “No one, male or female, gets ahead without a supporting network of mentors and followers. None of us should wait around. We need to put ourselves on that path.”

The boot camp started after the first American Express OPEN study was released in 2012, a report in which Iowa also ranked last overall in women-owned businesses. Around the same time, Cedar Rapids-based Ascent Iowa formed. Swartwood connected with Lydia Brown, Ascent’s founder, and the two joined forces in 2013. 

“(Ascent) offered training and mentoring to women-business owners on a broader platform, but didn’t have the curriculum for specific and targeted training,” Swartwood said.

The boot camp uses the Business Model Canvas, which gets to the heart of any new business. It focuses on potential business owners being able to clearly and concisely explain what their business is, who their customers will be, and how they plan to make the business a reality. If participants can answer those questions, they are ahead of the curve.

“Starting is hard. Pulling the trigger is hard. Getting out of our own way is hard,” Swartwood said. “A lot of what we do in the boot camp process is to demystify the process. … It’s intended to be a kick in the pants.”

The boot camp is held Friday night and Saturday over two weekends. The format includes a breakout session to help women determine their strengths. It also includes a lineup of speakers who talk about topics including financing, legal do’s and don’ts, and social media. Participants also learn how to pitch their businesses and, by the end of the boot camp, should be able to deliver a strong “elevator speech” to describe their business.

Last year, the boot camp was held in Cedar Rapids in addition to Des Moines. Cost is $150 per person. Skills are taught in short, practical presentations, Swartwood said. Ideally, eight to 12 women participate in each boot camp, a goal that’s usually reached, he added. 

Swartwood said the boot camp moves fast. He considers it a “test drive” for potential business owners, one that gives women access to Drake’s resources and potential mentors. 

“It’s not reasonable to expect participants to get a business out of two weekends. We don’t promise that, nor do we spend time on how to write a business plan,” Swartwood said, “but we do teach them how to develop and articulate a business model, and help them figure out how to create and get back value from their idea.”

Swartwood said he hopes the boot camp will eventually be held in additional locations across Iowa. He also hopes to one day add interactive workshops and make it available for online streaming.

“There are not enough women starting businesses,” Swartwood said. “We need to do something else. This is something else.” 



Silicia Boutchee    
Owner, founder, Eventfully Yours LLC
Des Moines

Eventually Yours LLC is a small business focusing on party rentals and event design. Boutchee participated in the BusinessLaunch course in 2010 and 2015.

When did you first realize you wanted to start a small business?

I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. My grandmother and grandfather owned a variety of small businesses, and my mother also had several in-home small businesses, one of which she currently operates part time. It’s called Char’s Touch. I tend to thrive when given the opportunity to grow something 
on my own and knowing I am responsible for my own success.  

What challenges held you back from starting your business? 

I struggled with how to put my business idea on paper. I had so many ideas, but I didn’t know how to communicate them. The BusinessLaunch course gave me step-by-step tools to guide me through the process. They provided examples and class participation for better understanding. They also brought in guest speakers, who gave me additional guidance. I’m still in touch with some of my “visiting professors” today.

How did you first learn about the BusinessLaunch course?

I was told about BusinessLaunch by a friend. I inquired online about the different programs and the courses offered through the Women’s Business Center.

Which aspect of the BusinessLaunch course was most helpful to you in starting your business? 

Understanding my business finances. BusinessLaunch stressed the importance of reviewing your financials on a monthly basis so you know what is coming in and going out. They also emphasized reviewing your sales on a quarterly basis, so you can figure out where sales come from. This gives me a better understanding of where my business is most profitable and where I 
may need some work. 

How did BusinessLaunch help you overcome the other challenges you first identified? 

As a small business owner, challenges never seem to end, but I also believe every challenge represents an opportunity. Attracting and retaining customers is a huge part of keeping your business afloat, which is correlated to your finances. Marketing also is a big deal. The center provided me with a graphic designer to assist me with my marketing ideas. She’s helping me turn my vision into stronger branding and design.

Why was the BusinessLaunch course the best option for you in becoming a small business owner? 

The Iowa Center for Economic Success continues to support my endeavors as a small business owner, long after I took the course. It can be costly trying 
to find the right resources. Their tools and resources play a key part in keeping my business sustainable. 

Ini Augustine
Owner, founder, SocialWise Media Group
West Des Moines | @MrsMadBiz

SocialWise Media Group manages social media for nonprofits, government entities and the finance and insurance industry, helping clients reach targeted audiences online through digital platforms.  Augustine participated in the boot camp in 2012. 

When did you first realize you wanted to start a small business? 

Around the time I started a family, I realized I would never be able to move my career ahead in corporate America. The scheduling wasn’t flexible enough, and I also didn’t have enough leeway to be efficient. 

What challenges held you back from starting your business? 

I had previously run a business and failed spectacularly. I had a lot of emotional baggage as a result. I was holding myself back out of fear.   

How was the boot camp most helpful to you in starting your business? 

The way the camp was organized where I was presenting and responsible for something each meeting. Most of us procrastinate, and I wasn’t able to do that. 


How did the boot camp help you overcome the other challenges? 

Just talking with other women helped give me more confidence that I could be successful. Doing your research and having a plan also helped. 

Why was the boot camp the best option for you in becoming a small business owner? 

It forced me to take action instead of make excuses. It also gave me a built-in community of advocates to which I could continue to reach out.

Jo Eckert
Assistant executive director, West Des Moines Business Incubator
West Des Moines

The West Des Moines Business Incubator was formed to foster a climate for entrepreneurial activity and to assist in the growth of small businesses within West Des Moines. The incubator has office space for 10 to 18 clients, and currently serves 14 small businesses. Eckert participated in the boot camp in 2014.

When did you first realize you wanted to start a small business?

For me, it was never in the cards. The West Des Moines Business Incubator had been in operation already and I was on the leadership committee when our management contract fell through. At that point, I had to jump in to make it work. If I didn’t, the incubator probably would have folded. 

What challenges did you encounter prior to participating in the boot camp?

I didn’t know anything about being an entrepreneur. I was learning it day by day. When I realized I was not only managing this business but operating it as well, I thought I needed to take all the classes I could.

How did you first learn about the startup business boot camp?

I knew Tom (Swartwood) through meeting him at different events. At that point, there wasn’t enough support for women entrepreneurs out there. For Tom to put on this camp and specifically target women, no one was doing that. 

Which aspect of the boot camp did you find most helpful?

They use the Business Model Canvas. No matter what business you’re in, that’s the right way to figure it out. It asks you all the questions you should think about going into business ownership. Tom is instrumental in teaching marketing. He drills it down with you to determine if it will be a worthwhile business and if it’s going to work. If it’s not a good idea, he will tell you. 

Why was the boot camp the best option for you?

It helped with my elevator pitch. I needed to use the Business Model Canvas to help steer where the incubator was going. Finally, it helps knowing there are others out there like me to talk to about problems and other challenges. One person might have an idea or solution the other didn’t think of. 

You also started a networking group for former boot camp participants. Talk about that.

The staff of Ascent wanted to create the monthly group. Since I have the space at the incubator, we opened it up to former participants. It’s held the first Saturday of every month. We get together and talk about three things: our biggest accomplishments, our biggest challenges and our next goals. It keeps everyone on their toes and keeps them thinking about it. It keeps that dialogue going.