Count Me In Launches National Campaign to Put Women in Business

Washington, DC, March 28 -- A new source of funds is in the works for women who want to start or expand their own businesses, Nell Merlino and Iris Burnett, founders of Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence announced today at a meeting at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Count Me In is a new Internet-based national organization that will raise money from women in $5 contributions. The funds will be redistributed to women in the form of small business loans ranging from $500 to $10,000. Contributions to the fund can be made at the Web site,, which also provides a kit for organizing community fundraising drives and will provide applications for loans and scholarships for business seminars.

"Women own 38% of all businesses in the United States, but we continue to have less access to financing than male business owners," Merlino said. "Access to credit and capital remains the number one issue raised by self-employed and entrepreneurial women in every economic circumstance."

"Count Me In will be a powerful force for change, encouraging financial institutions, government and businesses to meet women's growing demands for goods and services and respond to the capital and credit needs of all women," said Steve Alesio, President, American Express Small Business Services, at the meeting.

Women tend to start smaller, service-related businesses, which require smaller amounts of start-up money, making them unattractive to traditional lending institutions.

"A woman needing $3,000 to make a down payment on a van for a senior shuttle service isn't going to get her foot in the door at most banks," Jill Kianka, CEO of FoolMart, the e-commerce subsidiary of the Motley Fool, and Count Me In Advisory Board member, said at the conference.

Even women with ambitious loan needs that are attractive to banks find their credit history - or lack of it - works against them. Without hard assets and with a credit history damaged by divorce or other life circumstances, it's almost impossible to secure a bank loan.

"We have plenty of examples on Wall Street of people who started out with very little and built successful businesses. There's no reason that women with minimal or nontraditional lending experiences should forever keep a woman from being able to raise capital," said Marianne Spraggins, Senior Managing Director of Smith Whiley & Company.

With this in mind, Count Me In will develop a more "woman appropriate" credit scoring technique, which will evaluate business potential and a woman's capacity to take advantage of opportunities, like educational seminars, that can help her succeed.

Organizers have secured start-up funds from a number of businesses and foundations, including The American Express Foundation; the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, BP Amoco Corporation, the Rockefeller Family Foundation, the Friedman Family Fund and Reebok International. But they are counting on a groundswell of enthusiasm, and a sense of community among women, to raise much of the first year goal of $25 million for the loan fund.

"We are asking people to donate a minimum of $5 to Count Me In because that is an amount most women can afford. Of course there will be people who want to donate more, and we are encouraging women to raise and collect money in groups and to donate on behalf of each other," Burnett said.

The organizers are no strangers to starting national movements. Merlino was the force behind Take Our Daughters to Work Day, a hugely popular annual event now in its eighth year. Burnett was an executive with USA Networks and served as Chief of Staff at the United States Information Agency, where she helped start the White House office on women.

They expect the fund to be self-sustaining, and plan to remain independent. The loans will have fixed rates at 2% to4% over prime, with repayment terms ranging between 12 and 36 months, depending on the size of the loan.