Banks have not adequately pursued minority women entrepreneurs as customers, says Sharon G. Hadary, executive director of the Silver Spring, Md.-based National Foundation for Women Business Owners.

Some large regional banks, such as Banc One Corp., Columbus, Ohio, Wells Fargo & Co., San Francisco, and Charlotte, N.C.-based First Union Corp., have hired specialists to market loans and other business products to women and to members of minority groups. But most financial institutions have not taken minority women who own businesses seriously, Ms. Hadary said.

Though other factors may also contribute, that is the main reason these women are less likely than their white counterparts to have bank business loans, Ms. Hadary said.

In a yearend survey the group found that 60% of white women who owned businesses had bank loans for them but only 50% of Hispanic, 45% of Asian- American, 42% of Native American, and 38% of African-Americans did.

"Our economic leaders and deal makers have never focused on women of color," Ms. Hadary said. "We're hoping the financial institutions are going to sit up and say, 'We need to make sure we are getting to these people.'"

More than 600 women who own businesses were interviewed in the telephone survey. Of those who agreed to disclose their annual revenue, most said it was less than $500,000, according to Julie Weeks, the foundation's research director.

In 1996 eight million U.S. businesses-more than a third of the total - were owned by women, according to the foundation. One million of those businesses were owned by minority women.

Ms. Hadary said many lenders are just not aware of the number of female minority entrepreneurs out there.

Carmen Ramos, who started a management consulting company in 1991, said she built her business without bank credit because her first loan applications were rejected.

Ms. Ramos drained her 401(k) retirement plan for start-up capital and later used retained earnings to finance growth.

"For a while I felt: Why should I try to get a loan? They will just say no," said Ms. Ramos, whose clients include Fortune 100 companies and federal government agencies.

Ms. Ramos, who previously worked in Miami as the director of quality and marketing for Citibank International, recently applied to two banks, which she declined to name, for a Small Business Administration loan for working capital. She said she expects to hear within a month.

Veena M. Rao, who started a sports marketing and promotions firm in 1994 that has organized events for the basketball star Michael Jordan, said bankers were interested in her business.

Lenders from First Union and NationsBank Corp. called Ms. Rao to explain the borrowing process and offer loans. But, in the end, Ms. Rao decided she would rather not have an obligation to a bank. She funded the business with her own capital.

"I was very surprised that the process was so easy, and I was surprised that the bankers would canvass me," she said.

Lilian Lincoln, who founded a building maintenance company in 1978, said she has no trouble borrowing now because when she first started her firm she took a banker to dinner, persuaded him to give her a loan, and established a credit history.

But Ms. Lincoln said she fears the recent wave of bank mergers will hurt the chances of other minority women to develop similar relationships.

"You lose that personal contact, and establishing contacts are so important for small businesses," she said.

Les Dinkin, a director of the New York-based consulting firm Oliver Wyman & Co., said consolidation would affect the ability of all small- business owners to get access to lenders.

Banks have centralized their decision-making to reduce costs, he said. "It will become increasingly less likely that a customer could sit down with the authority who makes loan decisions."

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