Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The City of Missoula will contribute $37,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding to help match a University of Montana grant to support a Women's Business Center east of downtown.

The program, partly funded by the Small Business Administration, will operate at the MonTEC facility across the river from the university campus. Funding received full support from the Missoula City Council on Wednesday.

“It's a program that provides coaching and access to training to aspiring and current female entrepreneurs and small business owners,” said Paul Gladen, director of Blackstone LaunchPad at UM. “Individuals who have a small business idea or existing business, and are looking for help on issues like marketing, financial health or other guidance, can get that coaching.”

The program, which operates within the Women's Entrepreneurial and Leadership Lab, or WELL, provides an array of programs and 1-on-1 coaching to help women in Montana create more equitable and prosperous futures.

Generally, women comprise just 33% of all entrepreneurs, even though they make up more than half the population. That under-representation has a number of reasons, Gladen said, including confidence and means.

“We know through our work that women face significant challenges as entrepreneurs and small-business owners,” he said. “We've done research that shows they think about and approach entrepreneurship differently than men. That peer-support piece is very valuable. Women often lack confident about whether they should be an entrepreneur.”

Morgan Slemberger, the director of WELL, said women entrepreneurs have long faced challenges launching and maintaining successful businesses.

Those challenges are made even greater in states like Montana, where technology is historically sparse. Many female incomes also fall below the nationwide average in the state, making it even more difficult to access business resources.

Despite the challenges, Slemberger said women-owned businesses in Montana are on the rise. According to a 2019 report released by American Express, the state is No. 10 in the country for a women’s ability to create jobs.

The late Missoula Mayor John Engen expressed support for placing a Women's Business Center in Missoula.

“To get the rare opportunity for Missoula to headquarter a statewide, SBA Women’s Business Center is a privilege, but it also is a way for the city to actually live its values," Engen said.

Members of the City Council this week placed their support by the $37,000 funding match to support the program.

“During the pandemic, a lot of women left the workforce disproportionately to men,” said council member Heidi West. “I think this is a great use of funds and hopefully it will allow those women who left the workforce and had to be creative and come up with their own business to really flesh it out and make it something long-lasting and sustainable.”