After more than 25 years of helping low-income women find success as small business owners, Women’s Initiative for Self Employment (WI) ceased operations on April 7, 2014. The move came without notice and caught students and graduates of the program, which had just unveiled a new website, by surprise. It is not clear whether the closure will be temporary or permanent.
Women’s Initiative representatives did not return requests for comment by press time. Calls to the San Francisco and New York City offices of the organization went to voicemail. The outgoing message at the Oakland office, which was also the headquarters of the group, said, in part: “It is with heavy heart that we pass along the following message from the board of directors: We have been going through a very rough period financially. The situation has now reached the point that, without an infusion of funds, we can no longer continue to operate.”
In an interview with this reporter three weeks earlier, WI CEO Lisa Christian had discussed plans for the future and gave no indication that the nonprofit was in trouble.
The spiffy new website touts the economic impacts of the group: $30 return for every $1 invested in WI’s training, the fact that the average graduate contributes $531,811 to the local economy within the first five years and that 70 percent of graduates are still in business after five years, compared to the national average of 51 percent. The group claims to have trained 16,000 women in the San Francisco hub since it opened in 1988 and 12,000 in the East Bay hub, which opened in 1993. The New York hub opened less than two years ago and graduated its first classes in 2013. Women’s Initiative graduates have opened some of Oakland’s promising new businesses in recent years, including Bakesale Betty and Owl N Wood.
Women’s Initiative’s Facebook page has the following message:
“Women’s Initiative’s Board of Directors has made the decision to suspend operations until further notice, due to lack of funding. All previously scheduled appointments, classes, and organizational activities have been cancelled until further notice. If you have questions or concerns, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 510-287-3102. Please be advised that no one will be monitoring our social media so email or phone is the best mode for communication.”
Responses on Facebook ranged from dismay at canceled classes to expressions of sadness from alumnae to rallying cries to raise funds and organize to support current students and the organization as a whole. Some said the CEO’s salary was too high and linked to the organization’s Charity Navigator rating of 1 out of 4 stars.
The nonprofit’s IRS form 990 for 2012 (the most recent year available) provides a hint of fiscal danger. Revenue in that year was over $1 million less than the year before, and the group recorded an operating loss of almost $500,000.
“I was actually really shocked,” said Elisa Lewak, who attended the last class of a recent WI course in Oakland on April 4. Students were given surveys to fill out to help the nonprofit obtain future funding and no mention was made of impending closure. She found out the next day from a friend, a graduate of the program, who received notice of the closure from her Women’s Initiative SuccessLink coach.
“It was a really good course,“ said Lewak, who is starting a database development business. “They have a really good program.”
“They taught me where I can go for services, other places I can go,” she added. “So that’s what I’m doing.”