Like a Million Bucks: Women-led business group plans one more 2010 business competition.

photo by Eric Tadsen
Local entrepreneurs like Lisa Pertzborn-Whiting, founder and CEO of Imagination Trends, have found plenty of business value in Make Mine A Million competitions.

The nation’s soft economic condition has left many a business scrambling to simply survive, but you’d never know there was a recession from the upbeat Nell Merlino. While many forces are working against business and economic growth, Merlino and her leadership with Count Me In and Make Mine a Million (M3) keep pushing to help more women-led businesses reach the $1 million annual revenue mark.

“Pushy” wouldn’t exactly be the best way to describe Merlino or Laurie Benson, her Madison-based partner in entrepreneurship. “Encouraging” and “supportive” would be, especially as applications are being taken for another national business competition. This one will be held in San Francisco from Nov. 7-9, and if recent patterns hold true, a Wisconsin company could walk away with some hard-earned recognition.

Since Wisconsin officially became part of Make Mine a Million in 2007, Merlino has seen at least one female entrepreneur from the Badger State in virtually every business competition put on by “M3.”

“That is the coolest thing, that the work we did there continues to pay off in terms of the number of women from Wisconsin who are aware of the competition and apply,” Merlino said. “The last one in Houston, Lisa Pertzborn-Whiting was one of the winners, and she was very impressive.”

Pertzborn-Whiting, founder/CEO of Imagination Trends, a business that will top the $1 million mark this year, competed in the Make Mine a Million Business Competition in February, and she was amazed by the number of resources and networking connections that she made. Those connections, which include the mentoring of Laurie Benson, the founder of Inacom Information Systems, have led to the formation of strategic alliances that have been instrumental in managing the rapid growth of her business.

Benson was a judge in that earlier competition, but had to recuse herself when it came time to evaluate Imagination Trends. Since then, Benson has advised Pertzborn-Whiting on a number of business issues that confront her as Imagination Trends becomes one of Dane County’s fastest-growing businesses.

“Laurie has become my personal mentor,” Pertborn-Whiting noted. “Her commitment to me is to get me to that level where she can say, ‘You know what, you have the connections, and you’re successful. I’ve advised you. Now I’m going to go do it for somebody else.” She has been instrumental for contacts and for serving as a sounding board and she really questions and challenges us.

“Sometimes, we all think we have a really good idea. We need people from the outside to challenge our assumptions from time to time.”

For Benson’s part, she was most concerned with how Pertzborn-Whiting divides her time in this high-growth period. “She’s got excellent people around her,” Benson noted. “She has assembled a very professional team, but there are a lot of moving parts and you can’t get carried away with the excitement. What can you delegate? What can you not delegate? What do you have to hang onto, and what can you give, up?”

Getting to a Million
Women own about 48% of all businesses in the United States, or 9.1 million businesses in all, but only 2.6% have reached the $1 million level in annual revenue. M3’s business competitions recognize business excellence, provide needed business resources, and help the management of these companies discover what they need to “get to the next level.”

M3 would like to help one million women-led companies reach the $1 million revenue mark as soon as possible. Using older Census data (2010 results are not yet available), the organization has conducted a study with the consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton; they concluded that without an intervention, one million women would reach $1 million in annual revenue by 2045 in the natural course of events.

Apparently, M3 is that intervention that could fast-track things. “They then looked at our data and the progress we’ve made with individual women and groups, and concluded that with the kind of intervention and success we’ve had, that we could get that many to $1 million by 2020,” Merlino stated. “In terms of actual numbers, 40% of the women who have gone through our program have gotten to $1 million. I’d say many more have grown by upwards of 100%, so there are a lot of different ways to measure progress.”

M3 could exceed that 2020 milestone if a recent international move bears fruit. M3 has held workshops in Cairo, Egypt, Amman, Jordan, and Guatemala City, Guatemala, and the organization would like to hold business competitions internationally. This is especially true as women-led companies graduate from micro-enterprise programs around the world “and need another level of guidance and opportunity to grow their businesses,” Merlino said. “We are charging along here.”

Competitive Instinct
Applications for the San Francisco business competition will be taken through Oct. 1 on the Make Mine A Million website at

M3 is in the process of evaluating its event format, based in part on its experience with a 2009 online competitions held to keep costs down for participants. Among the more popular, easy-to-use online tools employed by contestants were one-page dashboards where people entered their financial information.

In addition, tools like webinars and podcasts help educate women business owners on the latest in operational issues, business education programming, human resource issues, marketing, and the effective use of social media. In a further nod to social networking, M3 has established “meet-up” groups in 13 U.S. markets, and has 8,000 followers on Facebook.

“We approach it all through problem-solving,” Merlino said, “and then we get into things like evaluating your business plan. Tell us what your biggest challenge is. What’s your marketing strategy, cash flow situation, and all those things? We work backward from that.”

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