If you’re starting a business and need outside financing, it’s natural to be wary of small-business loans. Why take on debt if you can get a grant that you won’t have to repay?
But small-business grants for women — or men, for that matter — can be hard to come by. “There’s not a pot of free money,” says Michelle Somes-Booher, a business consultant at the Small Business Development Center in Madison, Wisconsin.
If you need business financing, two more likely options are business credit cards and small-business loans for women. The competition is fierce for small-business grants, and it takes a lot of time and effort to find them and complete the applications. However, if you’re up for the challenge, the payoff can be worth it.
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Here are 10 places women entrepreneurs can look for small-business grants.
Federal small-business grants for women
The federal government offers some grants for small-business owners, but they’re designated for very specific purposes, such as certain research and development projects or for businesses in rural areas. Government grants can’t be used to cover startup costs or day-to-day expenses, and most aren’t earmarked specifically for women.
Grants.gov is a database of all federally sponsored grants. You can search for small-business grants here — just make sure you filter the results on the left side of the page to view grants specifically for small businesses.
2. InnovateHER Challenge
The U.S. Small Business Administration hosts an annual competition for businesses with a marketable product or service that positively affects women’s lives. To participate, you must first enter and win a local InnovateHER Challenge to advance to the national semifinal round. The top three national finalists will win $40,000, $20,000 and $10,000, respectively.
3. Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs
The SBA facilitates these two competitive programs, which ultimately provide grants to small businesses that contribute to federal research and development. Eleven federal agencies, including the departments of Agriculture, Defense, and Health and Human Services, post grant opportunities on their websites. You can search all grant opportunities on the SBIR website.
State and local small-business grants
Because federal small-business grants are limited in number and often very competitive, you may have better luck looking for grants at the state and municipal levels. You’ll have to do your own research to pinpoint specific grant programs in your area, but here are some places to look:
4. Women’s Business Centers
The SBA sponsors about 100 Women’s Business Centers nationwide, designed to help women entrepreneurs with business development and access to capital. Some, such as the California Capital Financial Development Corp., lend money directly, while others simply help you find small-business grants and loans that you may qualify for.
5. Economic development agencies
Every state and many cities have economic development agencies focused on promoting a strong local economy. Even if the agency itself doesn’t offer a small-business grant, it will likely be able to point you in the right direction.
6. Small Business Development Centers
There are hundreds of these SBA-sponsored centers around the country, typically housed at colleges and universities. SBDCs offer free, one-on-one business consulting. Set up a meeting with your local SBDC advisor, who will be able to tell you about grants and other business financing opportunities in your area.
Private small-business grants for women
Some private organizations and businesses have created national grant programs for women small-business owners. Here are two to look into:
7. Amber Grant
The Amber Grant Foundation awards $500 to a different women-owned business every month. At the end of each year, one of the 12 grant winners is awarded an additional $2,000. The application is relatively simple: Explain what your business is, describe what you’d do with the grant money and pay a $7 application fee. The foundation’s advisory board chooses the winners, looking for women with passion and a good story.
8. Eileen Fisher Women-Owned Business Grant
Eileen Fisher, a women’s clothing retailer, awards $100,000 to up to 10 women business owners each year. To be eligible, women must make up at least 51% of your business’s ownership and leadership, your business must have been in operation for at least three years, it must not exceed $1 million in annual revenue, and it must be focused on environmental or social change.
Two other good possibilities for grants
These options aren’t specifically for women, but they’re good small-business grants to consider:
9. FedEx Small Business Grant
FedEx awards up to $25,000 apiece to 10 small businesses annually. The application requires an explanation of your business, how you’d use the money, photos of your business and — this part is optional — a short video explaining your business. You don’t need a FedEx account to apply.
10. Mission Main Street Grants
Chase Bank gives $150,000 to 20 small businesses each year through its Mission Main Street Grants program. To be eligible, you must have been in business at least two years and have fewer than 100 employees, and the application includes answering five essay questions.