Women-Owned Businesses

As a female Founder, starting a woman-owned business comes with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities. In this article, we discuss what constitutes a women-owned business, how to start one, what resources you have at your disposal, and more.

April 20th, 2019   |    By: The Startups Team    |    Tags: Women, Starting a Business, Founders, Entrepreneurship, Grants, Loans, Strategy

According to research from Kaufman, 40% of first-time entrepreneurs in the United States are women.

Even more impressive? The number of women-run businesses in the US is growing at twice the rate of men-owned businesses. The rate of women starting businesses and startups throughout the country is at an all-time high.

Let’s take a closer look at women-owned businesses, including certification and funding opportunities.

What it is a woman-owned business?

In its simplest form, a women-owned business is a business owned by at least one woman.

But when it comes to qualifying for certain grants, loans, and contracts, a women-owned business is at least 51% owned by controlled, operated, and managed by a woman or women.

What is WBENC Certification?

While not required, some women-owned businesses choose to become certified as such through The Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC).

WBENC certification opens up connections with businesses looking to partner with women-owned businesses, mentorship and education, promotion and marketing, and a community of other women-owned businesses.

Check out the WBENC website for more information on WBENC certification.

Grants for women-owned businesses

Some people describe business grants as “free money,” but that’s a misnomer.

Like venture capital, you don’t have to pay back a business grant. But you “pay” for it with your time and with the restrictions that often accompany grant awards.

While VCs might be more willing to let a startup founder explore and use their money for whatever they believe the startup needs to grow, grants tend to come with very clear stipulations about what they can and can’t be used for.

So keep that in mind when you start looking for business grants for women.

With all that being said, here are some federal, state, local, and private small business grant options available for women.

Grant databases

Unfortunately, most grants aren’t evergreen. Which is to say, they’re not always available.

Many grants have very specific timelines for application and they may or may not open up new application periods once that time has passed. Luckily, there are grant databases to help you figure out what’s out there at any given time.

1. Grants.gov Though not specifically for women, your best bet for finding a grant that matches your startup closely is to search the grants.gov database to find out what’s currently available and what most closely matches your startup.

You should also check back periodically, as government grants for small businesses end and are added frequently. This is a great resource for both women-only grants and grants that are open to people of all genders.

2. GrantsForWomen.org GrantsForWomen.org specifically lists grants that are available to women-run businesses and non-profits. Use their database to find a good business grant for women for your startup.

Business grants for women

1. InnovateHER Challenge The InnovateHER Challenge is run by the Small Business Association (SBA). It’s money that goes to women-owned businesses that create a marketable product or service that helps women or families.

It’s important to note here that you won’t be submitting the application directly to the SBA. Like many other SBA programs, the InnovateHER Challenge is administered through partners, like universities or agencies.

In order to qualify, interested founders can enter a local InnovateHER Challenge. If you win, you’ll advance to the nationals level. The InnovateHer Challenge offers a first prize of $40K; second prize of $20K; and third prize of $10K.

2.SBA Women’s Business Centers In addition to helping with loans, the SBA Women’s Business Centers also help women entrepreneurs get access to other types of funding. Some lend money or award grants directly, while others help connect women entrepreneurs with financial institutions.

Find an SBA Women’s Business Center in your region and get started connecting with great resources for women startup founders and business owners.

3. Eileen Fisher Women-Owned Business Grant The clothing brand Eileen Fisher hands out $100,000 per year to 10 women-owned businesses.

In order to qualify, your company must:

  • Be at least 51% woman-owned and led
  • Be in operation for at least three years
  • Generate less than $1 million per year in revenue
  • Have an environmental or social change focus

This grant opens applications in the spring and they especially like entrepreneurs with a social good focus. They’ll ask for your financial data and business plan when you apply.

4. Amber Grant The Amber Grant awards $500 to $1,000 per month to a woman-owned business.

At the end of the year, one of the recipients also receives an additional $10,000 grant. Applicants just need to tell their story and submit a $15 application fee, which might be the least amount of “work” of any grant on this list!

They’re also more focused on a great story than anything else for this grant, so this is a great opportunity to work on your narrative.

Even if you don’t end up getting the grant, having a strong founding story and narrative is essential for virtually every funding opportunity.

5. #GIRLBOSS Foundation Grant Specifically for woman-owned businesses in fashion, music, and art, the #GIRLBOSS small business grant awards $15,000 plus exposure via the Girlboss website and social media channels.

Applicants are judged based on:

  • Creativity
  • Innovation in the field
  • Business savvy
  • Forward planning
  • Financial need
  • Proposed workplace

6. Cartier Women’s Initiative Award The Cartier Women’s Initiative Award is $100,000 or $30,000, depending on the first or second prize, that is awarded to 18 women entrepreneurs from around the world, annually.

Women business owners who are just getting started may qualify — you can find the complete application information for this small business grant.

All of the finalists get to attend the INSEAD Social Entrepreneurship 6-Day Executive Program (ISEP). They also get the opportunity to participate in entrepreneurship workshops, business coaching seminars, and networking opportunities via the network.

7. The Open Meadows Foundation The Open Meadows Foundation awards $2,000 (or less) grants to women-led projects and businesses that focus on advancing women and girls.

In order to qualify, your startup must:

  • Be focused on activism, political change, or female empowerment
  • Have a budget of $75,000 or less

They especially like small businesses and startups, so it’s a great option for social entrepreneurs who are looking to get their startups off the ground.

Women-only incubators and accelerators

Another women-only financing option for women-owned businesses is women-only incubators and accelerators.

Incubators and accelerators both offer varying combinations of funding, workspace, mentorship, and community.

Incubators usually focus on very early stage startups that need help even getting launched, while accelerators are generally for startups that are further developed but need help with growth.

While many women-only incubators and accelerators are based in bigger metropolitan areas, it’s worth searching for women-only incubators and accelerators in your region, as this is an area that has seen a lot of growth in recent years.


Monarq is a woman-only startup incubator in New York City that offers a $25K investment, mentorship, and access to investors who are interested specifically in woman-owned businesses.


MergeLane offers VC funding, leadership training, and accelerators to companies with at least one woman founder. MergeLane has 37 portfolio companies, including 27 who have completed their accelerator.

In total, MergeLane’s accelerator cohorts have raised $23.8 million in funding and created 469 jobs, including 46 leadership roles for women.

Investors in women-run startups

X Squared Angels

X Squared Angels is an investment group that focuses on women-led startups, which they define as at least one woman in a C-level position. They are based in Ohio and have a fairly rigorous process for qualifying for funds.

37 Angels

37 Angels is an investment group that focuses specifically on women-led startups. (Their current portfolio is one third woman-run startups, but they’re actively trying to increase that number.) They invest between $50,000 and $150,000 per startup. Applications start with a 20-minute phone all to determine fit.

Belle Capital USA

Belle Capital USA invests in women-run startups. In order to qualify for consideration for investment, your startup must have female founder or owner and/or commit to recruiting top female talent to C-Suite and Board.

Women-only crowdfunding sites and equity financing platforms

Unlike other financing options, women are generally more successful than men in crowdfunding.

That means mixed-gender sites aren’t going to provide an obstacle the way other mixed-gender funding sources might.

However, founders looking for woman-only options can look to crowdfunding sites and equity financing platforms that focus specifically on woman-owned companies.


iFundWomen is a crowdfunding site for companies with at least one woman founder. They also offer a pay-it-forward model, expert startup coaching, professional video production, access to pitch competitions with investors, and a private community for our entrepreneurs to collaborate.


SheEO loans out $5,500 per year to five woman-run companies, equity free. Every applicant also gets feedback on their application, regardless of whether or not they’re accepted.

Loans for women-owned businesses

Bad news — there aren’t actually any small business loans specifically for women.

But in addition to the small business loans that are open to all applicants, there are a few financing options that are specifically for women.

We’re going to highlight loans that are particularly friendly to women entrepreneurs, as well as a few other financing options that are women-only.

1. Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contracting program

The Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contracting program awards 5% of federal contracting dollars to women-owned small businesses.

In 2014, the US government awarded 267,168 contracts to woman-owned businesses, for a total of about two billion dollars.

The top industries represented were:

  • Professional services
  • Medical and surgical supplies
  • Administrative support

To be clear, these are not loans but rather contracts for work.

Requirements for Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contracting

  • Must meet the Small Business Association (SBA) size requirements.
  • Must be at least 51% owned and controlled by women who are US citizens.
  • Must include women managing day-to-day operations and making long-term decisions.

Advantages of Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contracting

  • Can be a steady source of income for a small business or startup.

Disadvantages of Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contracting

  • Only designated industries qualify — and the list is narrow.
  • There are limitations on contract amounts: $4 million for service contracts and $6.5 million for manufacturing contracts.
  • Companies must self-certify as a woman-owned small business via the Central Contractor Registration website or certify through a third-party. The SBA does not certify women-owned small businesses.

There are also two sub-categories that can qualify for these contracts:

  1. Veterans
  2. Economically disadvantaged businesses

Requirements for the Women-Owned Economically Disadvantaged Business Program

  • Must meet all the requirements of the women’s contracting program.
  • Must be owned and controlled by one or more women, each with a personal net worth less than $750,000.
  • Must be owned and controlled by one or more women, each with $350,000 or less in adjusted gross income averaged over the previous three years.
  • Must be owned and controlled by one or more women, each $6 million or less in personal assets.

Requirements for the VA Women-Owned Small Business program

  • Must be a veteran of an American war.
  • Must meet all the requirements of the women’s contracting program.

2. Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE)

While not part of the federal contracting program, Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE) is an SBA-funded program provided by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

V-WISE includes online training, a conference, and mentorship to female veterans.

3. SBA loans

An SBA small business loan is a loan that is backed by the Small Business Administration (SBA).

Founded in 1953, the SBA is a federal government program that provides support to small business owners in the form of mentorship, workshops, counseling, and small business loans.

SBA loans are potentially a great option for entrepreneurs in general, but the Association offers extra help to women.

While the SBA doesn’t list any business loans for women on their site, they do direct interested women entrepreneurs to find an Office of Women’s Business Ownership at their local SBA district office for more information and help with launching a business.

Learn more about SBA loans here.

About the Author

The Startups Team

Startups is the world's largest startup platform, helping over 1 million startup companies find customers, funding, mentors, and world-class education.

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