In celebration of Women’s History Month, UA Little Rock is profiling women in leadership positions who are making a difference at UA Little Rock and in the community. The next Woman to Watch at UA Little Rock of 2021 is Laura Fine, state director of the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center (ASBTDC). The state’s lead ASBTDC center is based in the UA Little Rock College of Business, Health, and Human Services.
Tell us about yourself?
I started with the ASBTDC in 1989 as an assistant training coordinator. Now I’ve worked here for 31 years, my whole life. I took over as state director in 2018 after serving nine months as interim.
I was actually supposed to be a high school English and speech and theater teacher. A student teaching experience changed my mind on the career I wanted to pursue. I worked for Levi Strauss & Co. right out of college. They were looking for certified educators to pilot a training program to help workers improve their efficiency so they could make more money.
At the ASBTDC, I loved working with volunteer speakers and community partners to set up training events for local businesses. Then I had the opportunity to continue to grow in my position. I moved from the training coordinator role into an assistant director role where I learned more about federal grants management. Writing grant proposals and staying in compliance with rules and regulation is very important to our program. After working for my previous boss for 24 years, when she retired, I decided I wanted a chance to step up.
What is the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center, and what are your responsibilities as state director?
We are a statewide small business assistance program. We assist entrepreneurs with business creation, management, operation, and growth. We are funded through a partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration, UA Little Rock, and 10 additional higher education institutions in the state.
We haven’t opened a new office in a decade, so when we received additional federal funding, we decided to expand our reach into urban and rural areas of the state by opening four new locations in 2021. We have found that even though we’ve been providing virtual services for the past year, we have better access to small businesses when we have a physical presence in the area.
As the state director, I serve as the principal investigator for ASBTDC’s six federally funded projects, lead a statewide team of more than 60, and ensure we have the capabilities and resources to help small businesses start, access capital, grow employment, and increase sales.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen a rise in entrepreneurs. What advice would you give to people who are starting their own businesses during a pandemic?
We’ve actually worked with a lot of startups during this past year. Some people are creating businesses out of necessity because they lost their job and they had to have a way to make an income. We advise them to look for new opportunities in the marketplace, as customers’ needs have changed.
We also advise businesses to create exceptional customer experiences both in person and online. A positive customer experience is essential. Consumers are picky people, and they will only give you so many chances to meet their expectations.
The other thing we are seeing from our lending partners is that business owners need to have contingency plans. If you are looking for financing from a bank, the bank wants to see that you are prepared. If your business gets shut down, how do you plan to continue delivering your services to the customer? Do you have all the shipping methods in place? Is your restaurant designed for take out and delivery? We are seeing the need for a lot of contingency planning.
COVID-19 has had a huge impact on businesses and the economy. What impact has the pandemic had for female business owners?
Studies have shown that women business owners do not access capital at the same rates as men. This includes disaster relief funding such as the Paycheck Protection Program. If you are a woman of color, you face even more barriers in accessing capital. Those are usually related to collateral, credit history, and even the borrower’s attitudes toward traditional banking. We know a lot of women of color do not use traditional banking. We find that women tend to rely more on their own funds and the funds of family and friends to operate on. When they need to apply for a loan, they don’t have the banking contacts or relationships. We are working to break down these barriers.
Women also face more childcare issues than male business owners. During the pandemic, we saw daycares close and schools go virtual. Many women have stayed home to help with their kids’ education and childcare rather than putting their attention on running their businesses.
What other charitable and professional organizations are you involved in?
I serve on the America’s SBDC Board of Directors. Since COVID-19 hit, we’ve increased our communications and had more collaborations among states. We had to pivot and change our national professional development conference to a completely virtual experience. We went from having a high of 1,500 attendees to just under 4,000 virtual participants.
On the local side, my family and I are members of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock. That’s where my husband and I met years ago. We have a 20-year-old son. The three of us teach a Sunday School class for 2-year-olds. I also serve on the finance team at our church. Immanuel bought the old Kroger building on Shackelford, and we converted it into a city center that offers adult education, a food pantry, a clothing closet, and a free monthly dental clinic. It’s good to know we are going to be able to provide some help and hope to people who need those services.
What’s next in your professional career?
I have had a wonderful career here at UA Little Rock, but there is still more that I want to do and that ASBTDC wants to accomplish. I see a lot of opportunities to do more to support entrepreneurs right here in Little Rock. We are working with the city, Remix Ideas, the University District, and others to provide more entrepreneurial and small business support.
What woman has inspired you the most and why?
In 1994, Janet Roderick moved to Arkansas to become the state director, and she was my boss for 24 years before she retired. She provided a lot of opportunities for me to learn and grow. I told her I wanted to learn everything about federal grants management, and she gave me the opportunity to learn.
When you work with someone that closely for 24 years, you do a lot of life together. I think one of the things I appreciated about her the most is that we shared the opinion that work is very important but family comes first. For myself personally, when you are going through a health crisis or you are trying to take care of parents or children, that just takes the pressure off of you when your boss understands your family responsibilities. I’ve tried to carry on the same lesson with my team.
People feel bad when their kids pop up on Zoom or their dog starts barking, but we have to laugh it off. It’s been a hard year for our team, but we’ve done some amazing work.
What advice would you give to the next generation of women in business?
Women are very creative and innovative. I find them to be highly resourceful and they are relationship builders. Women like to help other women to succeed. I would tell them to seek out other women business owners, learn from them, get their opinion and advice. I would also tell them to connect with women who are leaders in the industry they are working in and get their perspective on industry trends.
How have you adapted to life during COVID-19?
We’ve been very fortunate to be able to continue providing small business services virtually. Prior to COVID-19, much of our individual consulting was virtual through phone and email, but usually included at least one in-person visit, and almost all of our training was conducted in-person in a classroom setting. We shifted to an all-virtual format last March and began using video conferencing to deliver training and consulting as well as for internal and external meetings. We’re looking forward to returning to in-person meetings and events soon, but video conferencing is here to stay.
It’s been a hectic year for us. Every time you turn around, there is a new change in guidelines for disaster relief funding for businesses. Our staff has been working at a very fast pace.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I just always have to give a shoutout to our ASBTDC team across the state. They’ve done amazing work this year, and are committed to ensuring businesses get the help they need.