In the 1990s, entrepreneur Barbara Kasoff was running three successful companies—two Voice-Tel franchises in Michigan and her own startup, Voice Response Corporation—when she realized there was something over which she had no control. "Laws and regulations were affecting my companies every day," says Kasoff. "But I wasn't a lobbyist, I wasn't a legislator. How could I change unfair legislation impacting my businesses and my family?'"
Finding no organization to help, she leapt into the breach. "[Women business owners] weren't at the table with decisionmakers, working on the issues that affect us," notes Kasoff. So in 2001, she joined with cofounder Terry Neese to launch Women Impacting Public Policy, or WIPP, to bring together women business owners from around the country and carry their united voice to Washington.
WIPP has helped save funding for the SBA's Women's Business Center program that makes loans to startups and helped make it possible for women to win prime contracts from the Department of Energy.
Today, part of Kasoff's challenge involves waking women up to the link between business success and public policy. "It's time to ask, 'Do you want to be making the decisions about your business, or do you want someone else to make them for you?'"
She draws a parallel between making this "missionary sale" to women and her erstwhile entrepreneurial challenge convincing Michigan companies to buy newfangled voice mail in 1987. "No one knew what it was. They wanted something they could hold in their hands," remembers Kasoff, whose first major success was convincing Amway that the new technology would save them money and time. Now she's convincing women about "the enormous power of the voice. If we can motivate women around the country to use their voice, think what we'll accomplish!"
Why are our voices needed? Elected officials, not being entrepreneurs, often don't understand the impact of the legislation they're writing, which is why it's up to constituents to let them know. Men have known this for years, but women need to catch up. So WIPP members—which includes all NAFE members—can get trained and then testify at hearings in Washington or participate in formal briefings.
Says Mary Schnack, owner of a media services company, "As one micro business owner, I have no significant voice. As a member of WIPP, I have influence. I learn what issues affect me as a business owner and what I can do about them, without doing all the research myself, which would be all-consuming."
At a recent meeting about healthcare with the Senate Small Business Committee, Kasoff describes how "eight women shared real-life scenarios about the problems they're facing. They brainstormed with the people who write the laws, asking questions like 'Have you considered the sole proprietor in healthcare legislation?'"
In six years, WIPP has earned a Washington reputation as a bipartisan group representing 46 organizations (including NAFE, Black Women Enterprise, Women Presidents' Organization, NAWBO) and a half million members. "We get their attention because we've got the numbers, and numbers mean votes," says Kasoff.
Currently living in San Francisco with her family, Kasoff envisions that in five years, "WIPP will have an extraordinary grass roots base with trained members who've built relationships with elected officials, directly influencing policy that affects their businesses, families, and communities." After all, there are 10.4 million privately held women-owned businesses generating almost $2 trillion in revenue annually. Now that's power.