A Publication of WTVP

On the eve of its 35th anniversary, Central Illinois NAWBO celebrates those who blazed a trail for women entrepreneurs.

It was late 1978 when a local group of influential women met to discuss the challenges facing their businesses. That meeting would lead to the formation of what is now known as the Central Illinois Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).

Connecting Local Leaders
It all started when Charleen Bowe, then-owner of Bowe and Associates, received a mailer from NAWBO in Washington, DC, looking for dynamic women to start chapters in their areas. At the same time, an article appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine about the plight of women business owners and what NAWBO was doing to change the business climate for female entrepreneurs. Shirley Sopher-Lewis of Sopher Machine and Manufacturing read the article and immediately picked up the phone to contact the organization. She learned that Charleen had already contacted the organization, and a NAWBO representative relayed her phone number. It wasn’t long before the two ladies joined forces to recruit other women in business.

Charleen “hit the streets,” even putting her mother to work looking through the city directory for women business owners, and Shirley was equally busy. They distributed press releases, held meetings, made phone calls and networked. Soon, there was more than enough interest for the Central Illinois Chapter to be chartered. Joining that early effort were attorney Ketra Mytich and DonnaJeanne Rodine of Rodine the Printer. “This was our opportunity to connect both professionally and personally,” Ketra explains. “NAWBO is a place for women to exchange ideas and be free and open.”

“I was drawn to CI NAWBO because of Charleen’s energy, conviction and irresistible force,” DonnaJeanne recalls, “but I learned that this was the most supportive and least judgmental group of successful people I had been around. They were happy for you and your success. If you had a misstep, they understood and supported you.”

Camaraderie and Direction
“In the early days, we were working to get women equal access to financing and ensure that they received a fair share of federal contracts,” Charleen explains. “We were so committed that Shirley, Ketra and I not only worked hard in central Illinois, but we served on the national board, bearing the expense of traveling to Washington, DC to help support the vision.”

Together, the women formed friendships and business relationships all over the country. Shirley even set out on an adventure trip, using NAWBO’s membership directory for direction. She would call on fellow NAWBO businesswomen in whatever city she was headed, and without hesitation, they would invite her into their homes and welcome her as a dear friend. After all, they were all in the same fight, and that was the camaraderie they felt.

Central Illinois was the third chapter to form in the United States, after Chicago and Miami, and the first that was not in a major metropolitan market. Today, NAWBO boasts more than 7,000 members in 70 chapters across the country. It is the only dues-based organization representing the interests of women entrepreneurs across all industries. The membership of the Central Illinois Chapter is very diverse—composed of every type of woman, from “solopreneurs” to those with businesses employing 100 workers or more, and representing nearly every segment of the economy.

The Turning Tide
A lot has happened in the 35 years since the chapter started. Charleen is retired and now lives in Texas, while Shirley has sold her business. There have been many influential women business owners in the area that have propelled the Central Illinois Chapter to the respected position it holds today. “The tide has turned for women business owners,” DonnaJeanne notes. Having once lost business simply because she was a woman, she no longer thinks it’s an issue, and access to financing is much more available.

“The first time I went to the bank needing working capital, I had to put up collateral of equal value,” Ketra explains. Today, that wouldn’t happen. In the early days of NAWBO, the chapter even helped a nail salon obtain funding by what is now commonly known as crowdfunding. “We were ahead of our time,” Charleen states.

Over the years, the one thing that has remained a constant for the chapter is the camaraderie that’s been built—and continues to build as new members join. And DonnaJeanne’s statement that it was the “most supportive and least judgmental group of successful people” she had been around still holds true today.

As CI NAWBO prepares to celebrate its 35th anniversary in May 2014, it will pay tribute to these founders and the other women who have been leaders in the local organization. Chapter meetings are held the third Wednesday of every month and are open to members as well as non-members. They offer a wealth of resources for women in business, from networking to conferences and seminars. For more information, visit iBi