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Arkansas Women's Commission members discuss barriers to entrepreneurship

Members of the Arkansas Women's Commission meet at the state Capitol on Tuesday.
Arkansas Women's Commission

Members of a state panel are continuing discussions on barriers faced by women entrepreneurs.

Members of the Arkansas Women’s Commission held their third meeting today to discuss possible methods of gathering input from women around the state. The commission, which was re-formed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in February, is tasked with identifying ways to help drive up women’s labor force participation in the state, as well as boosting entrepreneurship and jobs in STEM fields.

Commission members discussed common barriers to entry faced by women seeking to enter the STEM fields, including that the majority of those jobs are concentrated in the state’s two largest urban areas. Commission member Tamika Edwards said improving access to broadband internet in rural areas could help to bridge that gap.

“It’s important for us to think about the infrastructure that would support remote work, particularly in rural areas,” Edwards said. “And so that may be a point that we just want to examine, that we can promote and talk about remote work, but do individuals who live in those areas have access?”

The commission agreed to draft questions for a survey asking women about their experiences and difficulties in entering the workforce in Arkansas. The commission planned to run the survey next September.

Commission members also discussed the role of women of color in the state’s labor force on Tuesday. According to a 2018 report by the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, men outpace women in business ownership in every racial and ethnic category, except for Black women.

LaTeasha Gaither-Davis is the founder and CEO of Therapeutic Focus, which provides therapy to children with disabilities in the West Memphis area. She told commission members she’s faced near-constant resistance in her community since starting her business.

“I am very frustrated because I can’t serve the capacity that I would like to because I’m constantly being blocked. Blocked by inequality and inequity that is grounded in systemic and institutionalized barriers and obstacles,” Gaither-Davis said.

The same report from the Women’s Foundation found the highest concentration of women-owned businesses in Arkansas are in the state’s poorest counties. Gaither-Davis urged policymakers to push for systemic changes that ensure Black women entrepreneurs have access to capital and are treated in a fair and equitable manner.

“Oftentimes I feel like I’m that small fish in a big pond because I don’t have that powerful family name behind me. And I’m not a part of the ‘good ol’ boys’ network, and quite frankly, I don’t think I’ll ever be,” Gaither-Davis said. “But I realized, if I’m going to fight this type of system, I’m going to have to figure out some other solutions to combat it.”

Gaither-Davis said she joined national accelerator programs, including one run by investment firm Goldman Sachs, to help cultivate her skills in running a business.

Commission members must provide a report to the governor and the state legislature by Dec. 1.

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Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.