Business grant to help UM lower barriers for entrepreneurial women

University of Montana students attend a class in the Pursue Your Passion program. UM received a grant to get more women involved in the program. (UM courtesy photo)

An effort to lower barriers for entrepreneurial women received a boost from the Wells Fargo Foundation this month in the form of a $20,000 grant, one that enable the University of Montana to grow a program aimed at building a more equitable future.

The Pursue Your Passion program, which opens for enrollment this month, will focus on meeting the needs of busy women who statistically bear the brunt of unpaid household work and care at more than twice the rate of men, according to a recent report.

“(It) can meet the needs of women who have a less flexible schedule due to families, busy careers and other factors,” said Morgan Slemberger, director of the university’s Pursue Your Passions program. “We want to make it easier since availability can be a barrier to starting something new.”

Slemberger, who also serves as the associate director of the Blackstone LaunchPad entrepreneurial program at UM, said the funding will support female-centered programming as the new course gets underway.

Women enrolled in Pursue Your Passion represented just 33% of the program’s participants in 2015. That figure grew to roughly 48%. in 2018, though Slemberger believes the new course will move those numbers higher.

“This new course is designed for busy women,” she said. “This grant reinforces our current program and is a catalyst for new efforts serving more women throughout the state of Montana.”

More than 60 students have gone through the program over the past few years, resulting in 10 new businesses. In recent semesters, UM experienced a nearly 50% increase among women competing in small-business startups.

Randy Riley, district manager of Wells Fargo, said the program looks to lower the barriers women face as they consider their future as an entrepreneur.

“Making this program more widely available through online course development, technology, childcare and more will help break down the barriers many women are experiencing,” said Riley. “Without some of those challenges, we hope women will be able to create sustainable business plans and pursue their entrepreneurial goals.”

According to the United Nations, women carry out more than 2.5 times more unpaid household work than men, from caring for children to elderly members of the family. The results of that disparity have wider economic impacts, such as removing women from the workforce and reducing their lifelong earnings.

In Montana, the earnings gap between men and women has only closed slightly in the last five years, from 66.7% to 68.3%. As small as the increase is, it sill translates to $128 million in additional wages for the state’s economy, according to the state’s Equal Pay for Equal Work Task Force.

Pursue Your Passion advocates believe the program will reach a greater number of women as UM opens enrollment to non-students.

“Opening this program to the broader community is really exciting because we already know how valuable it is to students,” said Christine Littig, the program’s board president and former owner of Bernice’s Bakery. “Opening registration outside of traditional UM boundaries really illustrates the university’s dedication to Montana women as a whole.”