Syracuse University Magazine

Wise Meeting 1 Wise meeting 2 Wise meeting 3

The WISE Women’s Business Center celebrated its 10th anniversary with “Shattering the Glass,” a community event held at The Tech Garden in Syracuse in October.

Centering on Women's Success

Berenice Bonilla had long pondered entrepreneurship. When she moved back to her native Syracuse in 2015, she turned to the WISE Women’s Business Center for help. Utilizing the center’s resources, she soon founded The Bérica Agency for Purposeful Branding, a strategic communications firm that supports socially focused companies. “Attending events and classes at the center was one of the very first things I did,” Bonilla says. “It gave me the opportunity to socialize with sharp, like-minded women and work toward reaching a concrete goal.”

Bonilla is just one example among hundreds of entrepreneurs who have achieved success with the support of the WISE Women’s Business Center established through the Whitman School’s Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship. This year marks the center’s 10th anniversary. To date, it has provided more than 10,000 hours of entrepreneurship counseling. In 2014-15, alone, 125 female entrepreneurs received counseling by center staff and more than 650 women participated in classes and trainings.  

The center evolved out of the WISE (Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship) Symposium, which was launched 15 years ago as a single-day event hosted by the Falcone Center. The goal was to educate women on their options for starting a small business. The annual event, which featured such speakers as Barbara Corcoran from Shark Tank, grew to nearly 1,000 attendees. After four years, participants wanted more. “Many people told us the symposium inspired them to start a business, but they didn’t know where to go for more information,” says Joanne Lenweaver, the center’s director. “There were really no resources for them in our community.” 

To help aspiring female entrepreneurs, Whitman secured a U.S. Small Business Administration grant to establish the WISE Women’s Business Center. Service offerings expanded from free counseling to classes on specialized skills, such as writing a business plan and launch strategies, as well as opportunities for mentoring and networking. The center outgrew its original space at the University’s South Side Innovation Center and now calls The Tech Garden in downtown Syracuse its home. The move proved positive: Client numbers continue to rise as women from outside Syracuse hear about the center and seek its services. 

The efforts of Lenweaver and the center have gained widespread notice. This summer, Lenweaver traveled to Lima, Peru, to serve as a delegate for the center and the U.S. Department of State at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation to address ways to get women more involved in the economy on a global scale. 

Whether domestic or international, small or large scale, Lenweaver says the center staff focus on being realistic and supportive. “If you come in and say you want to build the next spaceship, we’ll help you figure out the first step, and then take it one step at a time together,” she says.

Such guidance was just what Bonilla needed to focus on her goal. “My hope is to harness the power of communication to expand the reach of important messages to key audiences and, through the firm’s success, engage in philanthropic efforts that empower immigrants, women, and children,” she says.

Thanks in part to the WISE Women’s Business Center’s support, Bonilla is realizing her goal. Last year, her firm contributed 10 percent of its revenue to two organizations and sponsored the You Can’t Fail 2016 Celebration Event. Bonilla has also served as a panelist and written articles for culturally focused publications in Central New York.

In the decade since the center opened, it has helped more than 8,086 clients like Bonilla progress their ventures. The center’s collective impact on the lives of female entrepreneurs is immeasurable and will, no doubt, continue to grow exponentially. —Regan Spencer