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Financing Futures Nell Merlino

Nell Merlino knows that while aspiring female entrepreneurs often have a host of innovative ideas, there is almost always one major obstacle blocking their path to success – Money. That’s why in 1999 she co-founded Count-Me-In for Women’s Economic Independence, an online service that provides women with access to business loans, consultation, and education. The organization makes business loans between $500 and $10,000 available to women across the country who often have a harder time accessing financing than male business owners. It has given approximately 700 business loans to about a quarter of the people who have applied.

The loans are funded by donations raised through the private and corporate sectors, as well as Invest in Women Notes from the Calvert Foundation, a socially responsible institution that supports community development organizations.

Merlino, 52, now has taken matters a step further with the formation of Make Mine a $Million, a new part of the Count-Me-In program. Only six percent of women-owned businesses have revenues of a million dollars or more, and her goal is to show women with micro-businesses the path to getting to the million- dollar mark. Women who have been in business at least two years with at least $250,000 in revenue, with “real evidence and opportunity to get to one million dollars,” are encouraged to apply for a loan, says Merlino.

Seven women who were accepted into the Make Mine a $Million program started with financing from Count-Me-In, which demonstrates that even a small amount of money to get started can go a long way. Whether it is $3,000 for equipment or other needs, Merlino says, “We loan the money because when you are borrowing, you are expanding.”

When considering an applicant for a loan in the Count-Me-In program, the premise of the business, the applicant’s experience with the product or service she is offering, credit rating, and the presence of any family members who run their own businesses are all taken into account.

While Merlino believes “all business owners are creative,” their chances of success are heavily weighted in the application process. She recounts a woman who had an innovative proposal for an upscale line of dog biscuits but lived in an area that did not have the upscale clientele to support her product.

The Count-Me-In website is a valuable resource for women looking to start their own businesses, with features ranging from a starter checklist to the “Biz Line” where users can e-mail questions and receive responses from Merlino’s team within 48 hours.

Thirteen years after conceiving and producing the Take Our Daughters to Work Day initiative for the Ms. Foundation in 1993, Merlino’s passion for empowering women to succeed in their work is still unwavering.

“Women must have confidence in their vision,’’ Merlino says. “That is the whole idea of business.”