When Aquila Leon-Soon was in the early stages of launching her startup, she was rejected for a loan by three different banks.
She also knew that another funding option, venture capital, was not a realistic one: Black women like her only raise about .01% of the VC money pulled in by the average successful startup.
Luckily for Leon-Soon, she lives and works in New York City. Through resources provided by the city, she was able to find workarounds to replace the traditional avenues of funding, instead growing her business using government certifications, grants, and mentorship programs.
Happily, Leon-Soon's experience—she now runs her own consulting firm, Advance Talent Solutions—is not unique. There's a reason that New York City is home to nearly half a million female business owners—more any other U.S. city. In fact, Dell's new Women Entrepreneur Cities Index (WE Cities), released on Wednesday morning, ranks NYC as the world's best possible place to be a female entrepreneur.
WE Cities measures a city's ability to attract and support high-potential female entrepreneurs—women who want to grow and scale their businesses. To create the ranking, research firm IHS partnered with Dell to come up with a scoring system and used it to rate 25 global cities. These cities were pre-screened for being generally entrepreneur-friendly based on previous Dell research, with the new WE Cities research providing an added gender lens.
"We wanted to find out why women-owned businesses scale better in one city than in another one," explains Elizabeth Gore, Dell's entrepreneur-in-residence.
The research team looked at 70 indicators that fell into five major categories—markets, talent, capital, culture, and technology—to come up with the scores for each city. Even the top places had "mediocre" scores: New York got a 58.6 out of a possible 100, the Bay Area was slightly lower with 58.3, and London got a mark of 50.4. "Even the best cities haven't cracked the code" for women entrepreneurs, says Gore.
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Still, New York City is by far the highest scoring in terms of government policy, says Cris Turner, Dell's head of government affairs for the Americas. (The Bay Area, on the hand, is strongest in talent and technology.) "I really wasn’t surprised by the results given the amount of attention New York has placed on driving entrepreneurship," he says. That attention comes in three major forms: people, policies, and programs.
The city's digital director, its department of information telecommunication and technology commissioner, and its CTO are all women. Moreover, more than 70% of the 27 city agency commissioners are women. Having so many women in the city government "has been huge in changing the culture associated with women starting businesses," says Turner.
Since 2014, the mayor has launched a number of initiatives supporting female entrepreneurs. One example is a certification called Minority & Women-Owned Business Enterprises (MWBE), which gives special status to businesses owned by minority groups. Mayor Bill De Blasio's administration has made a commitment to award more than $16 billion to MWBEs over the next decade.
The list of city-based programs is long, but some of the biggest include Women Entrepreneurs NYC (WE NYC), which provides women entrepreneurs with free master classes, networking events, and mentors, and Tech Talent Pipeline, which attempts to reach the next generation through specialized training and internships for women in STEM fields.
Of course, the push to get more women to start businesses hasn't changed New York overnight, and the city that never sleeps continues to be a hotbed for male ambition. "At the end of the day, it's finance, construction, and those [industries] are still dominated by men," says Leon-Soon, who is both MWBE-certified and a member of WE NYC. Yet she remains optimistic that even that will change.
"We're doing something about it," she says. "The city's making moves."