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Online Tools Help Level the Playing Field

A new online toolkit is helping women and minority small-business owners worldwide.

Having the right tools can greatly enhance one's skills as a small-business owner.

And thanks to the specialized

SME Toolkit from

IBM

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and

IFC, the private sector of the World Bank, women and minority business owners now have an even better chance for success.

IBM has geared the recently relaunched site toward women and minorities in particular, as these groups have traditionally had more obstacles to business opportunities. The toolkit's advisory board is well equipped to continue facing this challenge: Members of the

Women Presidents' Organization,

The Native American Chamber of Commerce and the

New York State African American Chamber of Commerce all serve on it, contributing content, tools, services and links to their membership bases. By working closely with organizations such as these, IBM has greatly increased the chances to reach women and minority business owners.

"This truly is one-stop shopping for small businesses and it levels the playing field," says Stanley Litow, IBM vice president of corporate affairs and citizenship. "We know the tools that large businesses use ... and we know the role technology can play in leading to growth. Now, every business can have the same chance to succeed. It's vitally important that we help small businesses, who are the major employers and growth engines in developing markets."

Building Blocks

The SME Toolkit offers access to articles and links on topics ranging from budgeting, recruiting employees and project management to telecommunications and email and Web marketing.

Also available are many free tools such as an online calculator to help businesses owners determine their readiness for financing; software to build a Web site; employee performance evaluation; and business plan forms and assistance with customer interactivity through blog-, survey- and quiz-building. And for small businesses looking to go global, the toolkit provides access to international markets and investment and trade information for the 64 countries that take in the most imports.

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The toolkit was originally launched in 2002 by the IFC, and IBM has dedicated more than $1.6 million to sponsor its recent update.

According to Reg Foster, corporate community relations manager of IBM, the company got involved "to fulfill its philanthropic mission." Previously, the IFC was just marketing the toolkit to entrepreneurs in developing countries in Africa and Asia; IBM is now trying to actively expand it to include small businesses in the U.S. as well.

Although the U.S. has traditionally been an environment open to entrepreneurship, there are still segments of the marketplace to which women and minorities have not been provided equal access. "We want to make sure there are more resources available to these groups so that there is a more even, level playing field," says Herbert Winkler, chairman of nonprofit business-advice organization

Score NY.

The Personal Touch

In order to expand its reach domestically, the SME Toolkit has partnered with Score. "We are one of the first counselor groups

the SME Toolkit is working with," says Winkler. It should be a welcome addition for all entrepreneurs. "Any extra information that a business

owner can get is helpful," he points out.

The toolkit's Web site does appeal to a wide entrepreneurial audience, but IBM and IFC are using funding to promote it specifically to minorities and women because that seems to be the biggest source of new small businesses, explains Winkler. According to the

Center for Women's Business Research, businesses owned by women of color are growing at five times the rate of all privately-held U.S. firms in 2007.

Still, other Score counselors believe that the toolkit is best used in conjunction with in-person advice. "Ideally it's best to meet with someone, but this can be an added tool," says counselor Ray Lapof.

The SME Toolkit can help people gain access to Score's live counseling via email, explains Alvin Roselin, district director of Score NYC. Then if the business owner is near any Score office nationwide, he or she can also get face-to-face counseling. "What this is doing is broadening the reach that Score will have in helping small-business owners," says Roselin.

To extend SME's reach, IBM plans to connect with and train more small-business groups through the toolkit including employment agency

FEGS, the Women Presidents' Organization and

New York City Department of Small-Business Services. The more help entrepreneurs can get, the better.