Women entrepreneurs ‘Connect to More’ through Milestone Circles
Hundreds of women entrepreneurs are building powerful peer networks as part of Wells Fargo’s relationship with the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center.
Inked across Racquel Garcia’s knuckles are the letters H-A-R-D-B-E-A-U-T-Y. The tattoos are a reminder to Garcia and the clients of her substance abuse recovery and life coaching business, HardBeauty, that life is worth living because we’ve gone through tough moments, not despite them. Garcia knows this firsthand. After losing her best friend to an overdose, she went into treatment, graduated college, and became an addiction counselor. Along her now 12-year recovery journey, Garcia has dedicated her life to helping others meet their challenges through HardBeauty.
“HardBeauty … is choosing yourself over anything or anyone else — always,” she said. “It is everything to me. I only had $25 when I began working cleaning toilets in a church basement. Eventually, I started coaching, charging $25 per session. In 18 months, our organization has generated $2.5 million in grant funding, and we are currently in our second year of funding.”
While finances weren’t an obstacle for Garcia, keeping HardBeauty sustainable was. That’s one reason why she applied to join the Milestone Circles program offered by the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center and funded by Wells Fargo Foundation. As part of Wells Fargo’s Connect to More program, the San Francisco-based nonprofit places women entrepreneurs from across the country into groups. These “circles” receive virtual and in-person peer and professional coaching over 12 weeks, plus the support of a growing network of fellow business leaders.
As of June 2022, the program had graduated more than 540 entrepreneurs in 47 states. Wells Fargo and the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center aim to boost their reach over the next 12 months with a goal of graduating another 1,000 women.
Garcia started her Milestone Circle in the spring, intending to make HardBeauty more efficient. With the assistance of her program “sisters,” Garcia built two revenue streams that were less grant-dependent, growing her income by $200,000 in just 12 weeks.
But the impact went beyond the business. On a call with Milestone Circles director Kamy Taylor, Garcia shared an update about HardBeauty: She is partnering with a Circle sister from the other side of the country on an in-person workshop. For Garcia, who was one of the only women of color in her roughly 2,500-person Colorado town, the program has been a rare opportunity to share her dreams with other women who would have never crossed her path.
The news brought instant tears to Kamy Taylor’s eyes. “This happens all the time [with Milestone Circles],” she said. “The Milestone Circles program provides a space for women entrepreneurs to build authentic bonds and gain champions from peers across the country who complement their drive, challenge, and business stage. This powerful new network of supporters often leads to impactful business relationships and friendships.”
"After the experience with mentoring, I spoke like a founder who was speaking to other founders and more of an entrepreneur who happens to be an engineer.” — Terriekka Cardenas, entrepreneur
Crossing the confidence gap
The Milestone Circles program was built by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs on a simple idea: create space for women to step away from business pressures, create goals, and support each other’s growth. For many participants, that conversation begins with why they do what they do.
“Most of us entrepreneurs suffer greatly from what we call imposter syndrome,” said Nicola Corzine, CEO of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center. “Most of the women [in the program] don’t even call themselves entrepreneurs. They come in shamed with the idea that they’re just building a business, but they’re … trying to build their passion and deal with the incredible innovation inside of them.”
This “confidence gap” and the systemic financial barriers and pressures faced by women entrepreneurs are just some of the reasons why Jenny Flores, head of Small Business Growth Philanthropy at Wells Fargo, felt emboldened to create Milestone Circles via the Connect to More initiative.
The financial disparities are far-reaching. Women-led businesses receive lower valuations, less capital, and fewer conventional small business loans than those led by men. Women entrepreneurs also pay themselves less than men and often take the brunt of balancing their family’s needs while growing their business.
Beyond founding the program, Flores serves as a mentor and spoke at Milestone Circles networking events. She’s seen fellow founders come together and discuss their challenges openly without fear of competition or judgment.
“When you’re able to show up really authentically and say what you need help with — the real things, the hard things — and people can come around and provide support, that is really game-changing,” she said. “Slowly but surely, they are getting to the other side. Now they’re thinking, ‘I’m inspired. I’m hopeful.’ That’s very meaningful because once they get past the confidence gap, they’re not afraid to pick up the phone or ask questions.”
“When you’re able to show up really authentically and say what you need help with — the real things, the hard things — and people can come around and provide support, that is really game-changing.” — Jenny Flores, head of Small Business Growth Philanthropy at Wells Fargo
Navigating the highs and lows of entrepreneurship
Terriekka Cardenas, owner of Perceptive Engineering, is used to wearing many hats, but some were harder to accept than others.
During breaks from teaching sixth graders science, she was on the phone with chemical companies securing work for her engineering and construction services business. Despite her hard work, Cardenas didn’t embrace the title of CEO until joining Milestone Circles.
“That was really the first time I called myself a founder. That’s emotional [for me],” she said. “That was the first moment for me that I didn’t box myself in and that helped me, because after the experience with mentoring, I spoke like a founder who was speaking to other founders and more of an entrepreneur who happens to be an engineer.”
Cardenas is now one of many graduates who continues to give back to the program by being a cornerstone mentor for her fellow entrepreneurs. Others, such as Ruby Taylor who graduated from the very first Milestone Circle in 2021, haven’t stopped meeting with their peers after the initial 12 weeks.
“We’re a tight-knit group that continuously supports each other when we get stuck. We’re just a telephone call away when we feel discouraged,” she said. “The entrepreneurial journey can have very many highs and lows — sometimes in the same hour.”
In 2020, Ruby Taylor created a card game, LEGACY!, to teach people how to close the racial wealth gap and have fun doing it. Being able to craft a mission statement while inside the Circle inspired her to amplify her vision and found Financial Joy School, which coaches Black families on building generational wealth.
Growing her businesses hasn’t always been easy. In fact, hard times have been essential to her entrepreneurship, she said. And its beauty is spreading.
“I’m a risk-taker. My wife is not. … She’s risk-averse. But with me going through the Milestone Circles, this is the truth: She started her own business,” Ruby Taylor said. “It does come with a lot of risk. But so does breathing. We still have to do it. If you’re an entrepreneur, it’s something that you cannot stop. … But when you hit that purpose, all of that is not only worth it, it’s part of the journey.”