GARY | While working with homeless women at Gary’s Sojourner Truth House, Sondra Ford realized an opportunity to connect business owners with those they could help empower.
“In 2009, the donations at Sojourner Truth were starting to dry up. I saw a chance to marry the business community with the nonprofit community as a way to give back,” said Ford, who is CEO/president of the Gary-based Indiana Minority Enterprise Center Inc.
Monday’s Women Building Wealth Conference at the Genesis Convention Center was the fourth annual edition of this effort to “see what is possible,” she said.
It brought together area businesses, government agencies, health care organizations and women interested in helping “pamper, encourage and empower women in business and in struggle,” Ford said. Seminars, booths and giveaways helped provide those services.
Ten women from local shelters and churches went through makeovers with hair, cosmetics and new business-style outfits as VIP guests.
“Lorna Moore of Ms. Elles’ Especially For You in Highland has been able to dress the women. You could see the change in them and their outlook,” she said. “We have also started a mentoring program and the 10 ladies each each have a mentor to encourage them through their time of temporary financial deficiency and personal struggles.”
As keynote speaker, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson encouraged all the conference attendees to keep up the fight in spite of challenges as part of the conference’s theme, "Succeeding against all odds." But, it wasn’t the mayor’s first connection with this effort, Ford said.
“Karen Freeman-Wilson has been a sponsor of this event since it started four years ago. She wasn’t mayor then, wasn’t running for anything,” she said.
Both Freeman-Wilson and Moore were presented with the Dr. Eloise Gentry Phenomenal Woman Award at the conference. The award is named for the woman who led the Urban League for years.
Women who already own businesses came to learn how to increase their presence in the community
“I’d just like to see what’s going on the business world and network with other people,” said Bukola Hamzat, of Hammond, who owns a small accounting firm, Hamzat & Associates in downtown Hammond.
“I worked for a CPA. He passed and transferred the business to me,” she said. “Two years ago I was forced to take the leap, but I haven’t regretted it.”
Entrepreneur Queen Toppin, of Gary, displayed the custom designed clothing and women’s accessories she offers through her home-based business.
“First impressions are lasting impressions. If you look good, you feel good and it radiates to those around you,” said Toppin, who has been in business for 32 years.
Women’s health was the focus of such vendor booth as the Methodist Hospitals’ display about the new 3-D Mammography Center.
Helping women understand their Social Security benefits brought Georgiann Drake from the Gary office of the Social Security Administration to the conference.
“Women should be informed about retirement benefit, spousal benefits and survivor benefits,” said Drake, public affairs specialist for Northwest Indiana.