“Women business owners who have been on the sidelines should get off the sidelines,” urges Liz Sara.

Sara is chairman of the National Women’s Business Council (NWBC), a federal, nonpartisan advisory committee that makes recommendations to the President, Congress and the Small Business Administration regarding women business owners. Lately, Sara has spent a lot of time talking to SBA officials to make sure that women who own businesses don’t miss out on Paycheck Protection Program loans.

“We were very encouraged, through our conversations and dialogue with SBA, when, for the second round of that funding, $60 billion of that round was set aside for small lenders,” she says. “And that’s particularly important because small businesses tend to bank at smaller banks. And so that gave us, we hope, the chance to ensure that the really tiny women-owned businesses were getting fair access to that money.” 

President Trump appointed Sara in 2018 to serve a three-year term as chairman of the NWBC. And certainly she has the right background to head up an organization dedicated to advancing women in business, with a thirty-year history of successful entrepreneurship and career in the tech field that is scarcely populated by women. Sara is co-founder of Spaceworks, a software information operation, which grew to a $25 million a year company. She is founder and president of Best Marketing, LLC, where she serves as consultant to nearly a hundred high-tech businesses.

At present, only a minuscule 5 percent of technology businesses are owned by women. Sara aims to change that. 

Sara was born in New York City, the daughter of parents who came to the U.S. from Italy, but who moved to the suburbs when Liz was a child. But they always came back to Manhattan for Sunday dinner with Liz’s grandparents. “We spent a lot of time visiting our grandparents in Little Italy every weekend,” Liz recalls. “Family dinners were always on Sunday afternoon at one o’clock, and those are fond memories. And while we don’t continue having Sunday dinners with all of the family the way we used to, we’re still very close and very family oriented.” 

At present, only a minuscule 5 percent of technology businesses are owned by women. Sara aims to change that.

She adds, “I am currently not married, but I have a significantother who is also Italian. So, we share a lot of culture and family traditions together. And I’ve learned over my life that having someone who shares those same traditions is very important to me, and we have a lot in common as a result.”

Sara’s father was an ardent Republican. “We were part of the Republican establishment,” says Liz. “My dad was very involved in local politics growing up, so that sort of filtered down to us. I remember spending many Saturday mornings going to pancake breakfasts to raise money for the local council members and the other local races that my dad was supporting. And my dad spent his career at IBM. So, he was a businessman, and the aspects of being in a business kind of got absorbed by me. And so, while I majored in fields that weren’t 100% business, I always gravitated to a future in my career that would involve business.”

Sara went to the State University of New York, where she majored in business and journalism, and moved to the D.C. area to go to graduate school and earn a master’s degree from the University of Maryland. Immediately afterwards, she went to work for a trade association representing the food industry. She ran the marketing and communications side, and put on conferences and panels. 

In 1988 the book Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives came out. It certainly changed the direction of Sara’s life.

“After reading it, I knew that one of the large trends that was going to shape the way our country and the way the world was going to be transformed was technology,” she says. “And while I never had any interest in how technology worked or how a computer actually worked, I was just absolutely fixated on how it could change the way we do business or the way we interact with each other or communicate with each other. I determined that I would get into the technology sector but doing what I do best, which is, marketing and sales and business strategy. So, from the very first opportunity that I had in a very large company, was to be part of a small team that was building a company inside a company.  That was called LexisNexis, and some people might remember that company.”

Sara worked for America Online and helped set up information services for UPI. Internet technology was a brave new world. “People didn’t yet have PC’s at home,” Sara recalls, “and if they did, they really weren’t sure what to do with them. So that was another groundbreaking and another very disruptive piece of technology.” 

I was just absolutely fixated on how technology could change the way we do business.

During the early ‘90s an opportunity presented itself. “I was approached by a couple of men who said, ‘We’d like to build a business-to-business version of America Online and your name keeps coming up. You don’t know us. We don’t know you, but we think that the three of us would be a great team.’ One was the software guru who created the software platform, and the other gentleman was our money bootstrapper who was going to help finance it. And I was the marketing and the business executive to figure out: what are we going to build, and how do we make money, and who should we sell to, and how do we get in front of them? And, so, the company was launched in the early 1990s, ’93 to be exact.”

The company was SpaceWorks. “It was our first generation of SpaceWorks, which was pre-internet, and we ran that company pretty successfully for a few years. By the time we reached about 1996, ’97, the internet started to take hold, and companies literally overnight were telling us, ‘Well, we don’t need to pay you all of this money to put our information and our product information on the World Wide Web,’ which is what everybody called it initially, ‘we could just do that all by ourselves.’

“So, I very quickly realized that if we didn’t change our business model into something else, we weren’t going to exist for very much longer. So, we brought on some venture capital, and I positioned us as an e-commerce vendor, where we sold an e-commerce platform for big companies to put their products on the Web to sell to their business partners. And that was our second generation of SpaceWorks. And we built that starting with zero in about 1997 to about $25 million in the next three years and we were up to around 300 employees.”

In 2001, Sara launched Best Marketing, LLC, which provides communications, development and marketing advice to early-state software companies. She is an angel investor and immediate past Chairman of the Board of the Dingman Center of Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, where she is also an adjunct professor in marketing. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Sara explains how leading the National Women’s Business Council was a natural extension of her experience. The NWBC was established in 1988, proposed by a Democratic Congressman and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. Currently, it has three focuses: improving the ability of female entrepreneurs to obtain capital, encouraging more women to start companies in STEM-related fields, and removing hurdles for women in rural areas.

“How do we encourage more women and young girls to consider starting companies in STEM-related fields?” Sara asks. “Whether it’s technology, software, engineering or manufacturing or chemistry or architecture, what needs to change from a cultural standpoint, in the way schools were set up to train women in different subjects, and what needs to change in the marketplace that will help nurture and support women that might consider a company in a field that women traditionally don’t start companies in? So, it’s an important issue. 

One hurdle every entrepreneur encounters is obtaining the needed capital, and women have a special problem here: overall lower credit scores.

“And it’s important on many levels, one of which is, we want to see more women represented in those kinds of companies at the national level as well as at the global level, because most women-owned businesses are main street businesses. There are the bakeries, there are the art galleries, there are the nail salons, there are the hair style places, and all of those are great because we all go to those. We support them. They add vibrancy to the neighborhoods. But we want to encourage women to know that there are other options out there. Those aren’t the only things that they’re limited to getting involved in if they have an entrepreneurial tendency.”

Women must be encouraged to take more risks. “Men tend to be bigger risk-takers than women, and men tend to look at the criteria for a career path,” says Sara. “And maybe they would meet eight out of 10 of the criteria and, feel that, ‘Hey, I’m far more qualified to do this than anybody else. I’m going to do it.’ Whereas a female counterpart would look at that criteria. And if she only has eight out of 10, she would think, ‘Well, I better get those other two before I can start it.’ We need to communicate to women and show them by example that you can take a risk and you don’t have to have every last bit of experience.”

One hurdle every entrepreneur faces is obtaining the needed capital, and women have a special problem here: women overall tend to have lower credit scores than men. “From the data that we’ve been collecting, and the feedback that we’ve been hearing through our roundtables both in-person and virtual now, many women’s credit scores are below 700. So, the need for improving their financial literacy is paramount. We don’t know the why. We only know the what. And the whatis the reason that women represent less than 5% of all commercial loans.”

NWBC is talking to U.S. Treasury officials, banks, and credit bureaus to explore better ways to teach financial literacy. Liz believes that ultimately the private sector will be key in kickstarting women’s businesses. She also believes that role models are important and that women mentors should step forward. 

That of course is just what Liz has done, in addition to shining a spotlight on an agency that has been described as “one of the best-kept secrets in Washington.” Liz wants more women to know about NWBC and what it can do to promote women-owned businesses.  With Liz at the helm, NWBC isn’t likely to remain a secret for long.