The WISE Women’s Business Center Marks a Decade of Helping Women Bring Business Ideas to Reality

Berenice Bonilla had long pondered entrepreneurship. When she moved back to her native Syracuse in 2015, she turned to the WISE Women’s Business Center for help. Utilizing the center’s resources, she soon founded The Bérica Agency for Purposeful Branding, a strategic communications firm that supports socially focused companies. “Attending events and classes at the center was one of the very first things I did,” Bonilla says. “It gave me the opportunity to socialize with sharp, like-minded women and work toward reaching a concrete goal.”

Bonilla is just one example among hundreds of entrepreneurs who have achieved success with the support of the WISE Women’s Business Center, established through the Whitman School’s Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship. This year marks the center’s 10th anniversary. To date, it has provided more than 10,000 hours of entrepreneurship counseling. 

The center evolved out of the WISE (Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship) Symposium, which was launched 15 years ago as a single-day event hosted by the Falcone Center. The goal was to educate women on their options for starting a small business. The annual event, which has featured such speakers as Barbara Corcoran from ABC’s Shark Tank, grew to nearly 1,000 attendees. After four years, participants wanted more. 

“Many people told us the symposium inspired them to start a business, but they didn’t know where to go for more information,” says Joanne Lenweaver, the center’s director. “There were really no resources for them in our community.”

To help aspiring female entrepreneurs, Whitman secured a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) grant to establish the WISE Women’s Business Center.

Service offerings expanded from free counseling to classes on specialized skills, such as writing a business plan and launch strategies, as well as opportunities for mentoring and networking. The center outgrew its original space at the University’s South Side Innovation Center and now calls The Tech Garden in downtown Syracuse its home. The move proved positive: Client numbers continue to rise as women from outside Syracuse hear about the center and seek its services.

The efforts of Lenweaver and the center have gained widespread notice. This summer, Lenweaver traveled to Lima, Peru, to serve as a delegate for the center and the U.S. State Department at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation to address ways to get women more involved in the economy on a global scale. 

Whether domestic or international, small- or large-scale, Lenweaver said the center staff focuses on being realistic and supportive. In the decade since the center opened, it has helped more than 8,000 clients advance their ventures. The center’s collective impact on the lives of female entrepreneurs is immense and will continue to grow exponentially.

Kerri Howell

Kerri is director of communications and media relations for the Whitman School. She is responsible for managing all internal and external communications with students, faculty, staff, alumni, members of the business community and other key stakeholders.After receiving her B.A. from State University of New York at Geneseo, she went on to earn her M.S. in communications management from Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she has served as an adjunct professor in the public relations department since 2004.