From the moment Mama Cash was founded in 1983, she was determined to be a stepping stone for small and new businesses run by women. Since 1956, it had been possible for women in the Netherlands to get a bank guarantee without the signature of her male partner or father. But even in the 1980s, prejudice caused banks to be reluctant to make loans to women entrepreneurs. Women’s entrepreneurship was still a rarity in the Netherlands.
In the beginning, Mama Cash provided gifts and loans from her own capital, but the founders soon learned that this placed too big a claim on Mama Cash’s resources. From 1985 onward, Mama Cash started referring women entrepreneurs to banks, while she herself acted as guarantor for the loans. The guarantees functioned in two ways as leverage to give women access to banks. Banks were pushed to end their prejudicial practices against women entrepreneurs, and women entrepreneurs were given the kind of practical support needed to set up their businesses.
At first, Mama Cash guaranteed one hundred percent of the loans, up to a maximum of 50,000 guilders (24.000 euros). Soon the amount of the guarantee was reduced to fifty percent of the loan. The other half comprised the bank’s risk. In the beginning, the founders assessed all of the grant requests themselves. By 1986, a separate Working Group Guarantees had been established, advising the founders about awarding the grant requests. In 1990, the Guarantee Fund formed, with its own Board under the umbrella of the Mama Cash Foundation.
A company is like a child
Jos Esajas, the project manager, was the driving force behind the Guarantee Fund. She met with new entrepreneurs in her office and advised them while they developed their business plans. She answered phone calls and worked to make the Guarantee Fund more widely known. ‘Mama Cash is a financial institution, not a consultancy office. But we do make it a point to talk to all of our clients’, Esajas said in an interview with women’s magazine Libelle in 1998. ‘Many women regard their company like a child’, Esejas pointed out in this interview. ‘They are so excited about it, they forget to structure their plans’. She also used to visit entrepreneurs to give them a boost. ‘Esajas is like an aunt to us’, according to one of the entrepreneurs involved. At first, the Mama Cash women themselves took to coaching the entrepreneurs. Beginning in 1996, the Mama Cash Guarantee Fund limited its role to providing guarantees and let external professionals take over the mentoring role.
A sense of reality
The requirements Mama Cash had set for the entrepreneurs she supported were initially very strict. Only women’s businesses that were collectives could qualify for a guarantee. These businesses had to provide work experience and function as a stepping stone to employment for the unemployed. Their business goals had to challenge the traditonal norms, or further other goals of the women’s movement. The first businesses to receive guarantees included publishers, women’s bars, organic agriculture businesses, mechanics and women friendly sex shops.
After a few years the requirements shifted. ‘We noticed a shift from supporting collectives to businesses led by an individual woman, closely connected to a growing understanding of professional and commercial interests of a company’, the founders observed in the first annual report 1983 – 1986: ‘A strong sense of reality and a commercially orientated approach are requirements for the success of a woman’s business.’
The activities of the Guarantee Fund became more business-like. Entrepreneurs requesting guarantees needed to have commercial business plans based on solid financial outlines. Additionally, beginning in 1991, enterprises were expected to ultimately generate wages. (In the 1980s, many feminist enterprises were run by women who received some form of government support. They would request financial support for rent and business costs from Mama Cash, while benefits would provide for their income.)
Mama Cash began receiving requests from women striving for financial independence, but who were not specifically feminist. The women wanted to start typical women’s trade businesses such as hairdressing and beauty salons, and fashion and clothing stores. ‘Even a shop for bridal gowns’, founder Marjan Sax exclaims, dismayed even after twenty years. That could not be the job of a fund whose purpose is to challenge the heterosexual norm!
Priority to black women, immigrant and refugee women.
In order to recover her reputation as a social conventions breaking women’s fund, Mama Cash sharpened her policies from 1995. The fund would focus on innovative and non-traditional women’s businesses. Requests from black, migrant and refugee women would receive pritority. Later on, these priorities shifted to include young and re-employed women, women who were sole providers for their families and women on welfare. An example of a business that got a guarantee in the late 1990s was Geylani Şahin Impex, wholesaler and retail shop selling fruits and vegetables.
Project with Rabobank
The Mama Cash Guarantee Fund initiated the creation of networks and partnerships. Together with the Rabobank, in the 1990s she set up a special programme for new black, migrant and refugee entrepreneurs. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment negotiated with Mama Cash about the possibility of women starting an enterprise while maintaining their welfare. The Ministry of Economic Affairs started a public campaign with the motto ‘Hidden Potential’ aimed at women entrepreneurs in the beginning of the 1990s. Also various Chambers of Commerce started to give more attention to the specific needs of women in their membership.
An example of a ‘man’s business’ run by a black woman was the multi-cultural undertaking concern, Final Farewell, located in the south-east district of Amsterdam. Entrepreneur Leny Oostwoud’s business plan was ‘very good’, the Mama Cash archives noted in 1996. ‘Mrs. Oostwoud possesses the necessary qualifications and is doing an internship in a morgue’. Both the ABN AMRO and the ING Bank had refused her request for a 60,000 guilder (28.500 euro) loan because she did not have enough start-up capital of her own. ‘Mama Cash was willing to guarantee my loan’, Leny Oostwoud says. ‘At the same time, I received an offer with favourable conditions from the Rabobank, with whom Mama Cash had set up a special programme for new black, migrant and refugee entrepreneurs. That’s why I decided to go for the Rabobank. If they had refused my request as well, I would have made use of Mama Cash’s guarantee. The bank examined my business plan and gave me feedback. The project was a great initiative. It’s been very productive for me’.
Counterweight against the establishment
Oostwoud gives Mama Cash partial credit for her success as an entrepreneur. ‘Mama Cash was a counterweight against the establishment. She helped to challenge the prejudices against women as entrepreneurs, prejudices such as ‘women will quit their business as soon as they’re pregnant’, or ‘women are part-time entrepreneurs’. Without a doubt she contributed to banks seeing women in a more positive way and fully accepting us as entrepreneurs’.
Tendayi Matimba took over Jos Esejas’ job as Project Manager in 1999. Compared to the beginning, the Guarantee Fund had become rather ‘ordinary’ in Matimba’s eyes. The Fund’s Board consisted of a bank director, a lawyer and a business consultant, all women. ‘Financial institutions directed women to us and indeed turned to us for advice’, Matimba says. When in doubt about the feasibility of a business plan, Mama Cash would have a strengths/weaknesses analysis carried out. Businesses receiving guarantees were properly monitored. ‘The feminist ideals that had driven Mama Cash in the beginning, were ‘so eighties’, says Matimba. Also, around the turn of the millennium there simply were not as many battle fronts left. She compares Mama Cash of the 1990s to a polished diamond: ‘She had lost her edge’.
Near the end of the 1990s Mama Cash concluded that requests for loans by women entrepeneurs were received more readily, and even eagerly, by the banks. By the year 2000, business women had become a growth market for banks. ABN AMRO had followed in Rabobank’s footsteps by setting up a programme specifically for women entrepreneurs. Women also received support from the Dutch government: geginning in 2000, new entrepreneurs receiving welfare were able to contract for a loan. In addition, the ‘Aunt Agatha Decree’ was put into effect by the Tax Department. This meant that new entrepeneurs’ family members or acquaintances were allowed to receive tax deductions when investing in their family or friends’ businesses.
Sister Guarantee Fund in Suriname
At the beginning of the new millennium, Mama Cash and the National Women’s Movement of Surinam looked into the possibility of setting up a sister Guarantee Fund in Surinam. They contacted women’s organisations, banks, as well as small and medium-sized businesses in Paramaribo. The Surinam-based Uma Kraka Fonds was founded in 2001.
Ending the Guarantee Fund due to success
Due to its success in breaking down gendered prejudices in approving business loans in the Dutch banking sector, Mama Cash decided to close the Guarantee Fund in 2002. Prior to making this decision, research had been done among women entrepreneurs. The research demonstrateed that significant changes had taken place between 1985 and 2002. Banks recognised the strength of women entrepreneurs. Women entrepreneurs were now perceived as good and safe investments. Women encountered fewer prejudices when they approached banks. Managing business and family responsibilities had become commonplace. Women receiving welfare who wanted to start a business could count on support from the government. In addition, new entrepreneurs were able to consult with a large body of advisors. The Guarantee Fund had reached its goals and was therefore no longer needed. Mama Cash could not have dreamt of a better result.
Founder Marjan Sax: ‘Mama Cash managed to show that businesswomen also needed financial support and that women are fully capable of successfully running a business. The fact that we were willing to take risks attracted publicity, which in turn generated more money. But in fact our influence on the financial world was not too big’.
Sax’s outlook on Mama Cash’s role may be too modest. The very act of bringing together women entrepreneurs and banks in the 1980s and 90s was radical and was an important catalyst in changing bank practices and changing the levels of confidence of women entrepreneurs to approach banks for loans.
The stunning success of the Guarantee Fund did have an unforseen downside. Many Dutch people still think of Mama Cash solely as a fund that provides support to women entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, rather than as a fund that supports many forms of women’s, girls’ and trans activism worldwide.