Local business encourages female entrepreneurship through grant program

Red’s Mercantile will give away four $2,000 grants this year

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Photo by Sydney Purpora

The funds for the Red Letter Grant come from a section of products in the store called “Red Letter Goods.” Fifteen percent of the price of each of the items from this section.

A small shop located in downtown Eau Claire is known to offer U.S.-made home goods, accessories and now: Female empowerment.

At the end of May, Red’s Mercantile is giving away two of the year’s four $2,000 grants to women entrepreneurs from the Chippewa Valley who are either looking to start their own businesses or expand their existing businesses.

This is the first time the store has offered the grant, called the Red Letter, and store owner Becca Cooke said she is running the program as a means to give back to women in the area.

“It’s more about connecting women in an authentic way, from the workshops that we do to poetry readings, yoga and things like that,” Cooke said. “This just seemed like an easy way to put something like that together.”

With Red’s having been open for about a year and a half now, Cooke said the idea of connecting with the community through the grant was something she had wanted to do for a while. The actual planning started just last summer.

Customers, Cooke said, would come into the shop and talk about their business or entrepreneurship ideas, but when she asked why they didn’t pursue them, she was met with responses about uncertainty or lack of money. She said the commonality was “fear of taking the plunge.”

Sometimes women need more of a push, and this grant, Cooke said, will give female entrepreneurs more than just the finances to start their own businesses. They will gain confidence and support from this experience.

After all, she said, the Red’s community in particular is one that wants to see these women succeed.

“You might have strong women leaders and women in organizations but nobody at the top,” Cooke said. “I think it’s important to start encouraging women to be the leader instead of just part of the entity.”

The grant fund is supported through a section of Red’s, called Red Letter Goods. When consumers buy products from this section, fifteen percent of what they pay goes back into the fund, making this a people-powered initiative, said Cooke.

When the fund was just over $2,000, Zach Halmstad, co-founder of JAMF Software and mentor to Cooke, offered to match the grant as a way to support her and the program, Cooke said.

Now, the store will give away $8,000 total this year, half of that given through two grants in May and the other half through two in November.

Julia Johnson, project specialist at JAMF Software, will be serving on the judging panel for the upcoming grant decision, along with Cooke and three other Eau Claire women. She said she is pleased to be a part of this effort and is looking forward to seeing what the applicants bring to the table.

“I’m excited to see the diversity that women bring to our community,” Johnson said. “There’s strength in diversity, so the problems that women seek to solve through their entrepreneurship will likely broaden the spectrum of ideas for improvements in our community.”

According to the Red Letter application, applicants must create a business plan and answer three additional questions regarding their passion for the business they want to create, their use of the funds if they win and other resources considered for capital.

The application period for the grant closes May 15; between then and May 30, the applicants will present their business plans and the judges will deliberate, although Cooke said she is not quite sure about the specifics of this. May 31 will see Red Letter Day, where the grant winners will be presented with their awards. Everyone is welcome to attend.

“This is a special push for women who may not get those pushes from society in general or historically,” Johnson said. “I feel like we as a society have decided that women are capable. We support it in theory, but not necessarily in practice. This is kind of an actual step to be more supportive of women in business.”