Inspiring women one grant at a time

Local business owner hopes to open doors for women entrepreneurs with creation of the Red Letter Grant


Photo by Taylor Reisdorf

Becca Cooke, owner of Red’s Mercantile, created the Red Letter Grant in November 2016.

Starting a business is a long process that requires planning but a local business owner said that shouldn’t stop aspiring female entrepreneurs.

The lack of female mentors and leaders present in Wisconsin makes the process all the more difficult for those interested in starting a business, said Becca Cooke, the owner of the downtown Eau Claire clothing store Red’s Mercantile.

Women make up only 31 percent of business owners in Wisconsin, according to Red’s Mercantile’s website.

Cooke said she realized the shortage in female business owners, leaders and mentors as she advanced along the process of creating a business of her own. The deficit inspired Cooke to take action.

In November 2016, the first anniversary of Red’s Mercantile’s opening, Cooke created the Red Letter Grant. Twice a year, a total of four women receive a grant of $2,000 each to assist them in starting their own businesses.

“The hope is to have more women in leadership positions and owning their own business,” Cooke said. “(The grant) is meant to encourage more women to think outside of the box and think about what they could do if they had a little capital to get started.”

In the year since its creation, the grant has evolved. It went from being an entirely in-store concept, with funding coming from a section of the store, to a community effort.

While a section of the store is still dedicated to raising money for the grant, local businesses, organizations and community members have gotten involved.

Local businesses have hosted events as a means to fundraise for and raise awareness about the Red Letter. These events have turned out to be the largest source of funding for the grant, Cooke said.

In February, the Red Letter Tasting was held, where those in attendance could taste and purchase coffee grounds sold at Red’s Mercantile. There have also been a few events done with Clearwater Comedy.

The most recent and most successful fundraiser thus far, said Cooke, occurred this past Wednesday. Midwest Feminist hosted an event, called The Red Benefit, at The Dive to support the Red Letter Grant.

The Red Benefit included a silent auction of items provided by female-owned businesses, female musicians, female comedians and special drinks based off of famous and empowered women.  

Annemarie Payson, a senior journalism student at UW-Eau Claire, and Taylor Ehlert, a first-year kinesiology student at Eau Claire, both see the grant as positive for advancement in female leadership.

“I think (the grant) is incredibly important, especially in a town like Eau Claire, where we have a lot of small businesses and everything is basically rooted in small businesses,” Payson said.

The grant, Payson said, provides a great foundation for female entrepreneurs. It acts as a force that not only will give women opportunity and the push they may need to start their own business, but also inspire others in the community and beyond.

Similarly, Ehlert said she understands the financial difficulty that comes with starting a business, and believes having something like the Red Letter Grant is important in encouraging women to pursue leadership positions.

“If they know that they have people supporting them, they will take more chances,” Ehlert said.

The first round of the grant process, which took place in the spring, went very well, Cooke said.

“I couldn’t believe how many people came out of the woodwork. It kind of shows that when you inspire women in the right way, they’ll show up and shine,” Cooke said.

There were a total of 13 applicants, and the recipients of the grant were Elle McGee, Serena Wagner and Melissa Wilson.

McGee and Wagner own Odd Brand Strategy, a design firm focused on marketing, social media and website design. Wilson owns Melnatural, which sells an array of natural beauty and skin care products.

Both businesses, which are based in Eau Claire, have been successful, Cooke said. Products and contact information for both businesses can be found online. The next grant recipients will be announced in November of this year.  

The grant and its process are still in the introductory stages. Since the grant is still new, Cooke said she is figuring everything out as she goes and can’t say exactly how far it will go.

However, with how much the grant developed in the past year alone, Cooke said her hopes for the future of the grant are high. Cooke said, ideally, the grant will become something based outside of the store. She desires a continuation of growth within the community and even region-wide.