Deidre Hillman has turned her career into one of helping other women succeed in business.

Hillman, state program director of the North Dakota Women’s Business Center in Bismarck, said her work is not always roses but what helps her get up in the mornings is knowing the end result: Helping women with savvy business ideas turn them into successes.

The center helps women throughout the state advance their careers, enhance their leadership skills, and grow their business. It also helps entrepreneurs, those who are seeking to get their business off the ground.

It does this by offering tools and training – whether that is learning how to build a resume or how to network. The benefits for participants: Women walk away with the skills and know-how that increases both their confidence and marketability.

The nonprofit center sits under the umbrella of the CTB, formerly Center for Technology & Business, also located in Bismarck. The NDWBC is funded through grants from the U.S. Small Business Administration and matching funds from the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

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“We were very fortunate to receive some additional funding under the CARES Act, and so we've really had some great opportunities for growth,” Hillman said.

A primary responsibility with federal funding is to offer what she calls one-on-one business advising – “very technical, very specific training to an entrepreneur or small business owner that needs help getting to that next step, whether they've just got the concept sketched on a napkin or they've got a brick and mortar and they want to open their second location or a fifth location.”

Some of the center’s offerings is a six-month long women's leadership program, offered in Bismarck and Fargo, but staff also do mini-sessions around North Dakota. In March, coinciding with Women’s History Month, it hosts a luncheon celebrating women who impact their communities. It also offers technical training in marketing and how to patent a product or trademark an idea.

“The way I sum it up is, we do the business advising, we offer programming, such as luncheons and that sort of thing, and a conference, and then the training that we have throughout the year,” Hillman said.

Deidre Hillman, state program director for the North Dakota Women's Business Center, poses for a photo behind her desk.
Deidre Hillman, state program director for the North Dakota Women's Business Center, poses for a photo behind her desk. Image: Courtesy of Deidre Hillman/N.D. Women's Business Center

Besides direct marketing efforts on social media and other platforms, staff also visit conferences during Small Business Week and partner with regional schools such as Bismarck State College, Concordia University, and Jamestown State College.

It is always nice to get in front of people, but sometimes virtual visits are better. She said the pandemic has affected the center in positive ways.

“We have been able to reach more people than ever,” she said, noting its new online library that has resources and contacts has been popular. “One of the things we did is invest some pretty heavy-duty funds to build what we believe is very specific training, speaking to the culture of the women of North Dakota. … We operate differently than women might operate in Colorado or in Florida, and with that tool anyone across the state can log in and take a look at our training materials and learn more about the Women's Business Center.”

Chelly Ontis, who owns Elegant Designs in Bismarck, said she wishes she had a resource like the Women Business Center when she first became an entrepreneur in 1997. Recently, she worked with Hillman and her team to help the center with its branding and marketing, especially with the new library resource it launched on its website. In that capacity, Ontis said she has been able to see just how much the center helps women with their business plans.

“Being an entrepreneur can be such a lonely journey, everyone has different answers,” she said. “To have a partner to sit down with and say to them, ‘Here’s my idea, tell me how ridiculous it is, or how great it is,’ that can be very helpful.”

The center has tons of resources to help women in business, she said.

Hillman said no new programs will be added this year, but her team will focus on elevating the programs already in place. She wants to reach as many women as possible, not only because it is good business for her but because doing so has dividends felt across the board: When one business succeeds, it’s a boon for that community and the state.

It is always tough to learn about the businesses that struggle and there have been many during the pandemic, she said. But Hillman believes there is hope, especially as business professionals gain the proper know-how and tools to weather the pandemic storm. Sometimes a businesswoman needs to think outside the box, and right now is one of those times.

“I think we’re a lot more fortunate in this area of the country,” she said. “Our goals are set for this year, and what we've decided is to really narrow our programming; and what I mean is, we're not really going to launch anything new, we're just going to pour a lot of energy into what we have.”

Andrew Weeks may be reached at 701-780-1276 or aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com