Julie Abrams (right) with a student from a class at the Women’s Initiative for Self- Employment.
Julie Abrams (BS89) Launches Careers for Low-Income Women
“My heart has always been with women’s organizations,” says Julie Abrams (BS89), CEO of the Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment. The California-based nonprofit that she heads provides training, funding and support to help low-income women launch businesses and achieve economic self-sufficiency. Last year alone these women created nearly 6,000 jobs.
A social worker by training, Abrams describes the Women’s Initiative as “an incredibly successful strengthbased approach to poverty alleviation.” Her formula combines a focus on hopes, dreams and vision with practical assistance and a network of support. “Poverty is often about social isolation,” she says, noting that the Women’s Initiative helps to break down that barrier.
Abrams is proud that not only does the average graduate of the Women’s Initiative create 2.4 jobs, but also 70 percent of the women are in business five years later with consistent sales.
The women who become her clients have low incomes and high potential. For example, she tells of a former line cook who started a baked goods business that now has two locations and a former prostitute who started a professional massage business that now employs 100 people. “It’s absolutely fantastic because you know they’re selfsufficient, and that’s the most empowering thing of all!” she exclaims.
“We give women participatory, functional and contextbased learning — it’s important to understand how valuable and transformational that is.” Through an 11-week course, the women create business plans. They also take a personal empowerment class that develops their vision, confidence and financial know-how. “Softer skills like these are harder for women,” says Abrams, who finds that women are more likely than men to seek training before starting a business.
Looking back on her own career preparation, Abrams says her SESP major in human development and social policy comes into play every day. Describing as “totally cool” her classes on anti-poverty strategies, issues of race and social justice, and group dynamics, she says, “I fell in love with the courses at Northwestern.”
College was also life-changing in that Abrams experienced “an awakening of social justice issues around women.” At Northwestern she was surprised that some women didn’t feel the same sense of power she did and were hanging onto outdated ideas about barriers for women.
Growing up as an athlete with four sisters, she had a natural interest in women’s issues without even knowing it. “Athletics creates a serious sense of power and accomplishment,” she explains. She also credits her class on gender roles as well as female friends on campus with shaping her beliefs.
“I got the bug for working in the women’s movement, and Northwestern gave me the first opportunity,” she recalls. When she was looking for an internship, the Women’s Center at Northwestern connected her with Chicago Foundation for Women.
After graduation she worked in the governor’s office, then as a social worker, consultant and director of development. Now as a CEO for 10 years, she runs the organization, raises money, coordinates boards, leads strategic planning and does public speaking. “I could be the program director one day and a grant writer the next day,” she notes with a laugh. To add to the mix, her job description also includes wife and mother of two.
Looking ahead, Abrams aims to grow the Women’s Initiative, which currently has 75 workers at 18 locations in northern California. A Chicago location is opening this spring, and a New York location will follow soon.
Still, she has broader goals on a societal level, emphasizing the importance of economics for people involved in social policy and her desire to change the thinking about economic policy. “We need to help people create incomes of their own and stabilize neighborhoods,” she maintains.
Pointing out that most job growth comes from business startups, she stresses the need to provide opportunities for people to start businesses in low-income areas. “We need a balanced approach where we don’t discount the potential for innovation, invention and ownership for people who are out of power,” she says. “If you can take poor people and put their energy toward their vision, they can do a lot.”