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Make Mine A Million Monkeyshines

Any time I see something receive the kind of gushing press that Make Mine A Million $ Business gets, without much objective appraisal, I assume it's a front for a bunch of crooks. Well, not always. Sometimes I suspect that it's a den of thieves.

Neither seems to be the case with M3, as the annual award competition -- which happened earlier this week in Denver -- styles itself. No odor of human trafficking, illegal arms sales, nor so much as jaywalking hangs around either the contest or the organizer Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, the New York City non-profit that started in 1999 as a micro-lender.

Nell Merlino, the CEO of Count Me In and propellant behind M3, is otherwise notable for spearheading the creation of Take Our Daughters to Work Day while working for the Ms. Foundation for Women in the early 1990s. True, it took a decade for the annual event to become Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day. But that was how we rolled back then. It can't be blamed on Merlino.

Awhile back The Debunker asked whether it's time to stop giving women entrepreneurs special help. One question that needs to be asked about M3 specifically is whether it works. The organization has a goal of creating one million women-owned businesses with at least $1 million in annual sales. It doesn't appear that it will soon. Between 1997 and 2011, according to an American Express analysis, the number of women-owned firms topping $1 million in revenue rose from 100,000 to nearly 150,000. At that rate, the number of million-dollar women-owned firms won't reach seven figures until well into the second half of this century.

While apparently having little effect on the number of small-business millionaires, organizers have ginned up the support of a gold-plated roster of corporate sponsors. Lead sponsor American Express provides winners with a $3,000 gift card and a rewards card pre-loaded with 50,000 points. FedEx weighs in with discounts on shipping and printing, while Sam's Club throws in free coaching from The Coach Connection along with a membership to the warehouse discounter.

They also promise "access to financing" from microlender Accion USA but it's unclear what this is worth. Accion loans typically top out at $50,000, which isn't going to do much for a business chasing $1 million in annual sales.

There's nothing wrong with big goals, of course. And Make Mine A Million says that 26 percent of the 263 Make Mine A Million winners have reached $1 million. What's holding the rest back? It may be that the goal isn't something that all women entrepreneurs, even those who enter Make Mine A Million, are after.

Mary Ardapple, owner of Apple's Bakery, in Peoria, Illinois, won in 2006 and today says her revenues are slightly below the $800,000 when she won. However, Ardapple says that's partly due to tough competition and partly by choice, as she has made long-term decisions that reduced top-line sales but increased profits. "I'm more profitable than before," she says. "I've been able to run a black bottom line the last three years with the changes I've made." Ardapple says the coaching, which she still uses, has been the most valuable thing from her involvement.

Pauline Lewis, founder of an Alexandria, Virginia, handbag company oovoo design, was a Make Mine A Million awardee in 2007. "I haven't reached the million-dollar sales mark," she says, "but there are some things that are more important than a number and that is what Make Mine A Million was able to give to me." Participating provided her with an estimated $10,000 in discounts and saving, but more importantly, she says, "I got my sanity back."

Both women advise other female entrepreneurs to explore Make Mine a Million. "It helped me streamline my business, finesse my pitch, give me confidence, instantly connect me to 200+ other business owners who were equally as serious about growing their business," Lewis says.

M3 itself sometimes seems less than serious about business growth. Its annual conference and awards presentation this year included a breakout on "Be Beautiful You: Tools and Techniques for Success with Heidi Schulze." This one promises to reveal "how skincare, makeup, clothing, signature eyewear, and accessories all work together to present both a winning first impression and lasting success." Other sessions are only a little less lightweight, consisting of plain-English explanations of business financials and help with analyzing "your leadership style."

It's risky to suggest that lacking a Y chromosome makes one anything less than a sublime capitalist. And Make Mine A Million doesn't support that contention. There does seem to be something amiss, however, if so few winners actually reach $1 million -- and some don't even mind much. "Because after all," as Heidi Schulze says, "every woman deserves to be beautiful!"

Mark Henricks has reported on business, technology and other topics for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and other leading publications long enough to lay somewhat legitimate claim to being The Article Authority. Follow him on Twitter @bizmyths.
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Image courtesy of Flickr user Dyanna, CC2.0
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