Becca Cooke is a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of woman.
From a farming family and a self-described penny pincher, Cooke scrounged and saved, tucking away a portion of her income each month as a political fundraising consultant before she had enough to open her own business.
“I don’t come from an affluent family,” said the 29-year-old Cooke, owner of Red’s Mercantile on North Dewey Street. “It was all really from saving money. I wanted to start my own business.”
Understanding how any bit of capital could have helped her transform the building into her own store, Cooke is aiming to make things a little easier for her successors.
Near the front wall of her store stocked with higher-end home goods and jewelry sits a rack with a glittery sign that reads “Red Letter.” Fifteen percent of proceeds from the purchase of those items will go toward a grant to help women start their own businesses.
Cooke was motivated to launch the Red Letter Grant after meeting women shoppers who claimed they wanted to open their own store, but without funds or because of another job, they convinced themselves it wouldn’t work out.
“I think there’s a lot of apprehension in taking the plunge in becoming an entrepreneur,” said Cooke, a North High School graduate. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to say women are more risk averse.”
Many men wouldn’t “second-guess a decision like that,” she said.
Karman Briggs, Women’s Business Center director at Western Dairyland Community Action Agency, said Cooke is leading by granting money to women entrepreneurs, especially because one of the biggest barriers to women starting their own business is access to capital.
“As a result, women tend to start businesses that require less money upfront,” she said, adding that popular startups are in child care, food, and health and wellness.
Statutory restrictions also continue to hold women back, Briggs said, including a law struck down in the 1980s that required women to get a male co-signer when applying for a business loan.
Launched as part of Red’s Mercantile’s one-year anniversary in November, the grant is open to women who want to start a new business or expand their current one. The sign-up period ends May 15.
Women should have a business plan and be prepared to pitch their business to a judging panel of four women, including Cooke. Presentation of the winners will be May 31.
“A red letter in history is like a date of significance,” she said. “That’s what that would be like, a day of opportunity.”
Raised in part from events, proceeds from store items and a matching donation from Zach Halmstad, co-founder of Jamf software, two grants of $2,000 each will be awarded twice a year.
“It’s not just buying stuff, but it feels like a movement,” Cooke said.
One event supporting the grant is tonight at The Plus, 208 S. Barstow St. Red Letter Grant Comedy Night features a lineup of female comedians from 8 to 10:30 p.m. and costs $3 for students and women. Tickets otherwise would cost $5.
Despite her background in fundraising, Cooke wanted to make sure the grant was “people powered.”
“People can buy a pencil, and it directly impacts another woman,” Cooke said of the Red Letter items she has for sale in the store, which include writing utensils, T-shirts and pins.
“I think that’s cool because everybody has a stake in it and all play a role in making it a reality,” she said.
Cooke doesn’t brand herself as a traditional feminist — the kind she commits to the bra-burning era of the 1960s and ’70s. Feminism has changed and now needs to have activism behind it, she said.
Instead of sharing rhetoric with like-minded women or sporting a girl power T-shirt, Cooke sees feminists supporting other women and encouraging them along the way, much like some women business leaders in downtown Eau Claire helped Cooke.
Cooke sees women leaders having a softer approach and empathizing with their employees for such benefits as paid maternity leave.
“When you start bringing more ideas to the table, our marketplace thrives when it comes from more than guys,” she said.
While the Red Letter Grant is one way Cooke is offering a helping hand to fellow women, she also opens her store to poetry readings, workshops, yoga and book clubs.
“This is who I am, and when you live out the values you have in your business in an authentic way — I don’t want to compromise that,” she said.
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