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Women’s History Month: Impacting Innovation and Economic Growth

By Brittany Sickler, Networks Program Manager, U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA)

Women’s History Month has always been an important time for me to consider the remarkable—and ordinary—stories in our country’s journey to equality. For instance, just after my mother was born in 1944, a bill was introduced proposing employers be required to pay women equal pay for equal work – an iteration of which was ultimately passed almost twenty years later, in 1963. Fast forward to an event in my own lifetime, where the Women’s Business Ownership Act of 1988 secured the right for women to get a business loan without a male co-signer. While those are marked changes, not all progress is brought to life via courts and legislatures – I hold the strong belief that each of us can develop wider and deeper perspectives through which we see the world, growing our understanding of equality and why representation matters.

The Early Years

I grew up in North Dakota, with an ingrained sense of community and a family who expected me to work hard and in service to others. After college, I went to work for a Miami-based microfinance organization, helping women entrepreneurs build credit and access small loans. Following a two-year mission in Guatemala with the Peace Corps, I completed a master’s degree in Community Economic Development thereafter joining a regional office of the U.S. Small Business Administration (EDA) where I helped organize its first Techstars Women’s Startup Weekend.  

After a move to DC and SBA’s Office of Investment and Innovation, my focus shifted to working with women and minority entrepreneurs as they built companies taking technologies from lab to the market. I was able to lead a collaboration with the National Women’s Business Council that resulted in the first comprehensive study examining factors that may influence women’s participation in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs – also known as America’s Seed Fund. While the research sought to answer questions around women in STEM entrepreneurship, it also highlighted many areas where gaps in data impact our ability to understand current needs and weakening the program or policy changes with the potential to improve them.

Joining the Commerce Family

At the end of 2021, I moved to the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) to stand up a new portfolio of projects that power networks of grantees and stakeholders as they address the conditions unique to their regions. Building on personal lessons learned from my previous work in organizing within innovation ecosystem, I find we’re in a wonderful place to test and improve our investments in large-scale peer support and technical assistance. The design of our new Communities of Practice, an Economic Recovery Corps, and Equity Impact Investments programs provide real-time resources to a wide range of economic development organizations, from local governments, regional councils, and planning commissions, to technology parks, manufacturing consortia and workforce support organizations. These projects advance equity by identifying and addressing barriers to equal opportunity that underserved communities face, greatly extending our efforts at EDA to redress inequities that serve as impediments to economic growth in distressed communities across the nation.

Why women’s economic empowerment?

At EDA, I’m constantly inspired by our commitment to creating and sustaining economic opportunity, particularly in distressed areas and with underserved populations. Our focus is not just on women, but it’s clear from research and our experience that when women participate in regional economic development planning and implementation, they have a significant impact across the spectrum from workforce and job creation to innovation and business growth.

In our daily lives, there are endless opportunities to highlight the role of women in all sectors and places. I try to volunteer in spaces working to increase the representation of women in science and technology, venture capital, boards, and more. When I’m around women earlier in their careers, I’m even more transparent talking about finances and salaries, leadership goals, and strategies. And, after spending time with my four-year-old niece, I am both inspired and convinced she can and will be part of advancements—both big and small—for the next generation of women.

I hope to count you all with me as well, inspiring and making women’s history together.

This blog post is part of a series showcasing the women leaders from across the U.S. Department of Commerce in honor of Women's History Month.