CAMEO’s history, like that of many entrepreneurial endeavors, can be traced back to long planning sessions at the kitchen table. Its four founders usually met in Santa Rosa at the home of one of their parents, who put them up, fed them, and let them hold their day-long meetings in the kitchen.
In 1993, a grant from the James Irvine Foundation brought together four pioneering leaders from around the state:
- Mimi Van Sickle of Women’s Economic Growth (Weed)
- Sheilah Rogers of West Company (Ukiah)
- Debi Clifford of Women’s Initiative for Self Employment (San Francisco)
- Forescee Hogan-Rowles of the Coalition for Women’s Economic Development (Los Angeles)
Each founder was determined to create and enrich business development programs serving low-income women entrepreneurs. They quickly realized that in order to serve this population, there was a pressing need for advocacy work. “Several regulations affected the ability of low-income women (and particularly welfare clients) to even imagine starting their own business,” remarks Rogers, “and these needed to be addressed.” Welfare clients, for example, were not allowed to hold assets, presenting a major barrier to business ownership. “We realized that if we were to move forward, we needed to start some kind of trade association that would let us do it.”
They called their new endeavor the California Association for Micro Enterprise Opportunity.
“We were developing without a lot of other pioneers, so we were really learning from each other,” Rogers explains. “This was a time when we were introducing ourselves to the legislature and trying to get this concept out, and we always had a fairly decent reception. It seemed to be an idea people could understand: we’re talking small business development, we’re talking about opportunity for people who haven’t had access, and we’re figuring out ways to make it happen for them and to improve their families’ economic and social conditions. And that rang true.”
The next step was to create a stand-alone nonprofit with a board of directors. “Our board has always been one of our strengths; we’ve always managed to bring in professionals from all sectors of economic development, including government and private industry.”
By 1994, it was time to complete the process and hire a full-time CEO, who could be an advocacy person in Sacramento and develop the organization into a true statewide association of microbusiness development organizations. CAMEO found its advocate in Laurie Pantell. During her tenure,
- CAMEO was incorporated,
- held its first two conferences in Sacramento,
- grew from a handful of members to over 100, and
- introduced state-level microbusiness legislation.
Sustainability and Growth
In August 1997, Catherine Marshall took the helm. She established CAMEO as a premier training and capacity building program, expanding the scope of its advocacy and hiring the association’s first staff. Sheilah Rogers says of those years, “We felt the spirit of being pioneers, forming this association in such a large state, and we had actually pulled it off. Even though it wasn’t a rich organization, it benefited from our experience of working together—it had a solid base.”
The original concept held true; microbusiness development programs needed advocacy and capacity building. This field was different from other forms of business development, and there was a lot to learn. The programs were working with a target population that faced barriers that other people going in to business wouldn’t necessarily encounter. They didn’t have access to capital and training and often didn’t even know that self-employment might be an option. They also didn’t have much self-esteem or self-confidence, and might encounter personal, family, or social obstacles. These difficulties made the need for capacity building—supporting programs’ work and exchanging best practices—critical.
The organization began to look beyond the boundaries of California, toward building institutional support for an entrepreneurial culture in the United States, and so in 2007 hired Claudia Viek as CEO to build the organization into a national voice. Today, CAMEO operates as the largest state microbusiness association in the country, and serves as an industry leader from San Francisco to Washington, DC. It continues to highlight best practices within the sector, and to advocate for an increased awareness and support of the nation’s smallest, most fertile businesses.