Although women own nearly a third of businesses in the U.S., their companies receive only 4.4 percent of loan dollars, according to a report by the committee's Democratic members. A similar report is upcoming about minority businesses.
"We see (lending) issues with minorities the same way we've seen them with women. We want to make sure they're getting access to the right help and support," she says.
Cantwell spoke with The Associated Press about small business. Here are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. Why did you introduce the Women's Small Business Ownership Act?
A. We wanted to get a piece of legislation that built on what the committee's previous chair (Mary Landrieu, D-La.) had started. We wanted people to understand that the (gender) gap really existed, and that one of the answers was to tailor lending products for women owners.
When I look at my responsibility to my constituents, I'm always focused on the economy, and how to grow jobs. I feel like we're not quite out of the economic downturn and we're also in this age where there's a lot of job disruption. You have to think about, how are you going to get more women in part of the economic equation? One big way is making sure you're putting capital in the marketplace tailored toward the types of products they would take the most advantage of.
Q. What are the chances of getting the Women's Small Business Ownership Act passed before this Congress ends its term in January?
A. I'm going to try to get it done before the end of the year. But you can see we're in a stalemate effort on things as big as fighting forest fires and transportation bills, things that are expiring at this very minute, and we still can't get decisions. But I'm hoping that will dissipate as the year goes on and people will see this as essential investment in part of our economy. People understand that women are part of our economy.
Q. What do you see as the problem behind the gender gap in lending?
A. All this started in 1988, when we changed laws that required women owners to have a male family member co-sign on a loan. And that really wasn't that long ago. We need to realize there is this gap in financing, what the root causes of it are and what we can do to correct it.
Men (at banks) may perceive women-owned companies differently because they may not understand their products. We obviously want to look at that. The No. 1 thing I heard at the hearing is you need to have financial products tailored to the interests of women. It's very clear that they're interested in microfinancing and intermediate financing, (loans ranging up to $200,000). When you think about the structure of the Small Business Administration programs or conventional financing, they're as not targeted toward the kind of products women think about.
Q. What is on your agenda for helping small business?
A. First, I'd saying making sure that access to capital meets the information age we live in, that give small businesses the money they need to create products and services.
Second, how can we make sure we're helping groups that have been underserved with capital — women and minorities.
Third, taking advantage of exports. Exports are the best avenues for economic growth and new job creation. I'm convinced if you grow U.S. exports, you'll grow U.S. jobs. The global middle class is going to double in size over the next 15 years and represents a huge way to help the U.S. economy. We need to get American small businesses that have come up with great products to really think about these international markets.
We also have an enormous challenge with helping our veterans and veteran-owned small businesses. We have a huge number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Helping to tailor programs for them and turn veterans into entrepreneurs is an area where we need a lot more work.