When mother and daughter duo Aisha and Ruth miller decided to start their own business, they decided that a Tropical Smoothie Café would be a perfect fit for the Southwest Suburban Burbank community.  The franchise had a playbook for success, and the market seemed ready for a health fast-casual dining option.  

“I think the community where I grew up, and locally here, there’s a lot of unhealthy food options and so just providing people with variety and allowing them to have the choice to eat healthfully,” Aisha Miller, 33, said.

She is a graduate of Morgan Park High School who holds and MBA from the University of Michigan.   

Ruth Miller, 61, had spent decades as an educator and a principal.

“I spent my entire life working for other people. And just being able to start something and work with my family, and build it, just the achievement of it feels good,” she said.  

But the biggest hurdle was securing a bank loan.  According to the Tropical Smoothie Cafe, the average cost to open a restaurant is around $400,000. 

Finding a bank to provide a loan was a difficult, often frustrating process.

“It took four or five months for them to get back to us,” Aisha Miller said. “Then when they got back to us, they were like you have to re-do all the paperwork.”  

Similar hurdles are encountered by would-be-women business owners across the country, a problem known to economists as “the gender lending gap.”  

Women receive just 16 percent of all conventional business loans, according to government data.  

The average loan for a business owned by women is 33 percent lower than for businesses owned by men, according to a survey by the firm Biz2Credit.    

That’s why a group of women started First Women’s Bank; a commercial bank head quartered in Chicago’s Goose Island neighborhood.  It was founded last September as a “purpose-driven bank” with a mission to advance the role of women in the economy.  

“We’re seeking to solve the gender lending gap,” Marianne Markowitz, the banks president and CEO, said.

She is bringing her experience from the corporate world and from the government. She served as the acting head of the U.S. Small Business Administration during the Obama Administration.  

“We’re the only bank that’s been formed to address this issue at a national level and to close the gender lending gap,” Markowitz said.  

The bank tailors the customer experience to what women say they want – consultation, close relationships, encouragement, and access, instead of the standard, impersonal paperwork.  

Major corporations have recognized that women are driving growth in the global economy, and United Airlines, Aon, Comcast, Microsoft, Wendy’s, William Blair and others have agreed to deposit money in first women’s bank at no interest.  

“Those are mission deposits meaning that there’s no financial return, there’s social return,” she said. “And they’re doing it to support the sustainability of this bank and our effort.” 

Thanks to the First Women’s Bank, Ruth and Aisha Miller celebrated their grand opening in June. 

“There are a lot of ambitious women out here,” Ruth Miller said. “They want to start businesses, have started businesses, and in order for them to be successful, they need some sort of funds to come in and support them. I think they should be given the same opportunity.”