With sales at her El-Amin's Fish House slumping last year, Sharon El-Amin considered shuttering the nine-year-old eatery near W. Broadway and Penn Av. N. that features delicious fish and chicken entrees and desserts.

Instead, El-Amin turned to WomenVenture, the career and business-development agency, to help her better control expenses and build customer traffic. Monday specials and low-cost promotions were added, boosting receipts enough to keep the four-person enterprise afloat until the economy started improving in the second half of 2009.

"I would say our business is up about 20 percent over last year," El-Amin said Monday as she filled orders. "WomenVenture taught me to be sharper on pricing and new ways to attract and retain customers. We're not back to where we were in 2006, our best year, but business has been pretty steady."

Thanks partly to WomenVenture consulting, there's a future for the fish shop on W. Broadway.

St. Paul-based WomenVenture, with a history that dates to 1978, expects to help about 2,000 women this year reduce debt, save and start a business or buy a home or complete career-transition and placement programs. The organization also trains and places candidates in the traditionally male fields of construction and information technology. It also helps to stabilize or expand more than 100 small businesses through consulting and small-loan programs.

The nonprofit has experienced unprecedented demand since the 2008-09 recession. And WomenVenture has struggled, too.

Tene' Wells, the decade-long president, left the agency last year and several positions went unfilled as WomenVenture struggled to balance last year's $2 million budget amid the prospects of lower funding in 2010, as several foundations and corporations pulled back their giving.

"We'll come in at about $1.8 million in revenue this year," said Deb Wilkens-Costello, a veteran Twin Cities nonprofit executive who took over in February. "We had to revise the budget and tighten our belts. We're focusing more on individual donors and a sliding scale [of fees] so no client is turned away. My first charge from the board was to be fiscally stable and rebuild our reserves. The year 2009 was very stressful. And demand for services goes up every year."

Smaller staff

In short, WomenVenture has reduced its staff of 26 over the last several years to 16 full-time employees. The gap was filled by trained volunteers from supporting businesses such as Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, General Mills and Ecolab.

"We have over 700 volunteers who have stepped up to help us with administrative duties, teach courses on personal finance, résumé building, networking,'' Wilkens-Costello said. Bankers also help with the organization's micro-enterprise and loan-review committee, she added. WomenVenture has made $700,000 in loans to more than 200 commercial borrowers.

"About 75 percent of our clients are paycheck-to-paycheck, working-class women ... who we are trying to elevate to one, better-paying job. The other 25 percent is business development work with women business owners and entrepreneurs," she said.

It's a worthy mission.

Geena Davis is keynoter

And actress Geena Davis is going to help celebrate the mission, the hard work and accomplishment as the keynote speaker at WomenVenture's 15th Annual Fall Leadership Event Nov. 12 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

The award-winning actress, amateur athlete and advocate for girls and women in entertainment, sports and education will address more than 1,000 WomenVenture graduates and supporters who hope to raise nearly $60,000 to ensure that this year's budget is balanced, and to honor local business owners and leaders.

"We wanted to bring in a phenomenal role model, and Geena Davis is quite an advocate for women and girls," Wilkens-Costello said. "We want to bring our community partners together and share our message, our clients and our accomplishments."

And Davis, 54, will look on as grass-roots business owner Sharon El-Amin is honored as a finalist in the "Nothing Ventured-Nothing Gained" awards category.

Another finalist is Yesenia Aceves, who in 1996 arrived in St. Paul as an out-of-work hair stylist from a tough neighborhood in Los Angeles looking for a fresh start at age 23.

Eventually Aceves opened a little shop on Payne Avenue on the East Side. But it wasn't until she hired Diane Paterson, a WomenVenture business consultant, several years ago that she learned to properly manage the business.

"I was struggling," Aceves said, who now owns the five-chair Yesenia's Salon. "I had two shops, but let go of one. I wasn't managing my money right. I didn't have a budget. [Now] I'm working on saving and credit score. I own a home. We're working on a business plan. And one day I want to own my own building."

Ellen Goldberg Luger of the General Mills Foundation will be honored for her career-long advocacy of female advancement. And Roxanne Givens, the businesswoman and philanthropist, will get the lifetime achievement award.

Tickets for the four-hour expo, luncheon and program on Nov. 12 are available at www.womenventure.org.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com