Therese Gulbransen discovered an entrepreneur in a waiting room.

The outgoing and affable entrepreneur, now vice president for marketing and sales at American Printing, struck up a conversation with a young African American woman in a clinic waiting room when the topic turned to child care, and the fact that many of the woman’s friends and family work second shift.

“She said, ‘I would love to start a child care for second shift parents,” Gulbrannsen recalls. I said, ‘Are you going to pursue that?’ She said, ‘Yeah, I’m definitely …’ and I said ‘Are you really going to pursue that? That’s something you should really do. That’s a good idea.’”

Gulbransen, who currently serves as Chair of the Advisory Board for A Fund For Women, has seen this before — women with great ideas and entrepreneurial spirit who never quite get their ideas off the ground.

“When I said, ‘Are you really going to do that,’ she was like, ‘Yeah, I mean I want to.’ It was that little hesitation,” Gulbransen said. “We gotta get that woman to, ‘Oh yeah, I’m doing it. And here’s where I’m going to do it.’ A Fund For Women could be that conduit to get people through that, ‘Yeah, I’m probably going to do it,’ to ‘Yeah, I’m going to do it.’ That would be what I dream about. That’s a victory for me.”

Gulbransen and her colleagues who work with her on A Fund For Women spur those victories by leveraging the fund’s $2 million endowment to award more than $100,000 in grants each year to agencies and organizations that empower women and girls. The fund will announce $60,000 in grants at its annual Imagine Madison dinner on October 25; tickets are still available.

The fund started in 1993 with 100 women putting in $1,000 each to get started. Since then, they’ve awarded more than $1.2 million to agencies in Dane County. The fund’s priorities have evolved over the years, with a focus on issues like support for caregivers and support for young women ages 16-24. Now, though, the fund is laser-focused on economic empowerment, and has made a decision to make larger, more impactful grants to a smaller number of agencies capable of working toward that goal.

“You can do a lot more with $35,000 than you can with $5,000,” Gulbransen said. “We’re really buying into being a bigger player with agencies to help them get to the next level. We want to be a part of game-changing.”

This new strategic focus on women’s economic empowerment was based on some staggering facts. Women in Dane County earn only 84 percent of their male counterparts. When broken down by race the numbers are worse for women of color (66 percent for Asians, 57 percent for African Americans, and 43% percent for Hispanics). Additionally, while poverty in Dane County is below the national average (6 percent compared to 14.5 percent) when broken down by race the results are rather dismal. Forty percent of African American and 30 percent of Hispanic family households in Dane County have income below the federal poverty line, higher than their counterparts statewide and compared to only 3 percent of white households. Research has shown that investing in women is one of the best investments community can make. Results range from ten times to 40 times return on investment, helping to erase poverty in a community.

“The advantages to a young African American woman and to a young Caucasian woman are very different,” Gulbransen said, noting that it’s hard enough as a woman to have the confidence it takes to seek funding and start a business, let alone as a woman of color. “It’s troubling to me as a Caucasian woman who walks in with the immediate privilege in comparison. That’s disturbing. It’s more disturbing how difficult it is to talk about. It’s asinine. I don’t know what else to say.”

Recent success stories include grants made to Girls, Inc of Greater Madison and YWeb, a YWCA program that teaches computer programming and related skills in an intensive three-month program followed by an approved internship.

“It’s great because they have people who go through the program, a pretty intense program, and literally end up exiting with the skills necessary to tackle the job,” Gulbransen said.

Chicago native Amber Walker graduated from YWeb this spring, did her internship with Madison365 and now works full time as an education reporter at the Capital Times.

“YWeb enabled me to effectively shift careers and focus on my entrepreneurial goals,” Walker said. “It’s liberating to be able to follow my passions. YWeb equipped me with the necessary tools to live my life on my own terms.”

That inspired confidence is really at the core of the work A Fund For Women does, Guldransen said.

“Through some of these programs, women can get a piece of confidence and self-assuredness, and just a sense of, ‘I deserve this,’” she said. “Women can start to understand that there are places to go.”

Gulbransen herself has been in the woman entrepreneur’s shoes. Working in healthcare as a single mom and attending nursing school in the Twin Cities, she moved to Madison intending to transfer to Edgewood, but bought a small printing company instead. It was just her and a business partner who bought the company, headquartered in the basement of the Fast Forward Roller Rink.

“My lawyer bill was almost as much as the company’s gross sales,” she remembers with a laugh.

Even though she had a father and two brothers in the printing business, she said, “I didn’t know anything about printing, but I did love working with people.” Her business grew, and within a few years she had acquired another printing company, and in 2009 sold to American Printing, where she now works.

It was early on in the printing business that she got involved with A Fund For Women, donating some print services in 1994, just a year after the fund’s inception. She later joined the marketing committee, then the executive committee, then took a break to battle breast cancer, then returned as chair last year.

“I’ve seen the fund go through a lot,” she says with a hint of excitement and pride. “It has gone from 100 women giving $1,000 to a fund that grew a half a million, to a million, not it sits at two million.”

Gulbransen says she wants to change the game. What game is that, exactly?

“I would say that we are looking to have more opportunity for young women to explore entrepreneurship, education, apprenticeship training, and really have the ability to get through what it’s going to take to succeed at some of this stuff,” she says. “There are so many issues in people’s lives that are stopping them dead in their tracks from accomplishing that next great thing. What we want to do is, if you imagine the life cycle of a woman who just becomes of adult responsibility age and think about her life, can it have an earning that keeps her and her family happy, comfortable, can take vacation, can have a happy and vibrant life, can save for their future, and ultimately invest back into their community?”

“Our fund is about the people, not the donors,” she adds. “It’s nice that we can donate time and resources, but the reality is, it’s not for us to feel good. Our ‘feel good’ is when I read about (the woman at the doctor’s office) and she just started a second shift daycare and she’s got another one opening on the east side. That’s the win.”