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Make It Your Business To Support Women In Business

It’s well known that small businesses are often hit hardest in a recession; it’s a topic that’s attracted plenty of media coverage. But what hasn’t been much discussed is the unprecedented toll the most recent economic slump has taken on woman business owners. As the U.S. exited the previous recession of the early 1990s women began to increase their numbers among the small business owning population. This increase continued into and beyond the recession of the early 2000s.

Robert W. Fairlie’s Self-Employed Business Ownership Rates in the United States: 1979-2003 (2004) found that the self-employment rate for women in 1979 was 42 percent of the rate for men, but grew to 55 percent by 2003. Similarly, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Advocacy’s 2009 edition of The Small Business Economy: A Report to the President , reports that women have increased their proportion of the self-employed over the last decade.

According to the SBA Office of Advocacy’s most recent (2010) edition of The Small Business Economy, small businesses in certain recessionary periods experience greater job losses when the economy sheds jobs. Which means, of course, that as women increasingly venture into small business ownership, they also become increasingly vulnerable to economic loss.

The SBA Office of Advocacy’s 2009 Small Business Economy report shows that, following the unraveling of the housing market, small businesses struggled significantly. Unincorporated self-employment fell by nearly a million from 2007 to the end of 2008. And this same report outlined the unwillingness, or inability, of small businesses to “expand, hire new workers, invest in new plant and equipment, or borrow money.”

Depressed yet?

Though this intro may suggest it, my aim isn’t to bum everybody out. Instead of discussing at length how much this recession has hurt women, especially those who bravely began their own companies, I’d much rather promote a discussion of the major role women in small businesses will play in our economic recovery, in particular, by sharing excerpts from interviews I had the privilege of doing with two real, actual women small business owners.

Which segues nicely into some good news.

SBA data shows that not only will small firms lead as the economy gains jobs, account for most new jobs, and make up roughly half of the U.S.’s private sector work force, but women will likely continue to enter the self-employed and small business world in the coming years.

As the number of women business owners goes up, the amount of evil in the world decreases. It's chart science.

A 2009 study on Self-Employed Women and Time Use by Tami Gurley-Calvez, Katherine Harper, and Amelia Biehl, examined time-use patterns of self-employed women and found that as widespread policies to encourage business ownership among women begin to address issues of work-life balance, racial disparities in self-employment, and human capital through education, women may choose to enter self-employment in ever greater numbers.

And that brings me to some “you heard it from the source” information from two very talented women small business owners: Nancy Buller of Couleurs de Saison, a unique French fashion and home accessories company providing goods in stores throughout the U.S. (such as Anthropologie), as well as through the Couleurs de Saison online store; and Aura Davis of Punch Publicity, a boutique marketing and public relations company based in Seattle.

From my interview with Nancy Buller, Couleurs de Saison

Buster Blonde: Nancy, did you always imagine that you’d one day own your own business, or did Couleurs de Saison surprise you?

Nancy Buller: I’ve been entrepreneurial for as long as I can remember. In college, I took an entrepreneurship class where the professor and all of our guest lecturers, including Bezos of Amazon, told us, the one thing about starting a company is that even after your great idea and endless planning and preparation, you will still not have all of the answers. But don’t be afraid to jump in and figure it out as you go! My first business venture was a wedding planning business that I started with my girlfriend as a side job in the early days of our careers.  We did pretty well, but most importantly we learned that our mentors were correct, sometimes it’s worth the risk of just getting going, no matter the outcome. The experience is very rewarding.

BB: Regarding the timing of Couleurs de Saison’s start, did forming a business during a recession intimidate you or motivate you?

NB: Before deciding to start my business I worked for 7 years for the same company and had a great job, but something was missing in my life.  Despite having security, I was unable to find peace and pure joy in my everyday experiences.  I began to focus on the fact that I would only find my happiness if I ventured out on my own, to create my own life. I made the giant leap to quit my stable, well-paying job with health benefits, to find my own dream in this world, despite the plummeting economy. To me, the impact on our economy and the fears we now face as a nation have no real end in sight. The idea of “riding” out the economy in a corporate position could mean forever staying corporate. The challenges of starting a business in this recession motivate me to find a way, even in the toughest of circumstances.

BB: I’m sure there are countless hurdles to successfully launching a new business, but what, if any, hurdles did you face specifically as the result of being a woman?

NB: For me, the biggest hurdle I faced was myself. Self-doubt can be overwhelming, and when you are a woman, it seems even more likely that you’ll doubt yourself because of pre-conceived notions that are in our society.

Luckily I have had the pleasure of having very strong woman professionals and entrepreneurs inspiring me. Volunteering for the Jr. League of Seattle, a non-profit solely operated by smart and confident women, and working for my mentor for more than 7 years, a very successful woman entrepreneur, have helped me overcome my self-doubt.

BB: What is the best thing you did during your first few months in business?

NB: Make mistakes! I made a lot of big mistakes in the first few months of business, and of course I am still making them, but I am definitely learning and becoming more empowered for it. Also, talking with others openly and honestly about your business and your mistakes is extremely enriching. Sometimes it is easy to get trapped in the vacuum of your own mind and ideas, talking with others helps you reach the perspective you couldn’t see as easily on your own.

BB: Are there particular hurdles in your business or industry that you anticipate facing in the coming year? If so, how are you poised to address those challenges?

NB: Primarily our business was focused on the wholesale operations and we made a U.S. tour visiting multiple cities throughout the country looking for potential retail customers.  City after city, we directly saw how many independent businesses were hit hard by our economic downfall. Retail spaces everywhere were vacant, with mainly large corporate retailers remaining.  Our biggest challenge as a small and independent company is to continually differentiate ourselves from the deep-pocketed retail conglomerates. We try to do this by offering unique products by French designers that are mostly made in France and Morocco.

BB: When interacting with buyers and vendors do you find you mostly deal with women or men? And do you notice any differences between the interactions you have with male buyers/vendors as compared with those you have with female buyers/vendors?

NB: In the fashion industry there are a lot of women entrepreneurs and professionals. From my experience, it seems that men and women in this industry are quite equal in both their successes and in how they interact with those around them. I think this industry is fortunate in that regard.

BB: As a woman business owner do you feel pressure to “behave like a man” in certain instances?

NB: When I look around at successful companies, there is most often a man at the helm. And I wondered if I was hungry enough in business to engage in the activities that I felt might be necessary to be successful. So for me, it came down to a very important question, how do I measure success? Does success mean that I have to grow a company in hopes of one-day going public or finding a large buyer? Do I want to manage a company of 50-100 employees? My answer is “no”. Those are not my goals. My goal is to simply have a business that infuses my passion every day, and to be successful enough to provide for the needs and wants in my life.  And it doesn’t matter what gender I am, I want to find my success in my own way.

BB: If you could do it all over again, would you?

NB: Yes! Mobilizing myself past the fear of potential failure to live a journey like the one I am currently living is the most rewarding experience!

BB: What is the song that runs through your head on a particularly great day at the “office” or on the road–your professional badass theme song, if you will?

NB: Elton John’s “I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That.”  The song is full of self-empowerment and kicks up my endorphins.

From my interview with Aura Davis, Punch Publicity

Buster Blonde: Aura, prior to forming Punch Publicity you worked in the corporate public relations department of a large health system, what prompted you to leave the safety of a big employer to create your own business?

Aura Davis: I come from a family of entrepreneurs and knew at a very young age that I wanted to eventually be my own boss. From the time I chose public relations and design as my career path, I started working toward the goal of starting a business. Leaving my corporate job was not an easy decision, but I had been moonlighting with my business [Punch Publicity] for three years to lay the groundwork. My plan was to ride out the recession and wait until the economy started to pick up again before I left my job, but that ended up being longer than I could wait.

BB: Discuss the timing of Punch Publicity’s start, how did you know it was time to leave your day job?

AD: The turning point for me was when my fiancé needed to have open-heart surgery in January of 2010. It was a life-changing experience for both of us and ended up making me carefully evaluate my life and how I was spending it. My corporate job was a huge source of stress for me. I loved my job before the recession, but working in corporate PR during the recession was painful. In 2009 I was responsible for announcing that the company was freezing its pension plan for tens of thousands of employees as well as announcing multiple rounds of layoffs–many of which were my friends at work. I no longer enjoyed what I was doing and knew that I would find some way to get work on my own, so I decided to take the leap into full-time self-employment. Life just seemed too short to wait any longer.

BB: Do you face any hurdles in your business directly related to your being a woman?

AD: I think I would if I was in another industry, but public relations is a woman-dominated field. I can say that I have built my business with other women. Most of my clients are women business owners, and I feel very fortunate that my career allows me to work with so many talented women in so many different fields. There are more of us out there than you’d think! In many ways I think that being a woman has helped me. All of my clients have come to me because another client of mine recommended me to them, so I have felt very supported in this community of women-owned businesses.

BB: Now that you’re self-employed, how do you connect with other professionals in your field?

AD: Specifically because I work from my home, I have to work harder to stay connected to other professionals. I’ve found that the internet is an amazing resource, and there are lots of tools to help you stay involved. Sites like LinkedIn and Biznik have several industry groups that form great online communities for professionals.

BB: What is the best thing you did for your business during your first few months?

AD: The best thing I did, and still do, is to focus on making my clients extremely happy. I will go above and beyond to do my job very well, and my clients really appreciate this. I believe it’s the reason my business has grown so quickly by word-of-mouth.

BB: What piece of advice would you give other women small business owners?

AD: Go for it! If you have talent and determination you will succeed. Being able to tolerate risk is a huge part of it. I wouldn’t describe myself as a natural risk-taker, but I’ve learned how to adapt and my practicality has likely helped avoid taking unnecessary risk along the way. Don’t be afraid if it takes time for your business to grow, and seek out a community of other women-owned businesses. There is great support out there.

BB: If you could do it all over again, would you?

AD: Absolutely. And I’d probably do it sooner. I’ve learned how to define success in my own way through this process. Having a flexible schedule and control over who I work with and when are incredibly valuable to me.

BB: Finally, what is your professional badass theme song?

AD: Björk’s “Hyperballad”. Quirky, but still badass.

 

Nancy and Aura highlight some very important values: seek out and value the support of other women (we need each other!), define success for yourself, take a leap of faith, and be responsible for your own happiness.

These interviews inspired me, a huge thanks to both of these women for being open about their business and life experiences, and for their willingness to share some advice with Persephone’s readership.

Talking with these two pinpointed for me that though things may be bleak, we don’t have to be. Nancy and Aura realized there’s never a perfect time to break free from the comfort zone. Waiting around for something to happen is rarely the best course of action; action, period, even if it’s flawed, is usually a far better course.

Props to these women business owners, and props to you out there who’ve made a hard change in recent years, whether in business or elsewhere. Persephone Magazine itself was born out of hardship, sometimes it’d good to remember that as Ben Franklin (who I sometimes think might have been a woman”¦but that’s a whole different article) said, “out of adversity comes opportunity.”

So what happens now?

Things are looking up, but never send a man to do a woman’s job, if we’re to fully recover from the economic disaster that men created, we’ll need women to set things right. So I say: “buy local, buy female”!

And in case anyone’s interested, my badass theme song is “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix. I try to hear it every time I walk down a long hallway.

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