Equal Opportunity

By Alexander Deedy
Photo:Thom Bridge
Independent Record, Helena, Mont.

Women were required to wear a skirt, pantyhose and heels to work when Sharon Kuenzli started her first job in the 1980s.

Now she works from home as an independent executive for a wellness company, training and setting up sales teams across the country.

She sets her own hours, takes time for her family and wears whatever she wants.

“Things have changed quite a bit,” Kuenzli said.

The biggest challenge she faces now is balancing her professional life and her life as a mom.

October is National Women’s Small Business Month, and many professional women in Helena say that Montana’s capital city provides equal opportunity for all young professionals, as long as you’re willing to work hard.

Kuenzli is the president of the Helena chapter of the Women’s Leadership Network, which she said has about 60 members. A lot of those women moved to Helena for work or family, Kuenzli said.

“I think it’s a good place because of the family orientation of the culture here,” she said.

The Women’s Leadership Network holds monthly luncheons with the primary purpose of educating, developing and encouraging women, Kuenzli said.

Her advice to young women just starting out?

“Enjoy what you’re doing cause life’s too short not too,” she said.

“Do your best no matter what the job is, and never burn any bridges,” she added.

Linda Kindrick, executive director of the Montana Community Finance Corporation, she has never felt discriminated against or held back because she was a woman.

Banking is a male-dominated industry, Kindrick said, but she found most of the men to be supportive. She now oversees Montana CFC’s three employees, who are all women. Kindrick said the office arrangement wasn’t by design, it just kind of happened that way.

Montana CFC is a nonprofit that provides long-term, fixed rate loans to small businesses and often requires about a 10 percent down payment for a new building, compared with 20 to 30 percent that banks usually require. The organization has arranged 321 loans since its inception in 1984, 52 were to women and 12 of those were in Lewis and Clark County, Kindrick said.

Though only about one-sixth of the loans have gone to women entrepreneurs, Kindrick doesn’t think it points to any obstacles specifically facing women.

“I think if anybody wants to do it and they believe they can do it, they should do it,” she said.

The key advice that Kindrick has for young women is to “find a mentor.” Ron Zeiler, who recently retired from Mountain West Bank and David Davidson, at the Small Business Association were some of Kindrick’s mentors. With them were Ginny Whitney and Helen Meldrum, strong teachers who encouraged Kindrick.

Courtney Dann McAdams, Northwestern Mutual Life financial adviser and president of Biz to Biz Helena-one chapter, said that’s one of the obstacles in Helena.

“I think probably the biggest area is not being able to find any women mentors in your field because we are a smaller town,” she said.

And once someone finds the right mentors, Dann McAdams suggested taking it a step further. When she was just starting out she created a board of directors for herself, treating them to a nice dinner a couple times each year. That came with a big expense, but Dann McAdams said the advice and referrals she gained were well worth it.

On top of finding encouragement from others, Debbie Gustafson said it’s important to find inner-strength and learn to stand your ground.

“I think it is a little harder being a women in business, people don’t take you as seriously,” Gustafson said.

She purchased Northside Liquor and Wine nine years ago and has brought sales from half a million each year up to $1.2 million.

But it wasn’t easy.

Salesmen often came in and tried to tell Gustafson what kind of liquor she really needed in her store. After years of standing her ground, Gustafson said she has built a reputation, so people know that she can’t be pushed around.

Cathy Burwell, CEO and president of the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce, said Gustafson’s confidence is a trait that helps many women in Helena and Montana.

Confidence and can-do attitude leads to success.

“You see a lot of women in Helena rise to the top,” she said.

Burwell said about 40 or 45 percent of the chamber’s board is women. In a perfect world it would be 50/50, she said, but finding women business leaders to sit on the board is sometimes harder than finding men.

She attributed it to the fact that small business owners are very busy and have lots of demands, not because of any lack of opportunity for women. Helena is great for providing equal opportunity, she said.

“I would tell women out there to be confident, ’cause I think you can go as far as your dreams if you’re confident and seek out opportunity,” Burwell said.

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