By Chris Buckley The Valley Independent, Monessen, Pa.
The invitation read: "You are strong, You are committed, You are unique, You are building a better community and You need to be celebrated."
With those words, Gina Lynn, Greater Rostraver Chamber of Commerce executive director, invited female self-employed chamber members to an August luncheon at Off the Wall Arts in Charleroi.
"I found myself surrounded by these talented female business owners, and I felt they needed to be applauded for their efforts," Lynn said. "They're juggling kids, balancing families and getting there to open their businesses."
What started as a one-time event has grown, Lynn said.
"We weren't even done and they were like, 'When are we going to get together again?' Lynn said. "The women came together, some knowing each other, some making introductions for the first time."
Lynn said the women shared a potluck meal and stories about fears, challenges, successes, laughter and tears.
"They encouraged, supported and applauded each other," Lynn said. "They asked questions of each other, seeking advice and assurance."
Lynn said the group members discussed their reasons for being self-employed as well as setbacks, failures and successes they experienced.
The members also talked about growth and future plans.
"They found common ground," Lynn said.
Lynn said the Self-Employed Women's Group plans to conduct regular meetings.
"They don't want to be so structured that they have to meet every week, but maybe get together every so often," Lynn said.
In her eight years at the chamber, Lynn has seen an increase in businesses owned by women. Such businesses comprise about 25 percent of the chamber's membership.
Lynn said that percentage does not include family businesses involving husband-and-wife partnerships, real estate agents and independent sales representatives.
"They find themselves in these situations where they spent years in the home raising the kids. But kids are growing and now they're asking themselves, 'What do I do? Now it's my turn,'" Lynn said of female entrepreneurs.
"The women I know, some are still raising very young families. They're making it work. They're still contributing to the household, but business gives them some flexibility."
The group gained momentum by accident.
Off the Wall Arts owner Casey Clark recently called the chamber to say she accidentally placed a triple order of Christmas ornaments. Clark suggested the group paint the bulbs and donate them to a senior care facility.
The women designed ornaments and delivered them to the residents of The Hallsworth House in Monessen.
A return visit is likely on Valentine's Day.
Clark said she enjoys the flexibility of her schedule and the ability to help others through her business.
"My biggest challenge is time management, pulling everything together and having a good balance of family and business," Clark said.
Clark, who is married, has two children, Haden, 11, and Haley, 9.
"Each day is different because there's business troubles, and there's so much joy that we bring to people," Clark said. "And I'm having a blast with all of it.
"I think being a successful woman business owner is important for myself and for showing my daughter how to be strong."
Tanya Chaney, owner of Chaney's Natural in Monongahela, is married and has one child, Maksin, 7.
"The challenge is definitely finding enough time to get everything done and finding a good support team of employees, family and friends," Chaney said.
"But I enjoy the flexibility of being able to attend to my family when needed and to being able to create my day around what I need to do and what the priorities are for the day."