Minnesota Women’s Business Group Honors The Past And Future

By Nick Woltman
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

You’ve got to go back to 1880 to find one of the first African-American women to own a business in Minnesota.

Five years after she and her husband moved to St. Paul, Amanda Lyles Weir opened a hair salon near the site of the Metropolitan Opera House. And when her husband died in 1920, she took over his mortuary business.

Active in the early civil rights movement, she traveled the country speaking out in favor of anti-lynching laws and universal suffrage.

But despite her accomplishments, Lyles Weir died in relative obscurity. She is buried in an unmarked grave in Oakland Cemetery.

On Thursday, Lyles Weir became the first African-American inducted into the Minnesota Women Business Owners Hall of Fame. She and 11 others were honored at the organization’s second induction ceremony at Cargill’s Wayzata campus. The event drew a crowd of about 200.

Jill Johnson, president of Johnson Consulting Services, founded the hall of fame with the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization of Women Business Owners, and was one of 25 women inducted last year.

Johnson’s goal in creating the organization was to bring attention to the accomplishments of largely unrecognized pioneers such as Lyles Weir.

“I looked at the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame, and there were few women in it,” Johnson said. “These women built iconic businesses — some of the largest in the nation. These women were job creators.”

In fact, Johnson calculates that 35 of the 36 members of the Minnesota Women Business Owners Hall of Fame — excluding Carlson Cos.’ Marilyn Carlson Nelson — employed a total of about 16,000 people at the peaks of their respective businesses.

But in addition to underscoring their achievements, Johnson says, the hall of fame also is intended to highlight the challenges its members faced.

“Pre-1980, women faced historical norms and the cultural boundaries. They weren’t taken seriously,” Johnson said. “Everybody here has a struggle; they have a story. … Setting up something specifically to celebrate women’s successes is a way to elevate these stories we wouldn’t have heard about otherwise.”

These stories are critical, she says, to inspiring the next generation of women business owners, many of whom still face what she calls a “confidence gap.”

“It’s a different psychological dynamic,” she said. “We talk ourselves out of things.”

But exposing young women to examples of successful female business owners is one way of opening them up to career possibilities they might not have considered otherwise.

There is no nomination process for the hall; inductees are selected from pools of business owners who have already won a major award from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the National Organization of Women Business Owners or a handful of other groups.

Johnson assembles dossiers on each of the candidates herself. She estimates she did more than 120 hours’ worth of research on Lyles Weir alone.

Johnson has also launched a campaign to raise $1,500 to buy a headstone to place at Lyles Weir’s grave. Donations were collected at the induction ceremony on Thursday.

“I want to honor her memory,” Johnson said. “Even if it’s 80 years after the fact.”

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