By Hunter Lane Tahlequah Daily Press, Okla.
Many women in Tahlequah have made their mark on local commerce, and some can't imagine not owning their own businesses.
The National Women's Business Council, or NWBC, promotes "Women's Small Business Month" every October, with the goal of recognizing and celebrating the advancements of women in business and of women business owners.
Tag agencies, insurance agencies, boutiques and salons are just a few of the local business headed by women who have found success going their own way.
According to the Center for American Progress women earn almost 60 percent of all undergraduate and master's degrees and make up 59 percent of the college-educated, entry-level workforce.
Although women hold nearly 52 percent of all professional-level jobs in America, they only comprise 14.6 percent of executive office positions, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.
The gap in leadership for more specialized work is even larger for women in some fields. Women account for 54.2 percent of the labor force in financial services industry but only 12.4 percent of executive officers and 18.3 percent of board directors, none of whom are CEOs.
Leslie Burchett, photographer and owner of Proof of Life Photography, was a finance manager for 11 years prior to opening her business. Burchett said that when she moved back Tahlequah, she wanted to pursue her dreams while also being able to spend more time with her children. Proof of Life has been open since May, and Burchett said even though opening a small business was difficult, she is loving her new career path.
"At this point, I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else," Burchett said. "I love being my own boss, but it's not as easy as everyone thinks. People say, 'Oh you get to make your own hours.' Uh, no, when you're a business owner, you live it 24/7."
Burchett said looking back, she wishes she would have started pursuing her photography career earlier in life, and she would have gotten a business degree had she known how much she enjoyed it. She advised anyone wanting to own their own business to start with getting an education.
"No matter what you go into business for, you're always going to need that business degree," Burchett said. "Even if you don't know what you do with your life, start there. This country was founded on small business owners, you can't have nothing but big corporations. Everybody has to have a niche, and people want that variety."
One major milestone for women business owners was the passing in 1988 of House Resolution 5050, known as the "Women's Business Ownership Act." The act was an effort to eliminate discriminatory lending and from so the NWBC was formed, and now the organization advises the White House, Congress and the Small Business Association on issues relevant to women business owners.
Burchett opted to use her savings to open her business, instead of going into getting a small business loan.
Brenda Brooks, owner of the Cherokee County Tag Agency, also used her own money to start her business instead of going into debt. She said she feels fortunate to never have been in that position.
Brooks worked for the Tahlequah Public Works Authority for 28 years before opening the tag agency. She said the stability at that job helped enable her to open her own business, but made the decision to change fields that much harder.
"I was scared to death," Brooks said. "I had been there so long I was invested in my retirement; I had health insurance. With this, though, I was going out on my own, and it was just going to be me to take care of me -- and that scares you. When you've had these comforts and securities and you know you've had them, and then you jump out there and do something like this, it's a big a leap of faith."
Shelley Norman, owner of Shelley's Fine Barbering, has owned her small business in Tahlequah for 27 years. She said when opening your own business, you have to stick with it and have patience, even if things don't start off quickly.
"You aren't going to make a million dollars right off the bat," Norman said. "You've got to have patience. I had been cutting hair for 7-1/2 years before I opened here, so I already had a clientele built up, but those sort of things take time."