By Mike Crowley
The Meadville Tribune, Pa.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) According to the annual State of Women-Owned Businesses Report commissioned by American Express, the number of women-owned businesses increased 21 percent from 2014 to 2019, more than twice the rate for all businesses. Mike Crowley takes a look at some of the women-owned businesses flourishing in the city of Meadville, Pa.
A stroll down Chestnut Street in Meadville today is a different experience than it was 50 or even 20 years ago.
As the city’s and the nation’s economic patterns have changed, the stores that once populated the downtown business corridor have left and others have taken their place.
Renamed businesses make the changing of the guard easy to spot, but another transformation taking place behind those storefronts is less obvious at first glance.
More and more of those businesses are owned by women. In fact, where stores owned by women were once the exception, it has now become the norm.
Throw stores and restaurants operated by husband-and-wife teams into the mix and you’re talking about nearly all of them, according to one business leader whose shop has been located on or near Chestnut Street for a decade.
“There is a big percentage of women-owned businesses downtown,” said Christine Yamrick, president of the Meadville Independent Business Alliance and owner, with her husband, of Chateau Christine at 246 Chestnut St. “It’s huge. I haven’t done the statistics, but I would say that (it’s) about 85 percent of the businesses on Chestnut and surrounding areas — Market (Street) and Park (Avenue).”
The cluster of women-owned businesses has had a positive effect in the small business community, according to Yamrick.
“Women are passionate and you need a lot of passion to be able to make a business grow,” she said, “and that’s why I think we have a lot of women-owned businesses — because we have a lot of passionate people and passionate women in our community.”
The percentage of women-owned businesses in downtown Meadville may be higher than average, but the increase in such operations is evident throughout Crawford County and the nation in recent decades.
“We are very blessed with so many women entrepreneurs,” said Christa Lundy, executive director of the Meadville-Western Crawford County Chamber of Commerce.
It’s a trend Lundy has seen increase significantly since she took the reins at the chamber in 2013.
“When I came to Meadville, I think that was one of the things that was lacking,” Lundy said from her Diamond Park office. “That’s why I started the Business Women’s Roundtable here at the chamber.”
The group, which meets monthly and helps with the chamber’s annual Women in Business Expo each November, allows women in business to share stories and promote one another, Lundy said.
Such groups are in more demand at the national level as well.
The number of women-owned businesses increased 21 percent from 2014 to 2019, more than twice the rate for all businesses, according to the annual State of Women-Owned Businesses Report commissioned by American Express. Since 1972, businesses owned principally by women have jumped from 4.6 of all firms to 42 percent.
Businesses owned by women or equally owned by women and men account for 49 percent of all U.S. companies — 15,258,900 firms, according to the report. Those businesses employ more than 16 million people and generate $3.2 trillion in revenue.
U.S. Census data from 2012 show the rates are lower in Crawford County: of the 7,628 total firms, 1,397 — 18 percent — were majority-owned by women. In all, 31 percent of firms were either majority-owned by women or co-owned equally by men and women.
Though women lead nearly half of all businesses nationwide, the employees of those businesses make up 16 percent of all employees and the firms produce 8 percent total revenue. Both facts reflect their smaller average size and the fact that most were started more recently than the average. Women-owned businesses also tend to be part of the services and retail sectors, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Around the county, too — not just Meadville
When Judy Shonnard launched her tax services company in Cochranton in 1989, women-owned businesses of any sort were much less common than today. The major concern for Shonnard had much more to do with the fact that she was a new business owner than that she also happened to be a woman.
Three decades later, Shonnard offers investment services as well and oversees a small office that consists of all female employees.
“There are so many women now in business,” she said. “We’re pretty mainstream.”
Reaching the mainstream and establishing a successful business didn’t come without some challenges.
“It was absolutely very nerve wracking. No doubt about it,” Shonnard said of her early years in business for herself. “Anybody who is self-employed does not have it easy. It takes somebody who is not afraid to fail.”
The extent to which gender can affect a woman’s role as a business owner likely varies according to the particular profession involved, according to Stacey Reynolds, who took over Team Lake Road Auto Sales in Vernon Township from her father several years ago. She encounters more skeptical reactions in the overwhelmingly male world of auto auctions than friends who run salons or other sectors more traditionally associated with women.
“I’ve definitely had to earn my stripes over the past 20 years, but they definitely know who I am now,” Reynolds said. “Over the years I’ve had to prove myself — that I knew what I was doing, that I wasn’t intimidated by the men out there.
“Now that they know who I am, they watch me — and they try to do what I do.”
But even now that she is both owner and general manager of the dealership that is still recovering from a devastating fire in September, Reynolds is not too far removed from the attitudes she encountered when she started in the auto business.
“If I would go to a sale out of town, where they don’t know me,” she said, “it’s like I’m right back to where I was 20 years ago.”
Launching a new business
A week before one of the biggest days of the year for the floral business, Tiffany McCurdy reflected on what she called her business’s “honeymoon stage.”
“It’s all super fun. I’m enjoying all of this,” McCurdy said of The Petal Patch, her Cochranton flower supply business that’s now entering its third season. “Maybe if you called me next week …”
Like many of the women interviewed for this story, McCurdy’s business began small and has grown incrementally. As a stay-at-home mother with four kids, she said, the appeal of dirty laundry and dirty dishes steadily dwindled.
Looking for an alternative, McCurdy decided to convert her vegetable garden to a flower garden. What started as a hobby that allowed her to give fresh flowers to friends has grown bigger each year. Now, she’s selling flowers retail and also supplying blooms to local florists for use in their arrangements.
Between handling the agricultural challenges as well as the business side of the small operation, McCurdy said keeping everything organized has been the primary challenge as the business has grown about as large as she can handle on her own.
For others considering their own entrepreneurial ventures, she said to “do what you love. If that’s where your heart is, go for it. If you can make money at it, that’s even better.”
Chestnut Street perspectives
Women owning their own businesses in 2020 isn’t as newsworthy as it might have been in 1970.
Gender hasn’t been an obstacle for Connie Curtis in her career at The Travel Experience Inc., the Chestnut Street travel agency she expects to purchase this year from Jeanne Kasbee, its current owner. Still, Curtis said, the growing prominence of women in business is a topic worth celebrating.
“I love the whole aspect of empowering women. I still think, even to this day,” Curtis said, “in some businesses I still think we’re underrated sometimes.”
It was a sentiment shared by several of the women in charge behind nearby storefronts.
“I think it’s a big deal because it’s an accomplishment,” Kristen Boyles, owner of Kristen’s Kookies, 882 Park Ave., said of owning her own business. Far from creating challenges, Boyles said she has encountered a supportive environment for female entrepreneurs, citing grants available to women who are starting their own businesses.
Heather Onderko has operated Movement Unlimited Dance Studio for nearly 15 years. She’s also an English teacher at Cochranton Junior-Senior High.
Society’s attitudes toward women in the workplace and women in charge of the workplace have changed a great deal over the years, Onderko acknowledged, but it’s still difficult to escape an internal obstacle familiar to many working women: what Onderko called “mom guilt.”
“Sometimes women’s role in the workplace gets put on the back burner because of family responsibilities and expectations that are there still and the burden that we put on ourselves because of those expectations,” Onderko said. “You want to make sure you’re a good mom, but there’s still responsibilities with your business and family responsibilities too.
“There’s a lot of mom guilt sometimes.”
And while society has changed, it’s still possible to encounter some old-fashioned sexist condescension in the business world, according to several downtown shop owners.
Julie McClymonds, owner of the Green Shoppe, was handing out monster cookies that had been baked by Boyles during the First Friday Cookie Walk earlier this month when she reflected on the number of female entrepreneurs participating in the event and the synergy that often results from collaboration between those women. Even so, she said, gender occasionally becomes an issue.
“Sometimes getting men to listen and allow you at the table, you still get the perspective that ‘business is for businessmen,'” McClymonds said, “or (the sense that) this is a cute project for you — how fun.”
Sarah Chapp, who opened Confections of a Cake Lover seven years ago, greeted crowds from behind the counter during the Cookie Walk. She, too, recalled similar encounters when she was first starting in commercial kitchens where men often occupy the top roles.
“Mutual respect for each other is crucial when it comes to having that working relationship,” she said.
Perhaps even more important, she said, is the chance for the next generation of women in business to see role models like the ones that line both sides of Chestnut Street and many other Crawford County thoroughfares.
“My daughter — she’s not talking about becoming a nurse or what would be a typical career,” Chapp said. “She’s talking about what business she’s going to own.”
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.