By Kate Mitchell The Daily Telegram, Adrian, Mich.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) While the pressures and challenges of being an entrepreneur can be intimidating, especially at the start, a community of female business owners in Michigan has created a support system to lift each other up.
The future of small business could be female and, for much of Lenawee County, that future already is here.
The number of women owning business in the United States grew by almost 2.1 million between 2007 and 2012, according to a survey conducted by the National Women's Business Council. As of the NWBC's December 2016 report, 36.3 percent of the nation's businesses are owned by women.
This shift in demographics is no fluke according to Mehmet Yaya, an associate professor of economics at Eastern Michigan University.
"Females are participating more in the labor market, more likely to head households, and becoming more educated," Yaya said. "All these factors might be contributing to the rise in woman-owned businesses."
Much of Lenawee County is ahead of the gender curve when it comes to small business ownership. Around Devils Lake, roughly half of the businesses are either owned or co-owned by women and in Brooklyn-Irish Hills, the number is more than 40 percent.
Adrian Downtown Development Authority and Economic Development Coordinator Chris Miller doesn't have an exact percentage of woman business owners in the city but their presence is having an impact.
"Being in a place that where anybody who has an idea, has a passion and a willingness to work hard and build a business, we are well served by having as many of those kinds of people being able to live their dream as possible," he said. "The fact that we can imagine a future where we have a bunch more businesses downtown, including ones that women own .... is going to be healthy because it is going to speak to different people in the community."
Much of downtown Adrian's retail growth can be contributed to women and their businesses. Many of these female small business owners are rising to meet both the needs of the community and the challenge of starting a business as a woman.
Phyllis Wilkerson has seen the change in how the business world treats women, especially since she and her husband, Al, have owned the Governor Croswell Tea Room in downtown Adrian.
"Things have changed since the feminist movement," she said. "Women have been empowered, there are more women CEOs, but it's still a problem."
It has become less of a problem in Adrian and in recent years. Part of that is thanks, she said, to the gender diversity in the downtown business community. Being surrounded by other women can lead to a different, and sometimes better, way of doing business.
Wilkerson will do things like pitch in at Sass when owners Diane Rauser and Joyce Miller are short handed. The consideration is not one sided, either. While Wilkerson was manning the counter at Sass, Rauser texted her from a conference out of town to ask if it would be alright if Sass looked into carrying tea sets. This kind of consideration and support can be unique in the business community.
"A man would just never think to ask that," Wilkerson said.
Support can go a long way for anyone looking to start a business, but it can be especially necessary for women. As women tend to bear more of the responsibilities for home and child care, the demands of running a business can be even more overwhelming.
The woman-owned business boom helped Gloria Kuntz, owner of Adrian's Passion 4 Fashion boutique, deal with the challenges women face balancing work and expectations for home and family life.
While she had always dreamed of owning her own business, Kuntz felt a push to do it when her mother died six years ago.
While she said the pressures and challenges of being an entrepreneur can be intimidating, especially at the start, support from a community of business owners has helped, especially when so much of that community is other women who can empathize.
"I think there is so much demand on our time that women are looking for ways to make money and be able to spend time with their kids and have a flexible schedule," Kuntz said. "I think that is why there is such a boom in woman-owned businesses and direct sales."
But with help from family and the community, the challenges can be over come.
Lonnie Fox-Raymond, long-time owner of Isis Hair Studio in downtown Adrian, largely was functioning as a single parent when she started her business eight years ago. She had help from her son's father and her family as she remodeled her building and launched the salon.
"I was lucky," she said. "I had a great family base and people who were there for my son. ... It's hard though, especially being self-employed."
Fox-Raymond also was in the unique position of watching her mother, Carol Tornton, do it first.
Thornton, owner of Adrian's Club 109, was a model of doing it all for Fox-Raymond. As a single parent, Thornton proved to her daughter that women could do it all. Because of her example, Fox-Raymond never felt like she couldn't do it.
Role models like Thornton came from those early woman business owners. They've led to more female business owners. It's a positive cycle that Miller embraces.
"We're starting from the roots up to the top,"she said.
Those roots have helped Adrian become home to businesses owned by young women too.
Melissa Snead, owner of Craft Handmade, has had the entrepreneurial spark from the beginning. She started her own daycare business in 2002. She said she still gets a bit of a thrill driving down Main Street, seeing her store and realizing, "I own that."
Rather than seeing many of the challenges, though, the owner of the not-yet 2-year-old business wanted to start it in part to be able to set her own hours while raising her daughters. The timing, both in her professional and personal life, seemed perfect. So far, she said, just about all of it has been good.
"I love it," she said. "Even the stress, when you work for yourself, it's not a bad stress, it's a motivating stress."
Christy Gagneur, owner of the Adrian School of Massage, started her business because she felt called to share her knowledge with audiences she couldn't reach otherwise Gagneur, who just turned 28 on Saturday, knew reaching out to communities like the elderly, who could benefit from her services, would be tricky. Starting a school seemed like the perfect solution.
Her age sometimes proved to be a roadblock in the business world. Because of it, Gagneur said, she sometimes has to fight to be taken seriously. Gagneur is used to it, though. She started working for herself at 19.
She recognizes the unique support the region has for her business. To get the school going, she launched a crowdfunding campaign. Not only did it make its goal, she raised five times what she set out to.
"We could start with both feet on the ground," she said.
The school, Gagneur said, still is going strong, and is still very much where her passion lies.
She hopes her experience with her business can inspire her two young daughters as they go through life and show them they can do anything.
Gagneur's generation of woman business owners is the next step from the roots Miller and others have created, providing more role models who will inspire more women to go into business for themselves.
Between the challenges and solutions all business owners face, the entrepreneurial women of Lenawee County are in their own way living proof of Wilkerson's motto for business.
"If you want to do it," she said. "You can make it work."