The Atlantic posted an article last April about the rise in entrepreneurship among women- with women business owners far outpacing the growth of other ownership types in the small business world. The article notes the disparity in revenue between organizations owned by female entrepreneurs compared to their male counterparts, echoing the wage gap of the corporate world we’ve been familiar with for over a decade. With women’s interests being on the forefront of the news, emphasized by dynamics particular to this upcoming presidential election, articles highlighting all-too familiar challenges of being a woman in business are becoming ever more frequent.
Like the changes to our domestic labor market during the labor shortages of WW2, we are experiencing a second wave of Rosie the Riveter. Except, instead of donning a handkerchief and punching a timecard in a factory, women are pushing out at the ground level to directly cause economic growth through the starting of small businesses.
In Maeva’s, I’ve witnessed this change locally. I’ve met several high school girls who have turned to their own creativity as an alternative to traditional employment. Impressively, they’ve taken to crafting soaps, stickers, and jewelry. Some of whom, such as Anna Dixon or Sarah Minier, we’ve supported by providing an occasional outlet for their wares. Female college graduates sip black coffee while creating freelance career paths in the wake of an economy that caused corporate options to shrink. Dozens of female entrepreneurs in their late 20s to 30s, who began their self-supplied career when unemployment struck their family’s primary breadwinner in our most recent recession, use Maeva’s as a place to meet with clients in lieu of burdening themselves with the overhead cost of a physical storefront or office.
In spite of the undeniable barriers women face, such as finding funding for their businesses, navigating local bureaucracy, and overall revenue discrepancies in their respective industries, women owned businesses are growing with unstoppable momentum.
“While women continue to work for progress toward being true equals, we also have to play the hand that we've been dealt and get things done in the short-term.” Sara McGibany, Alton IL
The challenges of creating and operating a small business are incredible. Being a woman in business further compounds the stress. In my own work, examples abound- ranging from subcontractors who have asked to speak “to the man of the house” on arrival to an alderman who told me the “men around here will take care of these things” after I first spoke in front of the city council. These instances are startling but have been few in comparison to peers and mentors who have been navigating these waters for the last few decades. In truth, day to day, I don’t think of myself as a woman entrepreneur but as another human entrepreneur. I’ve never felt pause in making any bold decision to create, to produce, or to grow a business on the basis of my sex.
Likewise, I don’t know a successful woman in business whose sex is on the forefront of their agenda. Female entrepreneurs are doing things because things need to be done- not out of some feminist assault on the norm. In a sea of media profiting from incendiary patriarchal sexism and explosive feminist backlash, the motive of the female entrepreneur is often misrepresented.
Local leader and community catalyst Sara McGibany is one of those dynamic women I have looked to for inspiration during the last several years of progress at The Milton Schoolhouse. She has thrown herself into one Herculean task after another- creating community change by starting, organizing, and supporting nonprofits in the riverbend area. If trying to create change with a sustainable economic plan wasn’t difficult enough, she does it with volunteer effort and, yes, she is a woman. Sara has been responsible for turning our once unimpressive local farmer’s market into a dynamic downtown attraction, the catalyst behind a crowdfunded local grocery store, and is tirelessly pushing behind-the-scenes of Alton Mainstreet for a small business and artist-driven revitalization of Alton’s downtown district.
When asked about how being female affects her work, Sara echoed the experiences of myself and so many of my colleagues. It’s a reality: the web of government, business, and social networks to be navigated when creating movement of significance are predominantly male and often unfriendly towards female involvement. These barriers are not impenetrable- and women like Sara continue to show us this by their own continual action. Where the world would rather divide us into pro-this and con-that, strong female leaders continue to answer the imperative for community and economic change by choosing to find away around the present barriers to achieve their goals.
I increasingly find myself surrounded by phenomenal women leaders. Many far surpass men of similar qualifications in their respective industry in terms of tenacity, creative problem solving, and market intuition. It is possible these glass ceilings that have slowed the progress of female equality has resulted in a stronger, more adaptive force of entrepreneurs and community leaders?
“They’ve tried to use intimidation- but it’s lost on me. Demand respect.” Lynne McDaniel, Chicago, IL
Lynne McDaniel is an entrepreneur who reaches beyond the realm of her own gorgeous vintage furniture shop to build a network of success in her Chicago neighborhood. Her involvement in the W.o.W. (West of Western) District of Chicago has not only been an inspiration, but a model for my own approach to encouraging entrepreneurs in the Alton community. Lynne has been an entrepreneur for over two decades and her immeasurably valuable advice has made her the go-to guru for entrepreneurs everywhere.
Lynne made the commitment to actively surround her business with other extraordinary businesses by, in her words, “handpicking gladiators” for her neighborhood. She attracts and aids entrepreneurs as they take the leap by helping them overcome their fears, negotiate leases, and fostering a local support network among owners. When asked whether being a female entrepreneur lent her advantages in her work, she responded that a significant component to her success- creating, molding, and maintaining relationships- was due to her natural transparency. “It’s more difficult for men, I think, to be completely transparent. They have their own expectations. Showing people your heart and being welcoming creates unbreakable relationships with customers and in your network.”
Lynne described herself as a “sweetheart- but an alpha dog in business”- a thin line that may be the crux of this incredible rising tide of business women. The ability to aggressively tackle financial, legal, and logistical decisions with the added element of matriarchal respect and care is a dynamite recipe for success in post-Fordist economies increasingly driven by relationship-centered business practices.
In respect to fostering growth in the microclimate of Alton, women are an underutilized resource. Our town could see dynamic benefits, economically and socially, of the rise of female leaders in for-profit and non-profit business. What is keeping more women from taking the entrepreneurial plunge in Alton and how can we create an environment more conducive to success of these businesses?
This is a challenge that cannot be solved with a single solution. As an issue that warrants ongoing and inclusive community discussion, it is one we will need to approach together with mutual respect and openness. I have further ideas on how Alton could be created into a dynamic artisan-driven economy that thrives from the increase in and unique value of minority owned businesses, but those will need to wait for another day.
In the meantime, what actionable solutions would you suggest?