Standing along Pine Street in St. Louis, watching a pop-up bike lane in action, I struck up a conversation with a 64-year-old MetroBus...
In 2004, when Wendy Knorr started her marketing firm and Sara El-Toumi opened her salon and spa in Columbia, women had reached the point where they owned a 50- percent or greater stake in 48 percent of privately held U.S. companies.
The Center for Women’s Business Research study said that was a 6-percent increase from 1997.
In 2006, when Erin Keltner opened a boutique on Broadway, there were close to 210,000 female-owned businesses in Missouri, which employed 298,000 people and produced $42 billion in revenue. Missouri ranked 18th nationally in the number of female-owned businesses, which was 42 percent of the total.
Today, women are even stronger in the business market. Women start 424 new businesses each day, twice as many as their male counterparts.
The trend is likely to continue because women, who hold 45 percent of all professional degrees, up from four percent in 1965, now are enrolled in higher education in higher numbers than men. And studies have demonstrated that once these woman-owned businesses are off the ground, they grow, on average, faster than those owned by men.
Women are more likely to seek council from experts in their field and they are better at communicating and building relationships. Like the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” that has helped men advance for so many years, women are building networks and helping each other, too. Studies also show that women are more conscientious budgeters and are more frugal than men, but also are more likely than men to take greater financial risks when starting and growing their businesses.
A stroll through Columbia’s thriving downtown provides some examples of how women are gaining footholds in the business market.
My Secret Garden, 11 S. 10th St.
As a little girl in 1989, Stephanie LaHue remembers seeing her mother struggle to get My Secret Garden off the ground, watching as Ruth was rejected by bank after bank for loans. Finally one bank provided a “high risk” loan, and her husband, Steve, co-signed the note.
(Until 1988, it was legal for banks to refuse a loan to a woman without a man to co-sign. Congress’ Women’s Business Ownership Act made this sort of discrimination illegal. In 1992 after the National Association of Women Business Owners announced that women-owned businesses employed more workers than the Fortune 500, banks stopped labeling women seeking business loans as “high risk.” )
As young teen-agers, Stephanie and her sister Jessica helped their mother attach garland to the huge Christmas wreath on the front of First National Bank on Broadway. And she remembers her mother excused her from classes at Stephens College not because she was sick but because it was Valentine’s Day and she needed extra hands to complete floral orders.
Stephanie, who now runs the store with her mother and sister, also remembers her mother saying often that they could do anything they set their mind to doing, and never discouraged them.
But she also said she still feels the sting of female stereotypes in running the business.
“Many times, people don’t think I know what I’m doing until they actually see me do it,” she said. “I still fight the female stereotypes and people don’t realize I will stay up late, get dirty and get it done.”
Stephanie graduated from Stephens in 2001 and puts her fashion merchandising and management major to good use in her work for the store. She travels to markets in larger cities and brings back the most unique and beautiful things she can find. Stephanie said it is important to be creative, think freely and ask for what she wants.
“As a woman, it is so important to think outside of the box,” she explains. “No one is going to cut you a break.”
Stephanie is in her second term on the board of the Central Columbia Association, and she said that when the merchants have general membership meetings now, the vast majority are women.
Knorr Marketing Communications, 912 E. Broadway
After spending 15 years in the corporate world and raising three young children, Wendy Knorr decided the timing was right to start her own marketing communications business. When she left her position as director of corporate communications for a local insurance company, many people assumed that she was starting her business as a side project or hobby and didn’t take the business seriously as a successful business venture. “I combated these challenges by just pushing through and letting time and my business prove itself,” Knorr said.
It was important for her to establish measurable goals, something she suggests all women do before starting up their own businesses. Knorr spent a great deal of time reflecting and analyzing why she was starting her own business and what would make her feel successful. Most of all, Knorr made sure she was doing something she loved. “If you are doing what you love, you’re having fun while you are working hard.”
Knorr said she strives to become a part of her clients’ businesses and truly understand their vision, mission and culture. She works proactively to make sure her clients feel that she is a part of their team. Wendy adds that her ability to communicate and listen to other’s needs is one of her strongest attributes and something that has garnered success for her business.
Swank Boutique, 921 E. Broadway
Bored with the monotony of accounting school, Erin Keltner decided to take a leap of faith and start her own business doing exactly what she loves: bringing the latest trends and fashions to local women.
Almost three years since Keltner opened Swank, customers can still find her bustling around her downtown boutique on a daily basis. She reviews every detail of the store from merchandise to music and there is no aspect of the Swank experience that does not pass her approval first.
The success of Swank was not something that came easily for Keltner, especially as a woman of 21 with no college degree and little experience.
“I think there is a prejudice against women owning their own businesses and that made me work harder,” she said. “I spent weeks working on a business plan and I was determined not to fail despite what anyone said.”
Keltner originally moved to Columbia from Springfield when her husband was offered a job at a local insurance company. Uncertain of what she would do once in Columbia, Keltner got creative and got to work. Keltner advises other women looking to start businesses of their own to know what they are getting into and encourages other women to remember that if you want it, you can make it happen.
“You’ll get out of your business what you put into it,” Keltner says. “You have to go into your business wanting it and go with your gut.”
Keltner credits her patience and attention to detail for the success of her store.
“Things like the music we play and our shopping bags and the mirrors in our dressing rooms — men don’t understand these things,” she said. “When I first opened the store, the men in my life would scoff and tease me about some of the choices I made it, and it has been fun to see those things be the most popular.”
Salon Nefisia, 825 E. Walnut St.
In Arabic, the name “Nefisa” means “elegant” or “precious.” It was also the name of salon owner, Sara El-Toumi’s Egyptian grandmother. With Salon Nefisa, she combined a respect for her heritage with a love for the salon and spa industry El-Toumi describes the start of her business as a “whirlwind,” filled with excitement but also a great deal of uncertainty. When a space became available at the corner of 9th and Walnut, she jumped at the opportunity.
“When I first met with my leaseholder and negotiated those terms, I was very intimidated and nervous,” she said. “He asked some pointed questions about my experience and gave me some straight talk about how hard it can be to run a business. I think he wanted to make sure I could pay the rent.”
As a woman, El-Toumi felt she continually needed to prove herself not just in saying she wanted to start her business but also in having the courage to actually do it and show people that she could be a success.
How did she combat the expectations of others and the need to prove herself? Simple, she says: “Just do the work, make the decisions that need to made and don’t worry about being judged. And have fun doing it! Don’t let fear get in the way or moving forward is hard.”
Kim Wade & Amy Enderle,
Silverbox Photography, 810 West Boulevard
Kim Wade has loved photography since she got her first Minolta camera from her grandfather when she was 12. Thirty years later, Wade, in partnership with friend Amy Enderle, owns her own photography business. Both women own their own limited liability companies, and Silverbox Photography is a joint venture they began for marketing, professional development and strategic business advancement.
While each woman maintains responsibility for the finances of her own business, the Wade and Enderle partnership under Silverbox Photography allows them to maximize their time and resources.
Both women dedicate themselves to capturing moments through photographs and inspire one another to become better photographers.
Both agree that being a female photographer and owning their own business has its definite advantages.
“I think being women has helped us to be better wedding photographers,” Wade said. “Amy and I are able to connect with our brides in ways that a male photographer may not. We understand what it’s like for our brides to plan and experience their weddings.”
Mixing friendship and business can often be hard, but apparently not for Wade and Enderle.
“I think women can be strong team players and can work hard to connect with their clients,” Wade said. “Two heads are definitely better than one. We generate more ideas, more energy and more word-of-mouth by working together.”
Most importantly, both Wade and Enderle urge other women to that it is possible to make a living by pursuing their passions.