Women in Small Business

Who says it’s a man’s world? Today’s female entrepreneurs are shaking up the small business scene like never before.

In 1966, James Brown proclaimed that "This is a man's world, but it wouldn't be nothing without a woman or a girl." Brown’s sentiment was nothing new, although the meaning of the phrase has changed throughout history. No less than Martin Luther, whose religious reformations changed European culture forever and removed many restrictions from private life, was quoted as saying "Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear children. And if a woman grows weary and, at last, dies from childbearing, it matters not." Today, most Americans realize that women have the same ability as men to be successful, which was especially apparent in this year's heated race between democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. (Clinton is not, in fact, the first woman to run for president: That honor goes to Victoria Woodhull, who ran for president in 1872.) Presidential elections aside, last year proved to be a landmark year of "firsts" for women. The House of Representatives had their first woman speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, and for the first time a woman was chosen as the sole anchor of a network news show. In addition, it was the first time a woman had ever served as president of Harvard University. The achievements of women carries over into small businesses, as well: Women-owned businesses are the fastest growing sector in American business today. According to the Center for Women's Business Research, nearly 10.4 million firms are owned by women (50 percent or more), employing more than 12.8 million people and generating $1.9 trillion in sales.

Throughout history, women have been fortunate enough to have powerful role models to encourage them towards economic independence and help them with support and training. For example, with less than $2 in savings, Madam C.J. Walker set up a mail order business in 1906 to sell her own line of beauty and hair care products for African American women. In the process, she became the first female self-accomplished millionaire, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Women have made significant progress in many other areas to the business world, especially when one considers the restrictions originally placed on them. In the 18th century, women had no legal right to own property. Also, women in the United States and Europe could neither vote nor hold elective office as late as the early 20th century. When conducting business, all women had to have a male representative present, usually in the form of a father, brother, husband, or son. As far as education was concerned, women had little or no access and were often times barred from most professions. In the 16th century, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, could complain that "women are not as educated as they should be?…?their parents take more care of their feet than their head, more of their words than their reason." Much has changed since then. Today, 32 percent of women in the United States between the ages of 25 and 29 have received a bachelor’s degree or above, compared to 25 percent of men in the same age category. In addition, the number of women who have received a bachelor's degree has doubled since 1978.

While a lot of things have changed in the workplace since the early days of the women's movement, however, some things have stayed the same. For instance, women still earn 77 cents for every dollar that a man earns. Still, everyday women are getting closer to breaking the glass ceiling and one day soon, we may see a world where our daughters will be paid the same salary as our sons.

In honor of Women's History Month, America’s Best is honoring four of the most inspirational women in the world of small business today. From the formidable Susan Szymczak, who balks at being identified solely for her gender and instead prefers to be called a "capitalist," to the young Kathryn Kerrigan, who has forged a successful business at the age of 27, these women point to an equal, hopeful, and prosperous future.

Susan Szymczak

Safeway Sling USA • Greendale, Wisconsin • safewaysling.com

As the only woman in the country to found, manage, and own a sling company, Sue Szymczak has to be tough. On most days, you can find her in the warehouse of Safeway Sling dressed in overalls and a flannel shirt helping to produce synthetic lifting slings and tie-downs used to lift heavy machinery and equipment. Szymczak, who was unable to go to college as she had to go to work right out of high school, credits her early experiences with giving her the street smarts needed to become successful in her industry.

Szymczak started Safeway Sling USA after receiving advice from a friend of her husband’s who told her of the potential success of a good sling company. Originally, Szymczak would sew each sling herself using two industrial sewing machines located in a dark basement office. Today, instead of sewing all of the slings by herself, she now has a warehouse full of employees who do the sewing for her. In addition, she now has a spacious office space in an industrial park located just outside of Milwaukee. Szymczak prefers to keep her own office very neat and simple. There are only two items hanging on her walls: a framed poster of the meaning of persistence and a bulletin board with photos of people who inspire her and the pets and children of her employees.
“Honestly this is what I believe in: persistence,” she said, indicating the poster. “You’ll get thrown about and you have to be tough; you have to keep on going back, and going back, and going back.” For example, Szymczak said it took her a little over four years to land a large account of hers. “Some people would have given up, but I was very determined,” she said. “I knew I would save them money, and we ended up doing that. We also gave them a better quality product.”
One thing that has never changed since the founding of her business is her dedication to her customers and her employees, even when it might mean harm to herself. Szymczak said a favorite quote of hers that she tries to live her life by is “There can be no courage unless you are scared,” originally said by World War I fighting hero Eddie Rickenbacker. “One thing I tell people is that it’s normal to be afraid, but never, ever let fear immobilize you,” she said. Some years back, after Szymczak spent a week waiting on a load of webbing for her slings from Consolidated Freightways due to a Teamsters strike in Milwaukee, she took the initiative to ensure that her slings would be delivered in time for her clients. Szymczak herself rented a truck, drove to the terminal where the angry strikers were blocking all shipments, crossed over the picket line, and picked up her webbing. Impressed by her bravery, the police helped to escort the truck out of the lot. Szymczak found the ordeal very frightening but she refused to delay her orders and take the chance of having to lay off any of her employees. “Something that I think is critical in our country and in business across the board is that you need to see real leadership,” Szymczak said. “There are some business owners who don’t take the opportunity to lead by example.”

Kathryn Kerrigan

Libertyville, Illinois • kathrynkerrigan.com

If you could put yourself in Kathryn Kerrigan’s size 11 shoes, your feet would be very tired by the end of the day. The 27-year-old entrepreneur from Libertyville, Illinois has been on the move ever since coming up with a business plan for a niche market during her MBA studies at Loyola University. A former college basketball player, she formed a test company around her lifelong frustration of being unable to find shoes for her feet that weren’t masculine in style. While researching her project, Kerrigan learned that 35 percent of women wear above a size 9 shoe. With all of the shoe factories stopping at a size 10 or 11, they were just not keeping pace, according to Kerrigan. After receiving her MBA, she found herself with a stack of student loan payments and no idea of how to pay them back. Somewhat jokingly, her father suggested that she should try opening the shoe company that she had proposed in her project. Not one to be discouraged, Kerrigan took him up on his challenge. After producing a few prototypes and promoting her shoes in person, she at last landed contracts at a few prominent retailers and started out on her road to success.

In 2005, she launched a website directing customers to stores where they could purchase her shoes. The website has been a success, and she receives orders from as far away as England and Australia. In addition, she opened a small shop in Libertyville where customers can check out her designs by appointment. Every season she creates about 120 designs, and about 75 percent of those go into production. Because they are made with high-quality leather and handcrafted in Italy and Spain, they carry a higher price tag. “This isn’t a Payless,” Kerrigan says, laughing. The shoes range in retail from $114 to just over $300. Much of her inspiration for these shoes comes from those worn by her late grandmother, who always had just the right pair of shoes for her outfits. “She would never go out of the house unless she was perfectly dressed,” Kerrigan says.
In the two years since launching, Kerrigan has experienced tremendous success and will launch a line of separates and evening wear for tall women sometime this spring. In addition, Kerrigan is researching the benefits of starting a casual line and attempting to land her shoes in larger retailers.

Last year, Kathryn Kerrigan, Inc. was named a finalist in the Best Young Entrepreneur category at the fourth annual Stevie Awards for Women in Business and was named one of Inc. magazine’s 30 Under 30. As Kerrigan feels lucky that she has had so many great mentors and role models, she is dedicated to helping other young people to follow their dreams. Kerrigan says that all aspiring entrepreneurs need to have great mentors they can count on. “I didn’t know much about the footwear industry, so I aligned myself with three or four core people that I could turn to on a whim and get free advice from, whether it was someone that had a great finance background within footwear or a manager of a footwear chain,” she said. “You just need great people who can help keep you on track.”

Regina Munroe

Inproma • San Carlos, California • inproma.biz

As a Latina working in the sciences, Regina Munroe was used to overcoming stereotypes. Before starting Inproma, a San Francisco-area promotional products company, Munroe received her master’s degree in chemistry, a field rarely pursued by Latina women. After working as a chemist for six years, however, she realized that she desired to do something more with her life. While she was researching different business opportunities 11 years ago, Regina’s future husband expressed a need to purchase some embroidered shirts. Munroe decided that she would try to make them on her own. Instead of spending their savings on a new car, Munroe bought a $30,000 embroidery machine and started making shirts in her garage, naming her business Stitch of Class. Most of her early business came from corporations who wanted embroidered shirts and Munroe did them one at a time. Using her networking skills, she contacted former coworkers at her previous employer and the company ended up becoming one of her largest clients. As Stitch of Class grew by word of mouth, Munroe decided to expand into distributing promotional products. In 2004, she changed the name to Inproma to better reflect the product line that they offer. Munroe said that she feels good about how much she has accomplished as a business owner. “I think my greatest accomplishment would be that I started a business from nothing,” she said. “I picked every one of my clients.”

In 2005, Munroe was one of 10 Latina business owners to be chosen for an Anna Maria Arias Memorial Business Fund Award. The awards recognize Latinas with $5,000 cash grants for their service to their communities and innovations and success in business. In addition to mentoring in the Las Hermanitas program and contributing to scholarship funds for Hispanic students, she is involved with the Northern California Supplier Development Council (NCSDC), Northern California Business Marketing Association, and the Promotional Marketing Association of Northern California. Munroe advises other aspiring business owners to keep in mind that the road to success won’t always be easy and fun. “Having a business is like having a baby,” Munroe says. “You have to feed it so the baby crawls, then stands, and then begins to run.”

Glenda Allen

GA Janitorial • Jacksonville, Florida • gajanitorial.com

Although Glenda Allen worked for years in the corporate world, it was her mother’s work in the janitorial field that decided where she would end up in the business world. In 2001, Allen decided to leave her sales career for entrepreneurship in order to spend more time with her family. When Allen first started GA Janitorial Services, she had only one employee, herself, and she wasn’t making any profit. She now has over 70 employees and her revenues top a million dollars a year. Allen was just researching the idea of starting a business when she attended her first Office Depot Success Strategies conference in 2002 in Boca Raton, Florida. When she attended the same conference in 2006, she was invited to share her story of success as a featured entrepreneur. Allen is also planning to expand her janitorial business in the near future and merge it with a training and staffing agency. Allen attributes much of her growth and success to the research that she did at the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce Small Business Center. “I started going there to do research and I found out what a lot of people running janitorial services weren’t doing,” Allen said. “There weren’t a lot of them that got certified to do business with the state, which are the bigger government contracts.” Allen did quite a bit of subcontracting her first year and once she got certified, she started to bid on some jobs of her own. Allen was nominated for the Jacksonville Small Business Leader of the Year in 2006, Jacksonville Business Journal Mosaic Award, and twice she was awarded a contract by the National Football League to help with their NFL experience surrounding the Super Bowl. Allen was also chosen as one of three women entrepreneurs to participate in the Jacksonville Women’s Business Center’s Athena PowerLink mentoring program. Founded in 2006, Athena connects business owners with a panel of six to eight unpaid advisors who work with them for one year to help them reach their business goals and objectives. “I think that it’s going to take a lot more programs like this to encourage women to pursue opening their own business,” Allen said. “The more women I speak to, the more I see so many of them want to do things and have dreams. It’s just unbelievable.”

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