Since becoming Mountain BizWorks’ CEO in the fall of 2009, Shaw Canale has seen the rise of numerous women-owned small businesses in Western North Carolina. Her colleague Sharon Oxendine is the longtime director of the nonprofit’s Women’s Business Center. Xpress sat down with both of them recently to discuss local trends concerning women in business. Here’s what they had to say. Full transcript follows video.
Mountain Xpress: What trends are you seeing among local businesswomen?
Sharon Oxendine: I think people are getting to the place where they’re trying to serve the infrastructure. Like, there’s already a lot of breweries out there, so people are now coming in and trying to find ways to serve the breweries, whether it’s through growing hops, or whether it’s through condiments, or…
Like hops soap?
Oxendine: Yeah, whenever you see certain things come into play, then I think what happens is that our clients go to a place of being resourceful and trying to serve that infrastructure.
Shaw Canale: Something that we also see is women-run businesses that are small family farms, [selling at] farmers markets, tailgate markets: the hops that you mentioned; goat cheese. We have a whole range of low-barriers-to-entry, home-based kinds of businesses that women tend to gravitate toward, especially during the startup phase. One of the challenges, I think, for us here at Mountain BizWorks and for women in general, is a resistance to growth, which translates into a resistance to borrowing money to grow.
You mean the women themselves are resistant to growing their businesses?
Canale: I don’t know if it’s because they feel like they can’t get their hands on the money, or they’re unwilling to risk it, or if it’s because growth doesn’t feel comfortable for them. Women comprise 62 percent of our clients at Mountain BizWorks, but they constitute less than a third of our borrowers. So our interest is great in lending to women, and I feel pretty confident that we don’t put barriers up in any way, because our goal is to bring more women in rather than fewer. But it’s just an interesting trend that’s not unique to WNC. Women business owners tend to borrow less and don’t have as much growth as you would see in male businesses.
Oxendine: I think that’s true; I think it’s definitely the case here. I think there’s a lot of debt aversion for women, because growing a business is about taking risk. So a lot of our female entrepreneurs aren’t used to that strategic planning that it takes to take a risk, and also, women are more likely to think about what their children need, what the home needs and what their husband needs before they will invest in taking on more debt. What I’m finding is that the people who can afford to do it, who don’t really need to do it, have actually gone out and gotten loans so they can bank those loans and be able to take care of the growth of their businesses.
On the other hand, you say 62 percent of your clients are women, and a lot of women-owned small businesses are very successful. Why do women make awesome entrepreneurs despite their risk aversion?
Oxendine: I think it’s because women are more likely to partner with other businesses. Women are naturally more resourceful. We’ll tend to plan out and find other resources that are available. That’s why women come here. That’s why our rate [of women-owned businesses] is so high. Women are OK with coming and getting direction on how to build a business plan.
Canale: Stopping for directions — women will do that.
Oxendine: That’s just my silly little opinion on that.
Canale: I tend to think about what do we have in WNC, and what’s the same or different about what we see nationally? Another thing we see here [concerns] access to that most important early startup capital, the venture capital or angel capital. Women have far less access to those networks that make that early [investment] — the money that is, for the investor, by nature considered higher-risk. You’re putting money into a business before it’s really demonstrated that it has any value or will even survive — well before it’s able to take on debt. I mean, they don’t even have customers yet. They’re maybe just a concept. Women are, I won’t say shut out of those circles, but they’re not a part of those circles where that kind of money gets passed around. It’s often checks written by men.
Canale: To men. There’s an organization called Springboard Enterprises. They have a terrific website, and they talk about who they partner with and who they work with to bring investors in significant [numbers]. We’re talking billions of dollars in the aggregate. Close to 400 women CEOs and women-owned businesses have been helped by this organization. And its goal is to link venture capital with women CEOs and women-owned businesses. And the reason it’s so specific is because there’s a need.
Because it is, in fact, the case that it’s very difficult for women to break into those circles. I mean, it’s hard for men to find venture capital. It’s very, very difficult for women to do so. The fact that a special entity had to build itself in order to address that issue speaks to the fact that it is a problem. They do tremendous work. I could find no link to that entity in WNC, and I thought to myself, maybe we should be that link in WNC. That was as recently as a month ago, but I haven’t followed through yet. I say that only to only say it’s an interesting website talking about that other hurdle for women to grow businesses beyond the “Adorable on Lexington Avenue,” as someone here in the office refers to the candle shop. Something more than that, where we’re not just helping someone build a low-wage job for themselves: We’re actually helping them build assets for their families and for their business.
Oxendine: I had a conversation with the business developers recently where we sat in a room and asked, “How many of our businesses can we think of, especially our women-owned businesses, that have branded here in the area? Two came up: Jael Rattigan and Daniel Rattigan of French Broad Chocolates. It was almost like an immediate brand. They came through us, but we didn’t have anything to do with that; we’re not taking credit. Also, Jen Lauzon [of LaZoom Tours]. The purple bus: Everybody knows it. And when they came here we were just like, “Oh my goodness.” But that’s what I think of when I hear Shaw speak. How many of our businesses are now branded? They’re now synonymous with the service and the products they provide, and we don’t see a lot of that. When that happens, it’s spectacular for them, and for us.
Both of those businesses, they’re running with a male partner. I wonder if that makes a difference, that they’re both married to their business partners?
Canale: Right. You know, I don’t know if it does make a difference. [Something I’ve learned] lending to small businesses for 15-plus years in organizations like Mountain BizWorks is that it’s quite often a partnership. It’s a couple that are doing it, so whether it’s male-led or women-led, I think it’s very common to have a partner of some sort — whether it’s your spouse or boyfriend or significant other. That’s not uncommon to see a partnership like that, but I think to see women in a leadership role is less common. But I think those are really good examples of where the women have a strong leadership role.
You mentioned the loan program. How much do you lend to the community, and how much specifically to to women-owned businesses?
Canale: I’ll have to look at what we did last year and the year before, before I can give you the numbers. But there’s a real focus inside Mountain BizWorks about how do we get capital to women, and it’s hard to do that because of that risk aversion. In particular, what we find is that when we have women for whom we ask (as we would any loan applicant) to put up collateral, in particular their home, which is probably the most common collateral that small business owners have — that is a huge step, to think about risking your home, your children’s home, your family’s home for your business, and that can be the place it stops. And there doesn’t tend to be a lot of other assets or collateral for women other than their home. That tends to be a major asset, so it’s a challenging issue for us to figure out. How do we lend to women, support women and not push them to the brink where they say, “I’m not willing to go that far,” because of collateral or business-plan needs?
Sharon, as our Women’s Business Center Director, has probably the strongest perspective on working with women, and I’m thinking about SheBIZ. That organization started within Mountain BizWorks. It’s an affiliation of women, self-started, that asked us to help with sponsorship, to help the setup and hold meetings and build agendas. They’re independent now, but rather than loan capital, what they looked to were other women who were running businesses to share the challenges with each other about how they overcame hurdles. So almost more than capital, it is that group affiliation of, “I’m going through similar things; I understand what you’re going through. Here’s how I thought about it or solved it.” That group, I think they’re on their third or fourth iteration now, with more women being brought in. You’d think they’re not going to do this because they’re competitors. Not an issue.
It’s like a mothering group.
Canale: In some ways, I think it very much is. There’s a lack of desire for big, explosive growth. They don’t need to be at the center of every conversation or every photo opportunity. They want to run their businesses sufficiently to build some assets and help support their families, and their aspirations don’t tend to be big. It would be exceptional to find someone who wants to have 45 retail sites for their business.
I suspect it may be part and parcel to what we look like in WNC. We don’t have big employers. We don’t have Microsoft or Amazon or Boeing, so lacking those big employers and those mills, the option is to start a small business that isn’t crazy big, that’s small enough to support yourself, to provide some income and assets and allow you to stay in this place you like. There’s no necessary required tradeoff between giving up all the wonderful things about home and living here in order to own a successful business. If you keep it moderately small, you can have both. In some ways, that’s the have-it-all story.
Back to the loans. You tend to give relatively small loans, in the scheme of things…
Canale: In the grand scheme of things. Right now, our loans are anything from a few thousand on up to, recently, $100,000. So we have that range, and really we try to be cognizant as to the loans we make. Are they the sort that can help a business grow to the next level, as opposed to debt that’s going to take the business under? And that’s always the biggest concern: Are we piling debt on top of other debt that’s only going to hamper them rather than help them? But loans in general tend to be in that [range]. We lend; we do consulting; we do training.
Oxendine: Do you remember the last two women that [Chief Lending Officer] Brian Griffin helped? They were hair stylists, and this was their first loan; it was startup capital. That’s a great story, because hair stylists have become very popular with us in the last couple of years.
Well, there are a lot of them.
Oxendine: Yeah, and there’s a lot of competition. But these two women, they’re fairly young and they’re very, very sharp. They came through our program and continued to press on. I was just so impressed with their business plan. You know, with as many businesses as we see, that would be such a good group to highlight. They’re partners; there’s two of them, and also they’re new. This is a startup, and you don’t see a lot of startup businesses being funded, especially young women. But they were so impressive, and they also have components that we needed to put that loan through.
Given the recession and the way the job market has been, do you expect to see more young women coming up with these kinds of business plans?
Canale: We sure rocked and rolled last year with folks coming to the classes. We didn’t see many borrowers, because people were nervous about the economy and about starting their businesses in the absolute valley of the economic downturn, but our Foundations classes, and other classes we’ve had, were full all the time. Sharon was tearing her hair out trying to figure how we were going to get them scheduled in the space that we have here, so the demand for that was high. So I think that the interest and urgency is there, but people are just very careful about when they are willing to put everything on the line to start their business. And I think a lot of folks are waiting for the economy to pick up.
But I will say this: Just for this quarter, we’ve done more than half of the loans that we did all of last year. So if we’re a canary in the mine at all — if we’re any indication that people are starting to experience a little bit of optimism — that may be a good indicator.
You mentioned hair stylists. You mentioned small family farms. What other potential growth areas are you seeing, particularly for women in this area?
Oxendine: Well, I’ll use some of our examples from our Entrepreneurs of the Year from our Women’s Business Conference. This year, for this area, Jodi Rhoden of Short Street Cakes.
I’ve written about Jodi.
Oxendine: Yeah. She’s branded herself, and I think it’s really interesting. I don’t know if a lot of people know, but she was trained as a social worker, and she found a place in the market for what she’s doing and how to nurture people and bring people together with her skills and her background. So we’re seeing a lot in that area like Creme [Bakery]. They came through us.
Canale: Thinking about personal services, you mentioned hairdressers. This lady down the street that has the Pilates and acupuncture…
Oh yeah, Brooke [Tyler of Clasique Acupuncture & Pilates Studio].
Canale: Just a smart, delightful, fairly small shop just down the street from us here, so I think those kinds of personal services, along with the natural baking and other home-based businesses, are likely growers.
What are some of the home-based businesses? Crafts? Jewelry?
Canale: Jewelry is very common. There’s one we have who’s a photographer.
Oxendine: Just to throw out some others, these are two women, Teresa Anders and Alicia Cochran with Kid Zone Drop-in Childcare, out on the Qualla Boundary. We’ve been working with them for several years. They’re open all the time — 24 hours. Then there’s Denise Teague, who owns Fun Things Etc. in Waynesville. And then one other thing … Marilyn [Ball, a Mountain BizWorks instructor] has been saying that’s becoming a big deal is people who are in graphic design, screen printing. She’s been working with Brenna Miller and her company BAMilla. They’re working to bring her to the forefront, and Marilyn says that she’s probably going to make it very, very big. When she tells me something like that, I think it’s probably pretty true.
Canale: Who’s that very bright woman who works for us who does the social-media classes?
Oxendine: Oh, Sarah Benoit.
Canale: That’s her business. She does that kind of work where she can come into a setting like ours, work with us, teach our clients. That’s the thing that we tend to see: the Marilyn Balls, the Sarah Benoits who have a particular skill set that translates beyond just producing. They’re also teaching others by partnering with us. But again, I think that tends to reinforce over and over the individual, small nature of women-owned businesses in general in WNC. You have Asheville, Waynesville and Qualla Boundary…
And some of these women-owned businesses have a staff, and a lot of them don’t.
Canale: It’s a real mix. Debby Hipps, who owns [Diamond Lily Cleaning]: She has staff, women who work for her.
Oxendine: And the Latino cleaning co-op.
Canale: Yes. We’ve got a Latino women’s cleaning co-op. That’s a great story.
Oxendine: And Floressence Flowers, which is the one that’s going to win in the south, in Hendersonville. They do floral design for weddings and events, and there again I’m seeing a service to the infrastructure. Shay Brown of Shay Brown Events. She’s doing really well right now, another one of our clients. Those people who are out there doing the catering, and people who are servicing the catering event: I think Asheville has kind of exploded in ways that people have determined that they’re going to be able to make money, just like with SheBIZ.
I think it’s interesting. There are a lot of women in there who are involved in alternative [healing] businesses, and in this time, with the economy, I think you’d probably see a decrease. And those women … like Jessica Chilton of the SPARK Creative Wellness Studio, she’s doing really, really well, and seeing lots of different levels of clients. We’re seeing that those folks’ business tends to be picking up, and they’ve stayed with it along the way.
Canale: Those kinds of businesses that require that your customers have some discretionary income — money to pay someone to do flowers, to bake cakes. That’s something in the past you might have done yourself or done without.
Are there challenges you see women facing here that are different from what you see men facing in starting or expanding small businesses?
Canale: Something interesting you might find if you looked at the numbers: We have a lot of nonprofits in WNC. If you look at the nonprofits and how many of them are run by women, it’s an extraordinary number. There’s far less resistance to women in leadership roles in nonprofits, and you tend to see it a lot more. It doesn’t tend to make headlines, but competent women are made very welcome in nonprofit circles and are expected to take leadership roles. And that expectation doesn’t necessarily exist in other corporate situations.
Oxendine: I think that’s right. I still say that one of the major things is startup capital; that continues to be an issue. When I first came on board at Mountain BizWorks, it seems that we saw a lot of women struggling, especially here, in the marketplace to get into a place where they could have a business, a place that they could rent. I don’t think we have as much of that problem anymore.
I think that’s due to places like A-B Tech, that has a small business incubator — incubating those businesses and teaching them how to go out and negotiate those leases. Lease negotiation is very hard around here. It’s not the easiest thing to navigate, so I think a lot of women have had trouble with that in the past. I think that we’re doing better on that front. Not necessarily just us, but also our partners, as we all see what the needs of women are.
Tell us a little bit about the upcoming Women’s Business Conference.
Oxendine: It will be held Friday, May 27, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It’s going to be at A-B Tech at the Enka campus. We’re thinking that this will probably take off. There will probably be a couple of hundred people that will come to see the seminar, and there will probably be another hundred people serving that. We’ll have a member market, 10 breakout sessions and a keynote speaker — Denise Ryan — who’s been highly recommended. Our theme this year is women who “Dare to Succeed and Courageously Lead.”
Do you have a cutoff on how many people?
Oxendine: I think we had about 150 last year, and I think this year that 200 is pretty much the cutoff. There’s a certain amount that we’ve budgeted for that we have to have as paying clients, but we’ve got Verve [Magazine] on board. We’ve got Mountain Xpress and the Asheville Citizen-Times. We’ve got SunTrust Bank, who’s contributing a lot. We’ve got some really big sponsorship this year. Marilyn Ball has gone out and got probably $20,000 to $25,000.
What are a couple of the breakout sessions that you think will be particularly beneficial?
Oxendine: Stephanie Carson is going to do some things on marketing. She used to work for NBC, and everybody’s just really crazy about working with her. Celeste Ametrine is also going to do some things on networking, working with the public, and also bringing your business up to speed.
Do you have a social-media track?
Oxendine: I’m not sure if we do. I know they were really excited that Kelley Wolfe [of Mountain Sexology] is coming.
Well, you have to have a sexuality track, right?
Oxendine: I was like, “OK, we’ll get out there and be on the cutting edge.” I know we’re going to have a business speed-dating forum with Emily Breedlove. From what I understand, that’s going to be really a lot of fun. And we’re going to have chocolate from the Chocolate M.D. A mother and daughter started this company. One is named Malia, and one is named Denise, and they call it Chocolate M.D. It’s gluten-free, vegan, raw chocolate.
Anything else you’d like to throw out there?
Canale: For us, what matters most is that Mountain BizWorks continues to be a relevant resource, especially for women-owned businesses in WNC. We tend to focus on the training and the consulting and the lending side. Those three things can be of support to women-owned businesses, and our goal is to meet them halfway or further.
Oxendine: I personally anticipate that the work here with women will probably saturate more into certain areas. With having a lot of businesses that have consulting, we’re going to be seeing women that have larger companies, and I think these businesses are going to help us in learning how to help other businesses bring themselves up to that line. So I think it’s exciting. I think that Mountain BizWorks is also in a stage of growing and going to another level, but it’s also bringing our clients to another level.