Small is beautiful

Biz savvy: Mountain BizWorks Director Shaw Canale, right, and Women’s Business Center Director Sharon Oxendine, left, help local entrepreneurs navigate the business world. photo courtesy of Mountain BizWorks

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 are highlights from that interview.

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 condiments or…

Like hops soap?
Oxendine:
Yeah. I think our clients go to a place of being resourceful and trying to serve that infrastructure.

Shaw Canale: We also see women-run businesses that are small family farms, selling products such as goat cheese and hops at farmers markets and tailgate markets. 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 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. But it's 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 see in male businesses.

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. Another thing we see here is that women have far less access to early startup capital, venture capital — to those networks that, by nature, are 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.

How much do you lend to the community, and how much specifically to women-owned businesses?
Canale:
I'll have to look at what we did last year and the year before. But there's a real focus inside Mountain BizWorks about how do we get capital to women, and it's hard because of that risk aversion. When we ask women (as we would any loan applicant) to put up collateral, their home is probably the most common collateral that small-business owners have. It's 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. 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?

We don't have big employers. We don't have Microsoft or Amazon or Boeing, so 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 trade-off between giving up all the wonderful things about 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:
Right now, our loans are anything from a few thousand up to $100,000. So we have that range, and 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?

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. I think the interest and urgency is there, but people are very careful about when they’re willing to put everything on the line to start their business. 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 the loans we did all 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.

Are there challenges you see women facing here that are different from what you see men facing in starting or expanding small businesses?
Canale:
We have a lot of nonprofits in WNC. If you look at 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. That expectation doesn't necessarily exist in other corporate situations.

Oxendine: I think that's right. Startup capital continues to be an issue. When I first came on board at Mountain BizWorks, we saw a lot of women struggling 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's small-business incubator, which teaches them how to go out and negotiate those leases. Lease negotiation is very hard around here.

Tell us a little bit about the upcoming Women's Business Conference.
Oxendine:
It will be Friday, May 27, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at A-B Tech’s Enka campus. We’ll have 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."

To see a video of the interview or read the complete transcript, visit mountainx.com.

— Asheville-based freelance writer Anne Fitten Glenn can be reached at annefittenglenn@gmail.com.

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