More women than ever before now operate their own businesses. Some are even venturing into fields typically considered the a man’s domain.
On top of the challenges every small-business owner faces, these brave souls must also deal with being the only female in the room — or being the only one at the top of the pyramid.
Here’s how three local women do it.
A family affair
Lauren Smathers, the 26-year-old manager of Carolina Truck and Body Co., says she still gets giddy and runs outside whenever a big wrecker pulls into her West Asheville firm’s huge parking lot.
Smathers might seem young to be managing a business that sells and services medium- and heavy-duty trucks and provides a 24-hour big-truck wrecker service. But her great-grandfather started the business 80-plus years ago, and it’s been managed by a member of her family ever since. Smathers just happens to be the first female to take the reins.
“It’s not just hard being a woman in this business — it’s hard being a young woman,” she reports. “Telling a man who’s been driving a truck for 40 years that he’s the reason his truck is messed up is really difficult.”
Smathers, however, knows her stuff. She’s worked at Carolina Truck and Body at least part time since she graduated from West Henderson High School. In fact, Smathers’ grandfather, Geary Cordell, had planned for her to take over as general manager as soon as she completed her master’s degree at Western Carolina University, which she did just over two years ago. Smathers figured he’d be there to ease the transition, but he died four days after she graduated. So she immediately became co-owner and primary proprietor as well as general manager (she co-owns the business with her grandmother, Gwynn Cordell).
Initially, running the business by herself was a challenge, says Smathers. Having learned the ins and outs of the business and made it through the worst recession in more than 30 years, however, she feels she can survive anything.
“When I was 17, I’d call my mom crying when customers refused to talk to me about their trucks because I was a girl,” she recalls. “But I’m past that point. I’m not going to let being called ‘blondie’ throw me off. I have a business to run.”
“It’s an awesome day when a trucker says to me, ‘You know more about trucks than I do,’” she adds.
There are even some advantages, she maintains, to being the hen in the rooster house.
“Sadly, I think it’s easier for a man to yell at another man than at a woman. Men approach me with more sensitivity,” notes Smathers. “I also think they listen to me more closely. I’ve had customers catch on a lot quicker when I’m explaining something like a new emissions system than if they’re listening to a mechanic.”
Her advice to other women starting or running a business in a male-dominated field? “Make sure you understand the business, but don’t try to learn it all overnight.”
Smathers admits that it’s hard not to feel intimidated walking into a conference or sales meeting where she’s the only woman and all the men have been in the business for 20 years, but she says, “I’d had to put myself in some uncomfortable situations to learn the business. One thing I’ve learned is not to back down. Once I make a decision, I stand behind it.”
Despite the challenges, Smathers says she loves her job and can’t imagine doing anything else. After all, those fancy wreckers still make her giddy.
Carolina Truck and Body Co., 1895 Old Haywood Road, 667-8771, www.carolinatruckandbody.com.
Who says I can’t?
Laura Dover Doran was working as a writer and editor at Lark Books when her father suddenly fell ill. William Dover had owned and managed Dover Insulation — a Marion, N.C.-based business that insulates industrial and commercial buildings — since 1965.
The middle of three sisters, all of whom had worked for their father at some point, Dover Doran decided help her father manage the business during his illness. Eighteen months later, he died at age 59, and the sisters inherited the company. That was in 2004, and they were advised to sell it, she remembers.
“I couldn’t bring myself to quickly sell the company that my father spent his life building,” says Dover Doran. “The reality is that if it’s suggested that I can’t do something, I want to do it.”
So she took over as president and manager, eventually buying out her sisters. Recently, her younger sister, Melanie Dover Goodson, came back to work for the firm as a project engineer and estimator.
Dover Doran admits that it’s been a challenging career change for her, though she says her gender wasn’t the hardest part.
“Coming across a woman in my world is a rarity. That said, being a female wasn’t the biggest obstacle that I had to overcome in taking over my father's business, but rather my lack of experience. I was lucky to have top-notch employees who were gracious and patient, and that has made all the difference,” she says. She currently manages 35 people.
“I would say to my dad when he was sick: ‘I don’t know that I can do this. I can’t break into this male-dominated field. He’d say: ‘Of course you can. You’re smart and capable. You can do it.’”
He also told her, “Everybody’s going to underestimate you just one time, but once you get through that one time, it’ll be over.”
And for the most part, that’s held true. “With very few exceptions, everyone’s been gracious and given me the benefit of the doubt,” she reveals.
When asked what advice she’d offer women considering careers in heavily male-dominated industries, she says: “Develop a thick skin, and forget about gender-related issues. Focus instead on doing good work. I find that when I stay true to my father's vision of workmanship and service, I can't go wrong.”
On days when she’s unsure which direction to go or what decision to make, Dover Doran says she asks herself, “What would dad do?” And it always works.
Dover Insulation Inc., 4597 U.S. 70 West, Marion, N.C., 724-4667, www.doverinsulation.com.
“I ain’t talking to no damn woman”
When she first started answering the phone at her husband’s motorcycle-supply-and-maintenance shop 30 years ago, Mary Strickland says she didn’t even know what a spark plug looked like.
Today she owns and runs City Cycle Supply, and she can identify thousands of different parts at a glance.
Back in 1980, Strickland (then a recent UNCA graduate) says she learned the business on the fly because her husband was often too busy fixing bikes to answer customers’ questions about parts.
But it didn’t always work out. “Twenty years ago, some guy said, ‘I ain’t talking to no damn woman about a motorcycle part,’ and slammed the phone down,” Strickland recalls, laughing.
Even today, some customers are hesistant to do business with her because they think she doesn’t know enough.
“But I’m not intimidating to talk to or ask questions, especially if you’re new to motorcycles,” she notes. “Plus, it’s easier for me, as a woman, to say, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.’ I think some men may have a harder time admitting they don’t know something.”
She also says she’s learned that you can’t change anyone’s mind with words: You have to show them you know your stuff.
Strickland loves her work, noting that as in any retail job, you have to like people. Customers, she concedes, can buy the parts she stocks most anywhere, but they come to her because they want to talk to someone who knows bikes.
In 2006, Strickland and her husband, Gene, closed the “big” shop on Patton Avenue. He became a machinist, and she opened the supply shop in a new space on Merrimon Avenue.
She briefly considered going to work for another local shop instead of opening her own business.
“But when I looked for employment elsewhere, they seemed to want to pigeonhole me into selling biker apparel, even though they’d been dealing with me for years and they knew my specialty was parts. I’ve never really sold apparel,” she explains.
Plus, Strickland likes being self-employed. She’s not franchised or affiliated with any major brand or company; she’s just Mary, the motorcycle-parts-supply lady.
City Cycle Supply, 211 Merrimon Ave., 252-7330.
— Asheville-based freelance writer Anne Fitten Glenn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.