Ms. Boss

Western North Carolina women mean business.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that Asheville Savings Bank has a female chief executive (Suzanne DeFerie). There’s also no shortage of women in other typically male-dominated fields, such as Lauren Smathers, whose West Asheville operation sells and services trucks. And that’s not even mentioning local women’s less-visible business activity (did you know, for example, that balladeer and WNCW host Laura Blackley also runs a small farm operation with her partner?).

This year’s special Women in Business issue explores this phenomenon from a number of angles. Mackensy Lunsford checks in with women entrepreneurs who’ve used Blue Ridge Food Ventures to help realize their dreams. Anne-Fitten Glenn takes a look at women running businesses in fields traditionally associated with men. And Michele Scheve spotlights women (like herself) with less conventional career paths.

One way or another, female entrepreneurs seem to be everywhere these days. As of 2007, there were some 7.8 million women-owned, nonfarm businesses nationwide, according to census data (the Census Bureau updates its business survey every five years). That represents a 20 percent increase over 2002; during the same period, the number of male-owned enterprises grew by just 5 percent. Locally, in 2007, women owned about 29,000 businesses in Buncombe County alone; to put it in perspective, in 1997, the entire multicounty Asheville metropolitan statistical area boasted a mere 4,500 of them.

Across the country, minority-owned businesses are on the rise as well, and more and more of those entrepreneurs are also female (Urban News Publisher Johnnie Grant comes to mind). Still, African-American women remain less likely than white women to start their own businesses, and women in general are still less likely than men to embark on self-employment.

Women-owned firms with paid employees also have a slightly lower four-year survival rate than businesses owned by men: 67 percent vs. 72 percent.

That didn’t stop local accountant Stephanie Weil, though. A CPA for about five years, she recently took the leap to form her own firm, figuring that if she could survive the recession and post-recession, she can survive anything. Weil believes being her own boss also helps her clients, who include many local businesswomen. “When you don’t have any barriers [due to an employer’s expectations] … you can do a better job of getting all the options out there for your customers,” she says.

Going into business for yourself, notes Weil, is also about drawing on what inspires you. Like many of the women featured in our special issue, Weil likes to help people. “I love explaining things to them and having them understand,” she says. Of course, in her field, it helps that she’s motivated by another passion: “I get very excited when everything balances.”

A different kind of balance is part of what inspired longtime local business owner Lillah Schwartz: yoga. When she landed in Asheville 30 years ago, no one was even teaching the practice, much less devoting an entire studio to it. One reason Schwartz started her own business was simply that there were no jobs in her chosen field. Many Americans, she jokes, “thought yoga was some kind of yogurt.”

Downtown Asheville, meanwhile, was just showing the first faint signs of life when Schwartz opened Lighten Up Yoga Center in 1981. “For 10 years, I was [also] the only yoga teacher in town,” Schwartz reminisces. “I created my own path.”

Now 58 years old, the Massachusetts native had previously lived in Miami, where she honed her skills during what she calls “a wave” of interest and exploration of the healing and massage arts in this country. Schwartz practices Iyengar yoga, which she describes as a sort of “12-step” program that’s progressive and gradual. Like most forms of yoga, it’s about alignment and being present in your body.

For Schwartz, that approach applies equally to being a businesswoman. She aligned herself with the right people (“from the person working the front desk to teachers who draw students”), the right town (Asheville’s “not as hot as Miami,” she says, laughing) and the right plan (“You have to have your business pieces in place”).

And then, of course, you have to love what you do. Schwartz jokes that she couldn’t run the studio without having “a great wife” — her office manager, who takes care of day-to-day business so Schwartz can focus on teaching. She’s also drawn inspiration and support from other longtime Asheville businesswomen, such as accountant and financial adviser Carol King, a key figure in downtown redevelopment.

In India, Schwartz reflects, yoga was long a male-dominated art: Only men were allowed access to the inner teachings. That didn’t begin to change until the 1930s, when there was a shift toward public classes (including some for women). After all, Schwartz points out, B.K.S. Iyengar himself had five daughters — he had to take women seriously.

— Margaret Williams can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 152, or at mvwilliams@mountainx.com.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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