Women own more than 10 million firms in the United States, employ more than 13 million people and generate more than $2 trillion in sales, according to SCORE, a nonprofit that finds current and retired business leaders to volunteer their time as mentors to small-business owners.
Toss a business card in any direction in Asheville, and it's likely to land on one of these upstarts, who are opening an ever-diverse range of businesses. For a coffee-talk about women in business, Xpress rounded up a comedy-tour leader, an equine-therapy coordinator, an accountant, an insurance agent and a chiropractor. They ranged in age from the 30s on up (how far up, we're not supposed to say), and they named hometowns as far-flung as Carthage, Ill. ("where Iowa, Missouri and Illinois collide") or as close as Atlanta and Greer, S.C. (although the latter native, Lucretia Piercy, has been here since she was 13). Some were very new to business; a few had decades of experience.
We wanted to know what it means to be a woman in business these days.
Here's our cast of characters:
• Margaret Williams (Xpress, contributing editor)
• Shannon Knapp (owner/founder, Horse Sense of the Carolinas)
• Jennifer Lauzon (co-owner, LaZoom Tours)
• Lucretia Piercy (owner/founder, Small Business Accounting Services of Asheville)
• Maggie Brand (agent, Western Southern Financial Group, and Vice President, Sky-Hy chapter of the American Business Women's Association)
• Katrina Eakle (partner, chiropractor, The Bright Side)
Xpress (Williams): Tell us how you arrived where you are, as far as business and career. I'll start by mentioning that, before returning to journalism at Xpress, for five years I helped run a small flooring-installation business that was women-owned and women-operated.
Shannon Knapp: I taught college English for about 10 years, and I never intended to open a business of this sort. It just … happened. When I lived in Texas, [my husband and I] did a lot of dog rescues, and then when we moved to North Carolina nine years ago, I knew I wanted to work with horses. I'd had them all my life, so I began working with the rescue horses, which become almost impossible to place [in new homes once] they become unrideable.
About the same time, I had a bunch of girlfriends who [wanted] to get what I was getting by hanging out with the horses: the grooming and cleaning stalls and just the Zen of it. They didn't talk about riding. With all of that in mind, I went looking for a way to pair horses with people who didn't need to ride, and that's how I kind of fell into [creating] Horse Sense of the Carolinas, which offers equine interactive learning, team building and leadership development. We also offer equine-assisted psychotherapy for at-risk youth and others.
Jennifer Lauzon: I was a schoolteacher for years, and "No Child Left Behind" is what drove me to into doing comedy. [Laughter.]
Lucretia Piercy: That's a good one!
Lauzon: I had taken a break from teaching for a while [when] my husband and I lived in New Orleans. But I started teaching [again] when we came to Asheville, and even though I loved the school system here — our daughter goes to Isaac Dickson Elementary — things [in teaching] had really changed over the six years I was away from it.
Xpress: You and your husband had been performers in New Orleans, and out of that experience came LaZoom Comedy Tours?
Lauzon: We're in our third season and having a great time. We do an hour-and-a-half comedy tour on the bus with theatrics all along the way, and we also have fun shuttling people for special events.
Xpress: And Lucretia, have you always had a knack for math?
Piercy: No, I haven't, so it's kind of strange I'm in the [accounting] field. I spent 30 years in the corporate accounting culture, but last Halloween, I got laid off. And I decided it was time to pursue my own dream, which was to have my own business, and it took a lot of guts, and it's a baby business, so I may or may not make it. But I'm enjoying it quite a bit.
Maggie Brand: I kind of fell into my business too. I was a stay-at-home mom for 18 years. I have three sons, including a special-needs son, but I got divorced — you know: the old story. I went back to school, got a degree, and then I went out into the workplace. Nobody thought that anyone who'd stayed at home for 18 years had any skills. So I had to pretty much start at the bottom.
Xpress: And you worked your way up?
Brand: Yes. I got a job with a chiropractor as his office manager [in Atlanta], and I did pretty well. But my sister lived up here, and my cousin had moved up here, and they said, "Oh, you won't have a problem getting a job up here." I moved up to Asheville, without a job.
Xpress: But you eventually got a job in a medical office …
Brand: And moved up through that, going out to their Sylva office, [but] they closed that [branch] and I didn't have a job any more.
Xpress: That's how you ended up working in the insurance business almost ten years ago.
Brand: At first I starved. But that's what women are good at. We adapt to the situation.
Xpress: What does being a woman in business mean to each of you? Have you faced any special challenges?
Piercy: It means power. And I did it without a man!
Knapp: The horses don't care about gender. … [In general] we women want to connect with someone who connects with us, who has an inkling where we are in the universe.
Brand: But sometimes, women are tougher on women.
[Everyone]: Oh, yeah.
Brand: Whether there's a feeling of competition or whatever. I've had women bosses — they scared me! Because they feel like …
Knapp: They've got something to prove?
Brand: Yes, women are harsher judges of women than men are in this day and age.
Lauzon: Just a little side note on that: Everybody asks, "Why do you dress up ugly on your tour bus?" Curly hair, blue eye shadow, big eyeglasses — I'm a super dork. Because the first season, I'd be up front [driving the bus], and I'd try to be funny, and there were so many women out there — not that I'm glamorous, just if I was dressed normally or nice — they'd seem to be sitting out there, [thinking], "What's she trying to prove?" But I can make so many more people, including women, laugh if I'm dressed [like] a dork.
Piercy: As women, we have to prove ourselves, more than a man does, because it's still a man's world, though we won't admit it.
Xpress: I had a flooring customer, an older woman, ask, "When's your husband going to come? When are the men going come to do the floor?"
Brand: That's really old school. You know, women of that generation, their job was to raise the family and stay at home, and they may have worked at a factory, but they didn't compete with the men. My mom was not a stay-at-home mom, except periodically.
Xpress: She'd rather work than stay at home?
Brand: She was a great mom, but she wasn't …
Knapp: A wonderful homemaker? [Laughter.]
Brand: She'd rather do something else. My mother was very strong and independent, and my father was the sensitive one. [Laughter]. He was the one who'd say, "Now girls, can't you get along with your mother? … Let's go out for ice cream."
Xpress: You're touching on our next topic: misconceptions about women that you have encountered in the business world.
Brand: The blond thing! People just don't think you have a brain in your head. They seem to think that that blondness seeps right into the brain. Sometimes I do have my blond moments, but only a blond can joke about that.
And when I got divorced, my ex-husband was convinced that I would probably have some little retail job and never amount to anything. We have a great relationship now, but it was that kind of thing then: There was no respect for a woman who stayed home and raised her kids and ran all the errands and figured out who was going to be where at what time, although he had little businesses that he had me running for him while he worked full-time. But you'd go out into the real world and say, "I did this and this and this," and [potential employers] would say, "Well, I don't care about that; you didn't get paid for it." [Laughter.]
Knapp: Have you read Judy Brady's [1971 essay], "I Want a Wife"?
Piercy: No, but I want one! [Laughter.] I grew up with a family that left me with the impression that women are inferior to men, so I had struggles overcoming that throughout my life. When I divorced, I was bound and determined to make it. I kept telling myself, "Come on!" Since then, I've bought a house by myself, I'm in business for myself, and that's great. I can survive.
Brand: My grandmother came from Ireland at the age of 16, and when her husband died and left her with a child and a niece to raise, she worked three jobs to keep a roof over their heads. In her community, like families do now from Asia and Mexico, families lived in group areas where they helped support each other. So if you're working, the ones who aren't working at those times take care of the kids. We've lost track of that here. [Others agree.]
Even if you're a stay-at-home, you've got to be strong — you're raising kids! You've got to raise them to be strong people.
Xpress: So you've also got to be strong in business to reap the rewards, which are …
Piercy: Freedom. The freedom to be my own boss. The freedom to be able to do this today. If I had a corporate job still, I wouldn't have been able to come here.
Eakle: The biggest reward is that I love what I do. I [like] watching a person come in, and they're withdrawn [because] they're in pain, and maybe resigned to the fact they're going to have to have surgery. Then I get to work on them and watch them come back to life, little by little, and the light comes back into their eyes. There's no better reward than loving what you do.
Brand: It's the same for me. I help families protect themselves, and one of the joys I get — and this sounds a little weird — I have to take a death check to a family, and they're thanking me for taking care of their family and making sure that family stays in their home. Or in some circumstances, that's the check to bury their family member. Things like that make me know that I've done my job right.
Knapp: It's the passion for something that you like to do and passion for helping people and helping them through very difficult experiences and through challenges. That's an enormous gift and doesn't necessarily have anything to do with my gender. It's about play, it's about connection with the horses, with clients, who feel like [they're not] being heard or understood, [and} then they get that immediate communication and feedback from the horses. Hanging out with the horses kind of provides a bias-free zone. The feedback that you get is pure, and I love that my job requires me to be a beginner every day and to be open to whatever shows and to not think that I'm in charge. [Laughter.]
Xpress: What are some of the best resources for women here locally? There's Mountain BizWorks and the Women's Business Center, for instance.
Eakle: The Chamber of Commerce. I've met so many fantastic women through the Chamber, with all kinds of different ideas and from different businesses. Asheville is awesome for women in business.
Xpress: You mentioned Melody MacNeil, who runs a Hula-Hoop business
Lauzon: We go by in our big purple bus [during tours], and she's in the park, teaching [Hula-Hooping], and we yell at each other, "Get a real job!"
Eakle: Asheville is so great at integrating things and people. For a lot of women, that gives them confidence, because this town is so inclusive.
Xpress: Asheville, in general, has a great entrepreneurial energy.
Eakle: That's one reason I moved here, and Asheville is so community oriented. Women work well in that atmosphere. It's not always "Every man for himself" or "What am I going to do to get the next dollar?"
Xpress: I met you and Knapp at a recent Chamber event featuring small-business owners, and most of the panel leaders were women.
Eakle: And all the messages were not about "How to succeed in business?" or "How to make the most money?" They were about how to do what you love and help others, and that's how you succeed.
Xpress: In fact, the businessmen that day made the same point. Perhaps, in the current economic downtown, we're all looking for other rewards, in business and in life.
Knapp: A life change. One of the impetuses to move here is to change something that's not working. It certainly was for me and my husband, leaving Dallas, three million people and so much concrete.
Xpress: Y'all have a farm now. And lots of horses.
Knapp: Yes. And I have connected with so many other folks who are willing to have reduced economic circumstances in order to be able to live well.
Xpress: What's another good resource?
Piercy: I've been a member for 13 years in the Sky-Hy, Asheville chapter of the American Business Women's Association. We're a sisterhood. The support I've received from my girlfriends in this group — to go ahead and do what you want to do and start my business — it's been phenomenal. We also raise money to send young women to school.
Xpress: Finally, what advice would you give to women in business, whether they're starting a new business or rearranging their careers?
Lauzon: I never identified with gender being an issue, although I've been in a few situations in which gender may have popped up, and perhaps I didn't get a position, but rarely. I'd say, just don't identify with it. Once you name something, it can become bigger, and maybe you put things into it that aren't there.
Xpress: I was in a very male-oriented business, in a construction-type field, and we ran into a few issues because of that. We were women who could move refrigerators and install hardwood floors, and our approach to business meant being nice to the customers, doing what had to be done and showing up on time, and we would work until it was done.
Eakle: I'd add, for anybody, not just women, there's always going to be someone who says you can't do something. Just politely nod your head, and let it go over your shoulder. Some people don't have the same vision and drive as you do. And actually, no one does. Too many people sink their ideas because of what one person says. And they don't allow themselves to achieve their full potential. There's a level of gut instinct you have to follow.
Knapp: Be authentic. Be whoever you are. So many people try to fit into the constraints and the boxes and the buckets. We don't need more conformists. There are people trying to be something other than they are. That's something the horses teach again and again. Your inside's not matching your outside. If you match, you're never wrong. People may not like you, but you're always — well, Shakespeare said, "To thine own self be true."
Piercy: I would say, pursue your dreams, no matter what the obstacles you run against. Go for it. Life is too short not to.
Eakle: I like what you said about conformists, because society doesn't grow if everybody's the same.
Lauzon: So many of our jobs are becoming automated. The only jobs that are going to survive are those that are unique. [Pauses and says as if confessing:] I heard it on Oprah. The way of the future is to be creative.
Eakle: That's why we live in a very special place. This area embraces the individual, and it embraces uniqueness. You're not looked at funny for having a different job.
Knapp: You are, but who cares.
Xpress: Y'all have all been very gracious, and I appreciate you making it today. Any parting shots?
Eakle: Just give us a few years, and we'll be established businesswomen.
Contact Margaret Williams at firstname.lastname@example.org or 251-1333, ext. 152.