(This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer)
Women entrepreneurs have it tougher. But things are changing. Today, there are more than double the number of female entrepreneurs in the U.S. than 20 years ago and about 40% of small businesses are owned by females.
The good news is that the smart female entrepreneurs are leaning more on each other for support and by doing so are creating a better environment for success.
But significant challenges for female small business owners remain. And as we mark International Women’s Day it’s important to understand not only the unique challenges some local female entrepreneurs are facing, but how they’re overcoming them.
For example, there’s Heidi Barr, the owner of Kitchen Garden Textiles, a maker of organic textile products based in Philadelphia. Barr struggled getting funding a decade ago, but was able to reach out to organizations that supported women entrepreneurs like the Circle of Aunts and Uncles, which provides low interest loans and social capital to under-resourced entrepreneurs. She also finds support among other local organizations such as The Enterprise Center, The Women’s Opportunity Resource Center, and The Sustainable Business Network.
“My advice for other women entrepreneurs is to tap into the strength you already have and remain humble enough to benefit from expert advice,” she said. “Expect the unexpected and enjoy being a voice at the table.”
Wendy Sachs, who runs the Philadelphia Nanny Network in Ardmore, agrees that despite advances, the perception is that “businesses owned by a woman are not taken seriously.”
She’s seen from her own business — providing childcare services and homecare — that women tend to have the majority of responsibility for running the home and suffer a “greater burden” with their families.
Adina Silberstein, who owns Mt. Airy’s Queenie’s Pets, said she has endured fifteen years of “mansplaining” and being “taken advantage of by service providers” who haven’t given her “the same time and respect as they have with men.”
So Silberstein has focused her time on building relationships with the people she knows will be important to her business in the not-so-distant future, such as her local bank. “They know me, they know my business and they know my voice when I need to call them,” she said. “And that is proving extraordinarily beneficial as we prepare to apply for our first commercial loan.”
Silberstein has been an active participant in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program and has built a community of customers and friends — both male and female — at her local business associations. “Knowing and networking with fellow neighborhood small business owners is great,” she said. “We even got a grant through Go Mt. Airy early in the Covid crisis.”
Narberth business owner Laura Kelly has also hit a few road blocks of her own because she’s a woman.
“Even though I’ve run a very highly successful business ( The Handwork Studio), I often had to involve my husband in financing transactions,” she said. Kelly became frustrated when, as she was looking to expand her business into a second location, she would leave messages for real estate agents and never get called back. The Handwork Studio is a creative arts camp for kids.
“With each call I would leave increasingly more details about my business expansion, the number of years in business, how many clients we served, all in an attempt to validate my business to them,” she said. “In frustration, I finally had my husband call to get a response. And certainly anytime a loan was involved, my husband’s signature was required, personally guaranteeing the loan even after being in business for 20 years with flawless credit.”
Kelly said she’s “tired of needing my husband’s co-signature on MY business loan, especially when my business is thriving, we have money in the bank, and I have a credit score of 800+.” She’s found the experience “degrading and discriminatory.”
One of her biggest sources of support is an internal “mastermind” group of fellow female entrepreneurs that she has belonged to for nearly a decade. The group meets weekly to talk about problems specific to their businesses and shares resources, experiences and ideas.
“We’ve helped each other grow tremendously, launch multiple products, write books, speak professionally, and pivot, survive and thrive during the pandemic,” Kelly said. “My advice to other female entrepreneurs is to join organizations like Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, and the National Association of Women Business Owners, to find a supportive community. There is no need to re-invent the wheel, another woman has already done it in Philadelphia.”
Jenna Fischer caters to a female audience and solely employs women. And she, like other female entrepreneurs, surrounds herself with female colleagues. Her East Passyunk fitness company, Train and Nourish, is part of a community that, she said is “80% or so” female-owned businesses.
“Female entrepreneurs really understand that it takes a village and truly know how to help support and empower each other,” she said. Because of that community support Fischer said she has been able to “better listen, understand and, ultimately, serve my clients based on their needs.”