Building an all-girl's network, one potluck at a time
When Jill McManus moved to Burlington from California three years ago, she had only the seed of an idea for her own line of jewelry. But first, she wanted to find a unique style of pendant that would set her creations apart from those of her competitors. "I thought, How about those round, spiky things on the back of a riding spur? They have holes in the middle of them,'" McManus recounts. "I didn't even know what they were called."
McManus eventually found someone who makes the "spur rowels" -- a 76-year-old retired cowboy in west Texas who hand-works them from steel. The rowels were just what McManus needed to get her business rolling.
Today, her Toluca Brand of necklaces, bracelets and earrings are sold in stores in Burlington, New York, Dallas and Los Angeles, as well as over the Internet. Her jewelry has been featured in Cowboys and Indians magazine -- "It's sort of like Coastal Living for ranchers in Montana," she explains. It was also worn on television by Robin Roberts, a news anchor on ABC's "Good Morning America." Recently, a member of the band ZZ Top saw McManus' jewelry in a Los Angeles boutique and liked it so much, he asked if he could take her Toluca Brand sign on tour. "It's getting out there," McManus says modestly. "I'm having fun with it."
But McManus, who just turned 30, also admits that her jewelry business might never have taken off if not for the skills she learned from the Women's Small Business Program. The 15-week course for women interested in starting their own businesses was launched 15 years ago by Trinity College and Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office. It helps participants draw up a business plan, research their customer base, make financial projections, manage their cash flow, and so on. The program has given wing to the entrepreneurial dreams of hundreds of Vermonters.
Along with nurturing ideas, WSBP incubates an informal network of female business owners who continue to support each other beyond the classroom. Eight of the 13 students who graduated with McManus in January 2003 still get together for potluck dinners about once a month to socialize, swap business tips and take encouragement from each other's successes. Though none of these women had had formal business training before enrolling in the program, all went on to launch successful small businesses, including a women's clothing store, a floral shop, a line of children's clothing, another jewelry business and a gourmet food-delivery service.
"I think back to the first day of class with all of us just sitting there with our notebooks, kind of shy, with nothing at all but a bunch of ideas," recalls Rachel Strules, another 2003 graduate of WSBP. Within months of completing the course, she opened Sweet Lady Jane, a Church Street boutique that sells women's clothing and accessories -- including jewelry made by McManus and their classmate, Lisa Cutler.
Cutler, who had worked as a full-time psychiatric nurse before going into business for herself, says she was impressed by the instructors' distinctly female-oriented approach to learning. "It was very nurturing and very supportive," Cutler says. "No question was too stupid and we were never pooh-poohed."
One of their first exercises, she recalls, helped students get a clearer idea of the kinds of businesses they wanted to start. "The first day, I remember going around the room and everyone talking about what they wanted to do," Cutler says. One woman wanted to teach T'ai Chi to senior citizens, but it turned out she had never even taken a T'ai Chi class herself. "Which is kind of like inventing the wheel and then saying, I want to build cars,'" Cutler notes.
Doris Adams is the planning and program director for Mercy Connections, the nonprofit that now runs the Women's Small Business Program. A course instructor and small-business owner herself, Adams says she's not surprised that her students have maintained lasting professional and personal relationships after the course is completed.
"We're not exclusively for women, but it is a community, women-centered approach to learning," she explains. "We really invite people to come together and be co-learners. It's really all about building that sense of relationships and bringing people together where they become a rich resource for each other."
Unlike earlier generations of female entrepreneurs, who often had more trouble getting bank loans and securing lines of credit, women today have far more access to capital and formal business training, Adams says. In fact, women-owned businesses are now the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. economy, contributing nearly $2.3 trillion in annual revenues, according to the Center for Women's Business Research. It's estimated that one in every 11 American women now owns a business.
Vermont had roughly 19,000 women-owned businesses in 2002 (including this newspaper), employing nearly 20,000 people. And that number appears to be growing more rapidly than the national average, with the state's women-owned businesses generating nearly $2 billion in sales each year.
These days, the obstacles to women going into business for themselves tend to be more personal than institutional, Adams explains. "Many women grow up with the fear of finances and money," she says. "And that's one of the most amazing things that happens in this course, that, Gee, this isn't as frightening as I thought. I can really do this.'"
Increasingly, WSBP graduates are going into businesses not considered stereotypically "female." They have included carpenters, sign makers, a stone mason and a distributor of personal-fitness equipment, according to Adams.
That said, virtually all the businesses springing from the program remain small, at least according to the federal definition: fewer than 500 employees. But that trend doesn't concern Adams. "What we found is that women tend to piece together various income streams, like a patchwork model," she says. Part of WSBP's appeal is that it teaches students to tailor their businesses to fit into their personal lives and career aspirations, says Adams.
Shortly after completing the 2003 class, Amy Livingston opened Queen City Cuisine, a home-cooked food delivery business, despite the fact that she had never cooked professionally nor even worked in the food-service industry.
Queen City Cuisine prepares, packages and delivers meals to people who are homebound or too busy to cook. What Livingston likes about her "very part-time" enterprise is that she can work at home and grow the business at her own pace.
"I've heard people say that's why a lot of small businesses fail, because they grow too big too fast," Livingston says. "I wanted to keep it small. I'm not a huge risk-taker in general."
Likewise, Cutler's part-time jewelry business, Aurora Beadwork, allows her to work at home as well as part-time as a nurse, without sacrificing precious hours with her 18-year-old son. "It's very difficult to have a full-time job and a family and then do the business on top of that," she says.
Both Cutler and Livingston report that their former classmates have given them tremendous encouragement and creative feedback in their work. "We're sort of each other's cheerleaders," says Livingston. "They're honest with me, but in a very supportive way."
Strules agrees. While she sells her classmates' jewelry at Sweet Lady Jane, McManus' partner set up a website for the store. Occasionally, the women's monthly meetings address substantive issues, such as how to deal with customers or establishing a legal trademark. Other get-togethers, though, provide an emotional shot in the arm. "It's good for a little push, because I definitely have lulls," says McManus. "And sometimes we just get together and drink wine."