Women-owned businesses are growing across the country, and more are on the way.
That’s evident in the Triangle, where women say they’ve been able to flourish because of a climate that’s both progressive and supportive.
But some women say they run into roadblocks on the way to launching their own businesses — starting from the very beginning, where they try to obtain capital to kickstart their companies, to subtle forms of discrimination.
Tahesha Evans, who owns Kwench Juice Cafe in Raleigh, said she sees “raised eyebrows” when people hear that she is the owner.
“Happens all the time,” Evans said. “I feel like I have to prove I’m capable of being in the role, rather than it being assumed I’m qualified.”
Across the country, about 20% of companies were owned by women in 2018, and that number is slowly on the rise, according to the Census Bureau’s Annual Business Survey. Growth in ownership is seen in arts and entertainment, real estate, construction and educational services, among other industries, the Census Bureau says.
The News & Observer recently put out a call to learn about women-owned businesses in the Triangle. But in addition to compiling a directory of businesses, we asked some questions: What is the business climate like for women-owned businesses in the Triangle? What’s the biggest challenge? What should women know about owning a business here?
In all, we heard about more than 110 businesses, and an overwhelming majority of the owners said the Triangle is one of the best places for them to do business.
That’s supported by national reports. The Raleigh-Cary metro was ranked No. 12 in the country for women entrepreneurs for the second year in a row in 2020, according to financial advising website SmartAsset, The N&O reported. That’s due to its quantity of women-owned businesses, startup performance rate and women-to-men pay ratio.
Those who responded to The News & Observer’s survey say they have found a friendly business environment where women support women.
“What I have learned in the seven years that I have been in business is that being a woman-owned business is actually a benefit, rather than a disadvantage,” said Sally Mack, the owner of the Chapel Hill boutique that bears her name. “Women here tend to go out of their way to support me because I am a woman.”
It’s a place where state and local resources connect business owners and entrepreneurs so they can improve and expand their companies, whether they’re brick-and-mortar or e-commerce sites.
Local business owners praised resources like the nonprofit Shop Local Raleigh, the N.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council of North Carolina. They also recommend the Women Business Owners Network of the Triangle and the National Association of Business Owners of Greater Raleigh.
Several business owners also network with each other online, such as through the Triangle Black Owned Businesses Facebook group, which has more than 19,000 members.
But while Mack feels supported, she said she’s fortunate she hasn’t faced the challenges that many other women business owners deal with. Those challenges include trouble accessing funding, finding local or statewide administrative support to get new businesses running, sexism and not being taken seriously as female business owners — obstacles faced more often by Black and brown women.
“Being a woman of color-owned business and being an immigrant, I feel like it has these challenges in the sense of access to capital,” said Areli Barrera Grodski, who co-owns three Cocoa Cinnamon coffee shops in Durham and Little Waves Coffee Roasters with her husband, Leon Grodski.
“But at the same time, we’re really fortunate that we’re in Durham,” she said. “It has this entrepreneurial spirit, a very gritty spirit which I love, and a very accepting community wanting to see women of color and businesses of color excel.”
Barrera Grodski said the embracing “open arms community” of Durham has helped Cocoa Cinnamon thrive and survive before the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially during.
Challenges for women business owners
The N&O received about 80 responses to its survey questions on the challenges for women business owners. The answers fell into four general themes.
▪ Sexism/lack of confidence — A majority of respondents (32.1%) said their biggest challenges are directly related to sexism, gender-based discrimination or lack of confidence as woman in business.
Several women described not being taken seriously enough as an entrepreneur or as an executive in their field. Some described being on the receiving end of subtle or passive actions and comments from men. That includes doubt that a woman could be a company CEO or that assertive saleswomen are perceived as “angry” more than their male counterparts.
Susan Pruskin, who owns Susan Pruskin Consulting, a bookkeeping and small business advisory company in Cary, works in a predominantly female-led field and said her male colleagues give her respect.
“It’s just the occasional male client who feels the need to exert his manliness,” Pruskin said. “If it becomes too unpleasant, I fire them and make room for more respectful and friendly clients.”
▪ Family and home duties — The second most frequent response (25.9%) is the challenge of balancing many life tasks in addition to running a business.
Respondents indicated that women in business are often mothers, wives, caregivers of their parents or play other important roles related to the home and family that makes it difficult to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
“Owning and operating a business is hard work,” said Susan Hatchell of Susan Hatchell Landscape Architecture. “You can work around the clock, and never really get caught up. Women often hold caregiver roles within their families that are very time-consuming, and that can be stressful.”
▪ Access to capital — Nearly 20% of responding businesses said issues related to accessing startup capital or funding opportunities were their biggest obstacles. Some said they did not get enough support from financial institutions because they’re new or early in their business careers.
“When I started out in 1987, banks had never met a woman who wanted to start a medical practice, let alone a business,” said Teresa Hale of out-patient physical therapy practice Allied Rehab in Wake Forest. “When I asked for a capital loan, the banker just looked stunned and asked if my husband was with me.”
Susan Denny of Carolina Total Wellness adds that these attitudes could hinder women from attempting to open a business.
“The idea that women need the backing of their male partner or spouse to own a business is not only antiquated by harmful to economic growth,” Denny said. “There remains a double standard in the financial and banking industry for women-owned business and acquisition of capital.”
▪ Operations/lack of resources — About 18.5% said they struggled with logistical and operational issues, such as marketing and management, but said that’s common of other small startups. Those issues were exacerbated by the pandemic, some said. Others said they didn’t receive enough information to find resources for networking, financing and institutional support.
“I think finding mentors is difficult, and just finding a supportive group to bounce ideas off of is hard as a sole business owner,” said Andi Engel of Hearing and Audiology Services in Raleigh.
A key obstacle for women entrepreneurs is access to capital. Melita Quick, an entrepreneur from Cary, had to overcome this to get her businesses off the ground. She traded in her family’s car, cashed in retirement funds and gave up a higher cost home for a more affordable one.
“I think one of the biggest challenges is that the world is not ready for a strong Black woman as an entrepreneur,” Quick said in an interview with The News & Observer. “We definitely had to hustle harder. You have to know what you’re facing.”
Quick was able to start her holistic and natural gynecology business Womb Buzz this way. Then, she started a local artisan lemonade business named OMG Lemonade with her high school-aged daughter, Layla, which has since taken off as her priority.
OMG Lemonade won a start-up pitch competition on the Clubhouse app earlier this year, leading to new access to funding, networking opportunities and investment that is putting her daughter on the road to long-term entrepreneurship.
Quick also said her business took off by being able to distribute her products across the area through the Triangle’s farmers’ markets and small business network, including the Black Farmers’ Market in Raleigh, where they have been a featured seller.
“People are pulling us into the circles that we never would have found ourselves in,” she said. “I’ve been living a golden life, I’ve been living a dream in these last seven or eight months.”
Black-owned businesses face additional challenges
Entering entrepreneurship is harder for Black business owners, according to a 2019 report by the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. A much higher rate of Black business owners rely on personal or family savings, or a personal or business credit card for startup capital, compared to their white counterparts, the report says.
Belinda Brown, owner of Expressions in Rhythm, a Raleigh studio for dance and music lessons, says this has posed as a challenge for her.
“Local financial institutions should look at the vision and the mission of Black entrepreneurs in lieu of a list of criteria that is not an accurate reflection in regard to the potential of the business,” she told The N&O, referring to artistic businesses not being prioritized for loans as much as others.
“This would cause a radical shift and change in the business climate for Black-owned business. Expressions in Rhythm Studio is a labor of love for me as well as an opportunity to give back to my Southeast Raleigh community, which was underserved for far too long.”
Brown echoed other survey respondents about this issue. Several said banks only gave out business loans to them if they indicated they were married and included their husband’s information.
Karen Bond, owner of Trilogy Treats, said she had a similar experience when she was looking for a place to open a custom cookie business.
“When I was looking at opening a storefront, I still had to use my husband to get some people to start discussions,” Bond wrote.
Brown said she has seen that businesses like hers don’t receive the preference from commercial property managers leasing space that larger and non-minority-owned businesses get.
“In the words of Shirley Chisholm, I decided early on if Raleigh would not give me a seat at the table, I will bring a folding chair,” she said.
News & Observer visual journalist Casey Toth contributed to this story.