Whether it’s adding a multimillion-dollar- generating division to a family-owned business, taking an “all in” risk by opening a boutique or providing a place where customers whittle away the hours playing board games and eating nutritious food, area women have made the plunge to small business ownership with great personal and professional results.
“Women are starting and growing their businesses at a rapid pace in our state,” according to Briles Johnson, executive director of The Women’s Business Center of North Carolina, which provides assistance to women-owned businesses. “We are excited to see this trend, help our businesses thrive and to be a part of a network of resource providers assisting our businesses every day.”
There are an estimated 11.6 million women-owned businesses in the U.S. that employ nearly 9 million people and generate more than $1.7 trillion in revenues, according to the 2017 State of Women-Owned Business Report, commissioned by American Express OPEN and based on information gleaned from 2012 Census data.
The number of businesses owned by women in the U.S. has more than doubled in 20 years, as has their revenue, according to the report.
North Carolina has an estimated 331,000 women-owned firms, making it the No. 10 state nationally in number of firms. Those companies bring in an estimated $39.4 billion annually in revenue and employ over 279,700 people, the report stated.
In December, Stella Keller Black (below, on left
) and her sister, Atlanta Marie Carrera (below, on right
), took over Keller’s Inc., an independently-owned fire protection systems company on Gordon Road, from their mother. Owning a woman-owned company “was never part of the plan,” for Black.
“My sister and I made our place within the company,” she said.
Black said the business has an engineering focus due to the nature of the work. However, she and Carrera, lacking engineering backgrounds, tapped into an idea that’s turned into a department that generates about $4 million dollars in annual sales: their In-Stock “Quick Ship” Program department that, as the name implies, ships parts.
Black’s been with the company for more than 30 years and serves as president while Carrera is CEO. The company has 35 employees, 12 of whom are women. It is certified as a woman-owned business by the N.C. Department of Administration’s Historically Underutilized Businesses program, a process by which agencies doing business with them get credit for doing so under set aside programs.
Tiea Kaseman (below
) studied fashion merchandising in college, later working for clothing manufacturers. When she moved to Southport from Ohio, she noticed the large number of women-owned businesses in the area, which gave her the incentive to start her own boutique, a longtime dream of hers.
She brought her current ShopGirl storefront on North Howe Street about 14 years ago and added a Sunset Beach location about 10 years ago. Kaseman said retail stores, particularly those like hers that sell women’s fashion, tend to be women-owned. ShopGirl, has six female employees in addition to Kaseman.
Karen Stewart co-owns Lovey’s Market in the Landfall Center with Marie Montemurro. Lovey’s, which they opened 15 years ago, is a natural food market and café catering to those looking for natural and organic groceries, supplements and hair and skin care products.
Today Lovey’s employs 23, with 18 of them being women.
“I think women have become more aggressive and competent,” about owning businesses, Stewart said.
Networking with other women who own businesses can be challenging for owners like Black, whose company’s work is conducted around the country and overseas.
She recently joined the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce to connect more with local business owners, including those owned by women, and now sits on the board of directors.
Black said she stays on top of ways to improve the business through the manufacturers of the products she uses. They often host conferences with business process breakout sessions on topics such as digital marketing and other ways to increase distribution.
These conferences and other events provide fertile ground for networking and sharing information on topics such as national employee pay scales and a variety of other business-related issues.
“Within the fire protection industry, a woman in business is a rarity,” Black said. “There’s a small group of women throughout the country that I network and stay in touch with.”
When asked if being a woman in that landscape is difficult, she added, “I think if you’re a strong woman leader with good communication skills we can actually create business opportunities differently for ourselves.”
Stewart said she loves the sense of community she and Montemurro have built at Lovey’s. Often people will come by to play board games and have a meal, she says.
Kaseman, who spends several days a week on the shop floor, says she speaks with many customers, both local and visiting, who either own their own business currently or have in the past.
She recommends women contemplating business ownership to go “all in” and commit the resources needed to support a solid business plan.
The payoff for owning a business?
“I love it. I feel very blessed because I love what I do,” Kaseman said, adding she may not love it quite as much when it’s midnight and she’s still ordering merchandise.