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Pursuing ambitions: Local entrepreneurs are part of a growing trend toward female-owned businesses
Becky Brown, Katelin Robinson and Christy Smith have several things in common.
All are college educated to a degree, but none obtained a degree.
But that has not prevented all three from owning their own businesses in Cape Girardeau.
Brown runs a bakery operation, Cakes Reanimated, from her home; Robinson owns a novelty tobacco store, Glassroots; and Smith has been nursing a tropical-plant store, The Plant Lady's Corner, for more than a decade.
While the three arrived as proprietors at different times and in varying fashion, they are among a growing trend toward women-owned businesses not only in Southeast Missouri, but around the nation.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of women-owned businesses in the U.S. has increased by 74 percent from 1997 to 2015, with women-owned businesses now accounting for 31 percent of all privately held businesses.
In Cape Girardeau County, there was a growth rate of 70 percent from 1997 to 2012, when women-owned businesses grew from 1,238 to 2,112, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Survey of Business Owners. That was well above the overall 26.4 percent growth rate in businesses during that period in Cape Girardeau County.
"I do see a lot more women doing it, but I think it's just a matter of being more independent and being able to do your own thing for yourself and kind of wanting to take that chance and following through with something you want to do, instead of being at home or working for somebody else," Smith says.
As of 2012, 30.6 percent of privately held businesses in Cape Girardeau County were owned by women, which was an increase from 24.6 percent in 2007 and 23 percent in 1997.
Crystal Jones, the director of the Economic and Business Engagement Center at Southeast Missouri State University, says there has been an increased focus on entrepreneurship in general, but especially among women.
"With the times and the way they are changing, people are realizing small businesses are where it's at with job creation, so I think more and more people in general are looking to start their own business, and then that's translating to an increased opportunity in particular for women to start their own business," Jones says.
While women-owned businesses are on the rise, they tend to remain small.
In 2012, only 15.9 percent of the female-owned businesses in Cape Girardeau County had paid employees, compared to 34.9 percent of the male-owned businesses. That's also the case on the national level, where women-owned businesses account for 14 percent of the workers among privately held companies and 12 percent of revenues.
According to the American Express 2015 State Women-Owned Business report, women-owned firms received only 4 percent of all commercial loans and only 5 percent of government contracts.
Jones says the EDA University Center, established with a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to stimulate and support entrepreneurial growth in the region, assists area businesses -- including small, disadvantaged and women-owned firms -- in getting certified to compete for government contracts on the local, state and federal levels by connecting owners to the Missouri Procurement Technical Assistance Centers around the state.
"While the PTAC office is in St. Louis, our small business development center here on campus can help connect those women-owned businesses to the PTAC process," Jones says.
The EDA University Center also assists entrepreneurial development through LaunchU, a six-week training course that guides participants in developing a feasibility plan to start a small business.
Since the program was introduced as Operation JumpStart in 2006, more than 8,000 people have enrolled among the 150 affiliates nationwide. The number of women participating grew from 50 percent that first year to 59 percent in 2011.
In 2016, 16 of the 26 participants (61.5 percent) that attended the sessions in Southeast Missouri, held in the spring and fall, were women.
Brown attended the spring classes in Sikeston, Missouri, where eight of the 10 participants were women.
"It was exciting," Brown said. "I felt like it was, I don't know, invigorating as a woman to see other women that all were pursuing their ambitions. It was very supportive for everyone."
Through the LaunchU program, which makes a number of sources available at classes, including lawyers and accountants, participants create and tweak business ideas into a Small Business Administration-approved feasibility plan.
Through taking the class, Jones says some enlightened participants learn their plan is not practical and elect not to pursue an endeavor, while others emerge with a solid plan that can help them overcome financial hurdles.
"It's investment-ready, so you can take that plan to your bank, and it's going to have everything that your banker is looking for, as far as financial statements, your marketing analysis, all that information that your banker really needs to see before he or she can make a decision to fund your business," Jones says.
At the end of the LaunchU session, participants pitch their business idea to a panel of judges in a competition for grants.
Brown won the start-up assistance services for her idea to get her business out of her house and into a food truck, a 1987 Chevy step van she purchased and is repurposing. The package included valuable marketing assistance for her business, which she originally licensed out of necessity to provide a cake for a friend's wedding at an upscale venue in 2012.
Brown also works part-time as a server at a local restaurant and has used her earnings to invest in the truck, which she views as a bridge to bigger dreams.
"To have an actual building would be amazing," Brown says. "That's the plan."
Robinson and Smith both operate brick-and-mortar stores and went about the process on their own.
Robinson opened her first business venture in November of 2015 after spending about six months putting together a 70-page business plan, which included financials and projections. She had helped her parents open Cup 'n' Cork in 2005, and with that experience and the help of an investor, she got things off the ground for Glassroots.
"All the female business owners I know are all really driven," Robinson says. "Financing has not stood in their way. They find a way, whether it's using their own collateral and finances to fund it. They can do it. Once they set their mind to it, they do it."
Robinson says her industry is male-dominant, which is most apparent when she goes to product shows that feature such attractions as bikini-clad women. She's found support in her industry from another female owner in Alabama, however.
"She's been a huge help, just asking questions," Robinson says. "Not knowing, and I can pick up the phone and call her any time, and she'll walk me through it or help me out."
It's part of a sense of support women owners often share with one another. Robinson enhances the ambience of her store with plants purchased from Smith's shop.
Smith also provides care for plants inside homes and offices, as well as keeping up flowerbeds and planting in the spring and summer.
A biology major, she was a year away from graduating when she had her first daughter and needed to work. She found employment at The Plant Lady's Corner, which she later bought.
She says when it comes to the business side, she's fortunate her father was an accountant, but she also calls on her non-biology classes on a regular basis.
"Regardless of whether I'm watering plants or playing in dirt, I still use all the things I learned in my business classes," Smith says. "When I sit here and do my paperwork, when I deal with the taxes and deal with the payroll, buying and purchasing."
Self-owned businesses allow for flexibility of hours but call for long hours on many days.
"It's a really rewarding thing and a humbling experience," Robinson says. "I would hope that everyone that wants to open their own business can and will, but definitely look into the Small Business Administration; use the resources that are out there."
Robinson says she got online and read every article available before she started her business plan. She was aware of the LaunchU program offered by Southeast but did not take it, although she's not ruling it out in the future.
"I do have 'Business for Dummies,' which I resort to frequently," Robinson says with a laugh. "And I do intend to take that class -- if nothing else, to brush up and maybe give me some insight to issues or obstacles I haven't found an answer for yet."