Ventures and Adventures
Network of Women Entrepreneurs Educates and Inspires Budding Women Business Owners
Sharon Styffe says the Network for Women Entrepreneurs fills a need in the region for a resource to assist those looking to start or grow a business.
Sharon Styffe, dean of Workforce and Professional Development at Holyoke Community College (HCC), says that coming up with a successful new business concept is a challenge that comes in two parts: having a good idea, and identifying a market to buy that idea.
“It’s one thing to do what you’re good at,” she told BusinessWest, “but its quite another thing to find something you’re good at — and that the market will buy. You can’t just sell something that’s your passion; it has to be someone else’s need — because otherwise it’s just an organized hobby.”
These are just some of the many thoughts she tries to impress upon the growing number of participants in something called the Network of Women Entrepreneurs, which meets every other week at the Kittredge Center on the HCC campus.
As the name suggests, this initiative, which Styffe created last fall, is indeed a network, one in which ideas are exchanged, common issues and problems are discussed, and people leave the room with more to think about than when they arrived. It is intended for those already in business, those who would like to be some day, and those who need to decide if being in business for themselves is the correct career path to take.
Mary Kearney is actually in two of those categories — sort of. She already has one operating enterprise, called CleanScape Inc., a commercial cleaning service she founded 18 years ago, as well as a fledgling enterprise still mostly in the hobby stage — a niche graphic design company for women’s clothing — that she would like to make her primary business pursuit.
“Although I’m an entrepreneur, cleaning has never excited me as much as the arts,” she explained, “especially since that’s where my skills are.”
Kearney’s desire to grow her graphic arts enterprise brought her to the Network of Women Entrepreneurs, but discussions within that group, and her own due diligence, have brought her to the conclusion that her concept might be too cost-prohibitive. However, further introspection — and help from the group — may eventually lead to the acceptable alternative of folding some aspects of that dream into her cleaning venture (more on that later).
Nancy Fields, president of Fields Graphic Design in Leeds, is another participant in the network who said the informative, interactive sessions have given her new perspective on what it means to be in business and serve customers.
“One of the speakers was a former marketing person and she was an eye-opener for me,” she said, “because she made me see that I’m not just a person doing a job for someone else. I’m actually running a business and I really have something to offer here.”
Currently the group consists of business owners involved in writing, Website and graphic design, food production, commercial office cleaning, accounting, hair design, radio talent, healthy food preparation, end-of-life care, publishing, and home organization.
Each venture, and each entrepreneur, is different, but there are common denominators that include everything from clearing the many hurdles involved with taking a concept from the drawing board to the marketplace, to the difficulties women face in finding a balance between life and work.
For this issue and its focus on women in business, BusinessWest took in a session of the network Styffe facilitates to see how it helps members juggle the many balls they have in the air and take their businesses to the next level.
Life in the Middle
Before she came to HCC from a large community college in Ohio last October, Styffe, a single mother and full-time working professional with experience in education, banking, and workforce development, did some extensive research on Western Mass.
And that due diligence led her to conclude that it was a “hot bed” for small-business development.
Looking deeper, and calling on her own background, she recognized a need within the community for a resource for women business owners and those with entrepreneurial urges, one that would provide information, inspiration, and, perhaps most importantly, dialogue between such individuals.
Thus, she launched the network, which is based on a program she created at Montgomery County Community College in Pennyslvania. One of the main reasons to target women, she explained, is their continuing roles as nurturers and caretakers, which makes them “natural multi-taskers.”
“It doesn’t matter how far up the career ladder one goes, that nurturing quality is still something that is ingrained in you from when you were little,” she said, “and that makes you perfect for creating a business, and a program like this captures that spirit.”
Styffe has a number of initiatives she wants to launch at HCC, but the Network of Women Entrepreneurs is the first, and a place where women business owners can form a new community of learning in an accepting environment.
Just a few weeks ago, one of the women attendees presented her company and her products, explaining to the other women how she got to the that point with all her struggles, including FDA approvals, and she brought her newborn baby with her.
“Her husband was working that night,” Styffe said. “And everybody completely understood.”
Donna Bliznak, left, recently addressed the network on the broad subject of commercial lending, providing insight for members, including Mary Kearney, center, and Nancy Fields.
At a recent Tuesday evening session, guest speaker Donna Bliznak, vice president of Commercial Lending for PeoplesBank, presented a comprehensive inside look at the lending process, and at what banks want to see and hear from business owners as they consider loans for various purposes — starting up, next-level expansion, or simply weathering economic downturns.
Other speakers have presented on such topics as legal issues involved in getting started, personnel recruitment, branding and marketing, and access to common capital.
The scheduling of the session topics is based loosely on the plan one should follow if they are just starting up their business. In between the expected topics, other presentations are also booked for the rest of the year, based on what the attendees want to learn.
But one of Styffe’s concerns is that attendees not get overwhelmed. The sheer volume of information packed into some of the recent sessions can burn them out.
“The topics have been really great and the speakers haven’t relaxed it at all,” Styffe said. “Some of these women haven’t had financial training; they’ve been consumers, but with a business, it’s a whole new ball game. You have to be prepared to talk to someone to sell them on the long-term prospect of what you do.”
Which leads her to the importance of creating an effective business plan.
While Styffe has seen some people get their ventures off the ground without a business plan, one is needed to help the entrepreneur set goals and create effective strategies for reaching them. An up-to-date plan can also help determine possible course changes for businesses experiencing growing pains.
Fields, for example, was doing graphic design work for 20 years when she lost a major client, forcing her to step back and look at where her business was and how to take it where she wanted it to go.
“I have to look at what I’m doing and why I’m doing it,” she said, adding that her business plan is addressing such questions. “I have to look at money, and now start really thinking of my work as a business.”
In Fields’ situation, Styffe talked about the importance of developing a pipeline of customers, a client network of current and future customers to draw from, which enables a business to weather downturns and not be dependant on one or a few clients.
Fields said she started attending network sessions upon realizing not only that she needed to create this pipeline, but that hard work and effective networking would be needed to create such a prospective client list.
“I know I need to network now, especially for online marketing and to refresh my brand,” she said.
Kearney’s CleanScape has fluctuated between 17 and 33 employees during various economic ups and downs, but remained generally stable.
“At times I couldn’t find enough employees to keep up with the work,” she said, “and other times, doctors’ offices would hire their own staff to clean, just to save money during the tough economy.”
But, despite her relative success in a competitive field, something was missing — a passion for the work. And that’s why she desired something in what she would consider her chosen field — art.
An early love of murals eventually turned into a hobby centered on illustration, and then a very small start-up venture called ArtWear Gallery, which offers Kearney’s upscale illustrations on women’s shirts, blouses, and casual- to business-style tops. As a weekend graphic designer and illustrator, Kearney wanted to turn ArtWear Gallery into her primary business focus. This was the mindset she took to her first network sessions, but further examination of the concept changed her outlook.
“I found that in this country, our technology with dyes isn’t as advanced as overseas, and because my company would not be able to buy the volume of garments initially, like plain tee shirts are bought in bulk, it just wasn’t going to be affordable.”
She reluctantly shifted her hopes and dreams away from ArtWear Gallery and back to commercial cleaning, but with more services and the assistance of a local contractor. Now, in addition to routine, detail, and specialty cleaning, she’ll offer space-organizing services, window and carpet cleaning, composite tile floor refinishing, building repairs, remodels and renovations.
But something even more exciting has happened, thanks in part to the HCC group. Kearney is now considering merging her expanded commercial cleaning company to include different forms of her passion for art.
“Now, I’ve added wall painting, including contemporary faux textures and effects, personalized logo and original mural design,” she said, adding that all this allows her to satisfy that artistic passion that she was missing for years in the cleaning business.
Styffe said she isn’t surprised that people like Kearney and Fields are able to make important career decisions through the help of the network.
She told BusinessWest that this is what happens when people with common dreams and similar challenges come together to learn and, in some cases, teach.
Over time, she believes the initiative can help enable a number of ventures to thrive, add jobs, and perhaps inspire new ideas to meet recognized needs.
After all, that’s what a successful business does.
Elizabeth Taras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org