by Cara Gardner

A few years ago, my sister and I were eating at the Elk in Browne's Addition. As usual, the noise level was high and we were deeply involved in our own banter, but I couldn't help overhearing a man at the table next to ours commenting on his wife's new business.

"She's so excited," he said to his companion. "I tell you, though, sometimes I have to sit her down and really help her put her thinking cap on. I have to say to her, 'Now [the product] is the fun part, but [then] there's the business part.'"

Maybe it was the patronizing tone or the term "thinking cap," but I haven't been able to forget that comment (even though I'm sure he has). Had he known that, statistically, more women than men make it during their first five years in business, I doubt he'd have sounded so smug. Thanks to the one or two degrees of separation among people in Spokane, I eventually learned the speaker's identity and even met his wife through a completely different set of circumstances.

It took me a while to connect all the dots, but the wife (now ex-wife) has succeeded enough to be featured as one of the women in this business guide. While she'll be the first to tell you about the challenges of starting a business, she doesn't need any reminding about putting on her thinking cap. In fact, there's a vast array of successful women running their own businesses in the Inland Northwest -- providing jobs, contributing more than their fair share to the local economy and, most of all, doling out support and encouragement to other women who are trying doing the same.

Solidarity -- On a frigid Thursday evening in the basement of Hotel Lusso, about 50 women mingle, sip wine and exchange business cards. It's the monthly meeting of the Inland Northwest Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).

"When first started out, I would have given anything to have this group of women," says Omega Chandler, the current chapter president. Chandler, who co-owns Lithoart Printers with her husband, says the organization provides her with more than just resources. The purpose of NAWBO, which boasts 8,000 members and is celebrating its 30th year in existence, is to provide a support network for women business owners. There's a sense of camaraderie in the room, despite the diverse industries these women work in and their varying ages and backgrounds.

I find myself sitting next to Jan Krogh, a past president of the chapter who used to own her own insurance business. Krogh says that even though she's officially retired, she couldn't sit still: "I can't do Oprah everyday. I need to be out there." Now Krogh works at Nordstrom helping young career women dress for success. "I can't tell you how satisfying it is to help these young girls pick out their first suits," she says.

Krogh, like many of the veteran group members, takes her role as a mentor seriously. She says when she was climbing the ladder it would have been nice to have more female support. "All of my mentors were men," she recalls. "I was in a male-dominated industry, but I was always considered part of the team. I found that it was the other women [who made it hard]. If a woman did well, the other women above her wouldn't congratulate her."

Krogh is devoted to changing the "crabs in a bucket" mentality among women -- when those trying to climb out of their circumstance are pulled back by the others. It's the same for Sarah Marossy, an optometrist who co-owns Coeur d'Alene Vision Source. Marossy belongs to the Northwest Women in Business Network, an organization founded in Coeur d'Alene in 2003. "It began with four local women coming together for lunch once a month," Marossy says. "They had so much fun swapping leads and talking about their experiences that they decided to expand." The group now has about 90 members and an extensive waiting list.

Marossy says being a member is one of the highlights of being a business owner: "They allow just one person from each profession, so it's not about competing -- it's about the whole philosophy of working together and providing support. It's very focused on being positive and pro-active for women."

All of the women I talked to in NAWBO say their organization isn't about being gender-exclusive. NAWBO acknowledges the challenges women face in business today: despite considerable changes in the workplace, women still earn less than men in the same positions (about 76 cents to the dollar). In addition, most women -- not all -- say their biggest challenge as a business owner is being listened to and taken seriously. Still, NAWBO isn't a forum for women to complain about discrimination, though the organization provides resources for women to deal with those issues. It's an organization set up to be encouraging about taking risks and dealing with the everyday challenges of running a business -- the same challenges men face.

"But men won't do this," Krogh says, between bites of chocolate cake. "They don't get together and share like this." Maybe they should.

Business Center -- "People don't like to go it alone -- they like to have someone helping them," says Karen Michaelson. She's the executive director of TINCAN, an acronym for The Inland Northwest Community Access Network, a nonprofit that builds networks for social services agencies, educational organizations, businesses and much more. Michaelson also runs her own consulting business, which helps organizations write grants and seek funding.

A member of NAWBO, Michaelson says the group brainstormed for a long time about coming up with a better way to reach out to women who are new business owners. "There really was a need for a women's business center," Michaelson says. "There are all sorts of things new business owners need assistance on. The funding was available for years, and I kept thinking someone would pick it up, but they didn't. So I did."

Last September, Michaelson won a $150,000 grant from the Small Business Administration to create a Women's Business Center in Spokane. The grant lasts for five years; during the first two, the center must raise $80,000 (half in cash) per year in order to reach an overall operating total of $231,000. During the following three years, the center must raise $150,000 per year. "We're raising the funds as we go," she says. "Part of the idea is that the community supports it, and over the long run it will be sustainable." The center will seek sponsors, have fund-raising events and provide fee-based services to women -- and men -- who need resources and mentoring for their small businesses.

The Women's Business Center doesn't yet have a permanent space, but Michaelson says it is already serving clients. "We have close to 40 clients right now and it's been up and running since last November. We haven't even tried recruiting yet and are in the process of finding an executive director."

Michaelson says the Women's Business Center will focus on forming industry-specific networks, so business owners can bounce their questions and ideas off others in their field. "The [center] will have computers that are available for people without access to them, and it will have one-on-one training," Michaelson says. "It will be an area where people feel welcome."

Dede McAuliffe, a landscape designer and certified arborist, is one of the center's first clients. "I've been in business eight or nine years, but I'm busy enough now that I need to refine it so that I'm not turning people away," she says. The Women's Business Center is helping McAuliffe write a formal business plan, including logistics for growth. "Right now, we're talking about marketing, licenses and legal stuff," she says. "There are a lot of us out there working independently, and it's hard to do. Who do you call, where do you go [for advice]? It's all those little things you have to know that the center is helping with."

Michaelson says though the center's client base will be about 20 percent male, the focus will be on understanding the issues women face when starting up their businesses. "This will be a place that really understands those challenges," she says. "Being taken seriously, being listened to, balancing work and personal or family life -- I'm not saying men don't have to [deal] with that, but it falls more heavily on women."

Michaelson says the center will have a permanent space by the end of this month. It will be located in the Courtyard Office Center at 827 W. First Ave.

Crabs in the Bucket -- Back at the NAWBO dinner meeting, each woman stands up and talks a little about herself. Some use their time to promote a sale or event they are hosting; others talk about their families or share a personal story. Some women in the room have been in business for more than 25 years; others, just a few months. When asked how many women in the room have a degree in a business-related field, just one out of about 50 raises her hand -- it's Julie Prafke, founder and owner of Humanix, a job-hunting firm. Prafke uses her time in front of the group to urge them to be more aware of bills passing at the state level that would affect their businesses. "You must pay attention to what's happening in Olympia," she says.

Whether they've been a leading force in Spokane for years or just recently went out on their own, it's clear from this room that Jan Krogh's "crabs in the bucket" analogy is no longer operative. Though she's retired, Krogh is devoted to NAWBO in order to provide support for younger members. "The message I hope women get is this: 'I hope you won't have to go through the hardships I did. I paved the way, and you can always come to me for help,'" she says. "That's really what the Women's Business Center is all about, and we'll work hard for that."

For more information about the Women's Business Center, call 744-0972. If you have comments about this story, send them

Taking Charcge

On Friday, March 4, hundreds of women will gather at Spokane Community College for the seventh annual Women's Leadership Conference. The purpose of the conference is to bring women together for education, encouragement and motivation regarding the challenges of leadership. Dr. Juanita Watts, the Los Angeles regional women's health coordinator for Kaiser Permanente, the nation's oldest and largest nonprofit HMO, will be the keynote speaker, presenting "Thriving To Succeed: Taking Charge Today for a Healthier Tomorrow."

The conference also includes presentations on topics such as women's impact in arts and literature, personal financial freedom and economic impact, women and workforce opportunities and celebrating women's impact globally. Presenters include Golie Jansen, the recipient of the 2004 Women in Leadership award for faculty at EWU; MaryJane Butters, an entrepreneur who operates an organic farm, publishes a magazine and produces her own line of housewares for Target; Katy Jacobson, vice president and human resources manager for Washington Trust Bank; and Pat Mosely, executive director of the Inland Northwest chapter of the American Red Cross.

The conference will be held from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm in SCC's Lair-Student Center, Bldg. 6, 1810 N. Greene St. Cost: $30, including lunch; free, students ($10 for lunch). Must preregister by Feb. 25. Call 533-7030.

Women by the Numbers

* Women control nearly $4 trillion in annual consumer spending, purchase two out of every three cars, control exactly half the wealth in the nation and take exactly half of all business trips.

* Of America's Fortune 500 companies, only seven have female CEOs.

* More than 50 percent of "high net worth" women business owners and executives donate more than $25,000 annually to charity; 19 percent donate $100,000 or more.

* Women own nearly half of all privately held U.S. businesses and at least 30 percent of all small businesses (500 employees or less).

* A 1999 study funded by IBM and the Women's Business Center revealed that women business owners employ a more gender-balanced workforce, with men as 48 percent of the employees; male business owners, on the other hand, oversee a workforce that's 62 percent male. This trend was found to be consistent regardless of business size or industry.

* All five states with the fastest-growing number of women-owned business are in the West. Idaho and Wyoming tie for first, followed by Utah, Nevada and Arizona. The number of women-owned businesses in these states is increasing twice as fast as the national average.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Census and the Center for Women's Business Research

Publication date: 2/24/05

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