With numbers growing, women-owned businesses find their niche
Kathleen Hendrickson has run a small business for decades, but she hasn’t grown complacent.
There are certifications to update, trends to follow, finances to watch and phone and online orders to fill. She regularly travels to training classes and New York City to buy merchandise for her Wigs ’N More Inc. and Mastectomy Boutique in Unity.
“Not every day is a perfect day,” she said. “You must put in your time. You don’t put in 40 hours, you put in lots of time. When you’re in business, it consumes your brain.”
Hendrickson is among 11 million women who own businesses across the country that brought in $1.7 trillion in 2017, according to the National Association of Women Business Owners. The number of businesses with a woman at the helm grew 114% between 1997 and 2017, according to the State of Women-Owned Businesses Report commissioned by American Express.
Many find themselves in similar industries: professionals such as lawyers, accountants and consultants; health care and social assistance; and salons and pet care businesses, according to the report.
Boarding options in the region weren’t good enough for Jennifer DeSalvo’s dog Brody, so she built her own. Pittsburgh Paws Pet Resort for dogs and cats opened in Sewickley in 2014 and expanded to Fawn three years later.
“If you’re thinking about doing something, and it’s your passion, find a way to make money at it,” DeSalvo said. “Talk to other people in the industry. More times than not, people who are in your industry, and not necessarily competitors, but people who do what you do, they want to offer their expertise. They want to help other people in the same situation.”
DeSalvo employs 12 people at the Sewickley location and 10 in Fawn. She’s enlisted the help of her father when dealing with contractors.
“Just like buying a car, I feel like people try to pull one over on women,” she said. “Maybe they think that we’re not educated enough or that we can’t negotiate well enough.”
Saint Vincent College Small Business Development Center and Chatham University Women’s Business Center help current or prospective business owners in the region. Experts at the centers help translate business ideas into written documents and prepare owners with market research, a financial analysis and other guidance.
The process can take years.
“A lot of it is giving people an understanding in what’s involved in starting a business and what’s involved in growing a business,” said Anne Flynn Schlicht, director of the Chatham center.
Women tend to start businesses later in life, sometimes after children have gone off to college, said James Kunkel, director of Saint Vincent’s center.
“Starting a business in Pennsylvania is easy. Staying in business is the challenge,” he said.
Hendrickson’s business has expanded over the past 30 years from a day spa to wigs, swimwear, bras, mastectomy products and other items. She had to learn to deal with medical insurance companies and facility inspections while creating a website and shipping orders around the country and world.
She employs about a dozen women, including some part-time workers.
“You have to find a balance, and you have to be cautious,” she said. “I don’t ever sit back.”
Laura Lee Knopf is still learning the ins and outs at Serenity Bead Shop in Greensburg. Knopf and co-owner Cathy Voss sought help from Saint Vincent’s center after mulling over the idea in early 2017.
“That did help us along considerably,” Knopf said. “There’s so much you don’t think about that you have to think about. If it hadn’t been for that center, we probably would’ve floundered.”
Customers can buy beads in-store or online and take jewelry-making classes. Even after the shop opened, there were unexpected roadblocks to navigate, and new challenges still arise regularly, Knopf said. She advised women getting started in business to seek out guidance from other owners.
“There’s so many little, bitty things that I wish I could tell other people,” she said. “You have to love it, too. You can’t expect to be making money immediately.”
She’s made sacrifices for the business, just like Heather Erb has at Cloud 9 Massage, Facials & More in Harrison. Erb started her spa in 2016 to help others who were dealing with pain just as she did after surgery following a car crash about 20 years ago.
Erb employs eight people and plans to open a second location in Oakmont next month.
She said women who want to start their own businesses should have a positive attitude and not worry about competitors.
“Business is giving up your entire life,” she said. “That’s why a lot of people don’t do it. Your whole life becomes about the business that you run because you want it to be as successful as possible. I’ve given up a lot of stuff to be where I’m at.”