When Meghan Blake-Horst and Jatinder Cheema started counting the number of businesses owned by women in the Willy-Atwood area, they ran out of fingers. They quickly surpassed 20.
"I think we've all known there’s a lot of women-owned businesses in our community, but … that was one of the things that was sort of staggering to me, when we actually started listing them off. If they aren't the sole owner, they’re one of the co-owners or one of the managing partners," Blake-Horst said.
Blake-Horst's community-based art gallery, Absolutely Art, celebrated eight years in business at 2322 Atwood Ave. in April. Cheema, who recently moved to Madison, is opening a storefront at 911 Williamson St., which will hold a soon-to-launch salon-like forum for community conversations, called A Place to Be.
With that in mind, after Nikki Anderson — owner of Change fair trade boutique, at 1252 Williamson St. — discussed her desire to start a network for women-owned businesses in the area, Cheema decided the network's first meeting would be the perfect first event for A Place to Be.
Memberships in other business associations have their advantages, and this network isn't intended to be a replacement, Anderson said.
"I think there’s room for a network like what we’re proposing, because we have such a special kind of synergy among all the businesses in this corridor," Anderson said.
Anderson and Cheema have drafted a flexible agenda for the first meeting, which will take place on Nov. 11. They've reached out to female-owned businesses in the area and are hoping others they may have missed will join in. Their underlying goals are to figure out how best to support and complement one another, to help their businesses become more efficient and find ways to continue to improve the community.
So far, the list of businesses that have either confirmed or expressed interest in joining includes Lazy Jane's, Midwest Clay Project, Bad Dog Frida, Mermaid Cafe, the Green Owl Cafe, Change Boutique, Solidarity Realty, Absolutely Art, Hatch Art House, A Place To Be, Atwood Art Room, Full Circle Holistic Pet Care, Gail Ambrosius, the Green Turret, Eco-Friendly Flooring, A Woman's Touch, SolEscape Healing Arts, Williamson Street Art Center, Kumara Consulting, A Perfect Knot and Fire light Group.
The topics that come up for discussion at the first meeting will pave the way for the direction of the network in the future — but anytime a few of the women who plan to join the network are in a room together, the ideas start to flow.
One of them could use some help with social media and design. Several others are interested in hiring interns, while a few want to compare notes and ask for recommendations on services they've used — ranging from everything from advertising to contractors. Anderson is curious if any of the women have taken steps to become government-certified as women-owned businesses — a program designed to provide incentives and resources for women throughout the country.
Though each women's story is different, they recognize that they share many of the same challenges.
Most of those challenges boil down to balance. The balance between work and personal life is difficult, and those who have children grapple with schedules regardless of whether they are the primary childcare providers in their families. Anderson said she'd like to discuss collaborating on childcare with other women in the network.
Cheema said she's constantly impressed by how many social causes business owners in the neighborhood are involved in, in addition to running their businesses and spending time with their families.
"We all have all of those hats that we have to wear on a regular basis, and sometimes we have four of them on at one time, and sometimes we’re only wearing one, but they’re always in our back pocket," Blake-Horst said. "One hat might fall every once in a while and we might need help picking it up."
Darcy Haber, owner of Solidarity Realty at 1336 Williamson St., said she's run into challenges finding contractors who will take her seriously, as a woman, as she remodels and expands her business in its new location. Blake-Horst has had the same problem with maintenance for her shop. But experiences like that have only made them persevere more, they said.
"Maybe perseverance is a shared quality among women business owners given the different challenges one has to surmount on a larger scale, not only just to get started but also on a daily basis," said Jennifer Lapham, owner of the Midwest Clay Project ceramic studio, at 918 Williamson St. "Perhaps we are individuals who persevere and are going to push in order to succeed.
"There’s a passion, there’s a reason we all started this. There’s something we believe we can offer to this vibrant community and want to be a part of it, and that’s ultimately the taproot of why we’re doing what we’re doing."
That perseverance is among several strengths the group hopes to develop as a network. Anderson said she thinks by forming a collective voice, the group can also serve as better role models for young girls in the neighborhood.
Many of the items the women hope to address aren't necessarily gender-specific, but can be approached creatively from that perspective. Growing and retaining a customer base is important for any small business, but the network will help the women learn more about each other's businesses, which will in turn allow them to help strengthen each other's customer bases, Blake-Horst said.
Anderson mentioned the idea of a punch card to be used at businesses within the network, to encourage customers to patronize neighboring businesses.
Lapham and Blake-Horst use an analogy to explain the approach of complementing rather than competing: Most people in the neighborhood don't do all their grocery shopping at one store — they might have a cheese they like at the Willy Street Co-op and a bread they prefer at the Jenifer Street Market. In the same vein, even when their businesses have some overlap, they believe they add to the vitality of the neighborhood.
Solidarity Realty's Haber wondered if the abundance of businesses owned by women might have something to do with the fact that the Williamson-Marquette neighborhood was recently named as one of the American Planning Association’s top 10 “great neighborhoods" in the nation.
"I would assert that there was," Change's Anderson said. "When I was reading why we were chosen, the retail district was given a lot of credit, in part, for why it’s such a great neighborhood. I certainly feel a sense of pride being part of the women-owned business community in that neighborhood, and I think it would be a great thing to celebrate that at the same time that we’re celebrating the neighborhood in general."
"Those of us who live and work in that community know that, but I think it isn't often explicitly said, that these types of businesses tend to be women-owned," Lapham said.