Our prediction for 2021: Women-owned businesses elevating the Northland.

Written by Shawn Wellnitz, CEO & President of the Entrepreneur Fund. Published in Business North

Let’s support our regional entrepreneurs for success.

2020 proved to be wild ride for working professionals alike:  becoming teachers for our kids, providing daycare for infants, managing health risks, and shifting to remote work.  Typically, women have been bearing the most of these added responsibilities.  Some employers adapted and shifted to support these challenges and others not so much.  At the Entrepreneur Fund, that meant that we saw an influx of talented professionals who either (1) decided to launch a new business or (2) take their side hustle to the next level.  

A recent survey by the Small Business Trends Alliance (SBTA) found that 31% of all small business owners are women – up from 27% last year.  The “State of Women-Owned Business” published by American Express defined some insightful motivations behind why many women are pursuing entrepreneurship that include:

  1. Necessity Entrepreneurs – Those who are unemployed and seek out entrepreneurship as their only viable employment option.
  2. Flexibility Entrepreneurs – Those who start their business because workforce policies don’t accommodate caregiving responsibilities, or they want more control over when and where they work.
  3. Opportunity Entrepreneurs – Those who see opportunities in the market that they want to exploit.  

While some may have been pushed by flexibility, their motivations are more opportunity-driven and research indicates that these types of entrepreneurs have higher rates of survival and, most importantly, women-owned firms tend to grow revenue faster than their male-owned counterparts by 2-4% points annually. That’s good news for the Northland.  

We have many exceptional women-owned businesses who are already impacting our economy significantly, providing quality jobs and punching above their weight.  At the Entrepreneur Fund, founded by an impressive visionary woman, Mary Mathews, these women entrepreneurs are at the core of our mission. 

  • In Duluth, firms like Giant Voices provide marketing services to a national client base with ownership by 3 dynamic women: Lisa Bodine, Pascha Apter, and Jena Mertz. 
  • In Angora, sisters Elizabeth Chapman and Anna Anderson have transformed their local, family-owned sign company into a national leader in digital and lead marketing for the construction industry employing over 50 professionals with over 60% residing in Northeastern Minnesota.
  • In Brainerd, Janelle Riley of Syvantis has built a world-class managed services technology firm that has invested in training an impressive workforce and employs dozens across central and northeast Minnesota.  
  • In Grand Rapids, Megan Kellin of Lake & Co. and EF board member saw an opportunity to celebrate and elevate the region’s lake culture by building a lifestyle brand, beginning with the magazine, and adding retail shops that celebrate the people, places, and products of lake country. “When I was in start-up mode, I recognized there was untapped potential all over the region.  Women with exceptional talent, who wanted to be part of creating something new and didn’t want to necessarily work in our traditional industries.” She says women are making waves in lake country.

These women represent many others who saw an opportunity and, because they seized it provide quality jobs, diversify our economic base, and serve national markets that bring dollars back to the region.    A recent Duluth News Tribune article highlighted an industrial project with a $1.5M grant for job creation of 80 jobs in 5-years.  I can attest that these firms all have created more than 80 quality jobs in the last 5 years, suspect that they have likely received $0 in state grants for doing so, and all actively support fellow women in growing their own companies. 

The Entrepreneur Fund had a record year in 2020 in small businesses reaching out for financing and services.  Much of this is attributed to Covid-19 disruption and relief efforts, but also from increased start-up activity as many were disrupted from jobs, pondered life changes, and decided to pursue emergent opportunities.  In 2020, EF served over 1,800 individuals with business advising, training/workshops, or small business financing – 70% were women.  Nearly 60% of the Entrepreneur Fund’s small business loans are to women-owned firms despite just 24% of all national financing going to women-owned businesses.  

Sandi Larson and Sandy Voigt, directors of the Women’s Business Alliance, a program of the Entrepreneur Fund, recognized the growing interest in starting a business or taking one full time. They have convened a series of peer groups of new, start-up women entrepreneurs to share experiences, learn from each other, access resources, and hold each other accountable towards their goals and opportunity.  We will look for these women to bring new opportunities to our region and, over time, add to economic engine in our communities.  

Sandi Larson connected with entrepreneur in Elizabeth Mayne, of Mayne Design, in 2020. The pandemic environment had prompted her to take her side hustle of 17 years to a business full time. “Elizabeth represents many women who have reflected over the past year and determined that entrepreneurship full-time is what they want for themselves and their family. Her confidence has grown tremendously over the past year and has already taken big strides in 2021.” 

All these determined women entrepreneurs were motivated by necessity, flexibility and/or opportunity. Regardless of why they got started, supporting women-entrepreneurs, recognizing their economic achievements, and getting timely resources to these often-under-appreciated leaders is not just the right thing to do – it’s good for all of our community and economic well-being.