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

The year 2020 proved to be a wild ride for working professionals. We became teachers for our kids, provided daycare for infants, managed health risks, and shifted 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, we saw an influx of talented professionals who either (1) decided to launch a new business or (2) took their side hustle to the next level.

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

Necessity Entrepreneurs – Those who are unemployed and seek out entrepreneurship as their only viable employment option.

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.

Opportunity Entrepreneurs – Those who see opportunities in the market that they want to exploit.

While some may be pushed by flexibility, their motivations are more opportunity-driven; 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 to 4 percentage points annually. That’s good news for the Northland.

We have many exceptional women-owned businesses 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 percent 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 an 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, now 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 $1.5 million grant for the 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. I suspect that they have likely received $0 in state grants for doing so and all actively support other 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 percent were women. Nearly 60 percent of the Entrepreneur Fund’s small business loans are to women-owned firms, despite just 24 percent 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 opportunities. We will look for these women to bring new opportunities to our region and, over time, add to the economic engine in our communities.

Sandi Larson connected with entrepreneur Elizabeth Mayne of Mayne Design in 2020. The pandemic environment had prompted her to take her side hustle of 17 years to a full-time business. “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 families. 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.

Shawn Wellnitz is the CEO of the Entrepreneur Fund, a community development financial institution (CDFI) focused on economic growth and community vitality through small business growth and entrepreneurship. Learn more at www.entrepreneurfund.org.