Since its founding in 1994, the goal of the Vermont Women’s Fund has always been to uplift the economic well-being of women and girls across the state, but their latest initiative has given that mission a whole new meaning.
Vermont Women’s Fund’s “This Way UP” campaign is asking female entrepreneurs and business owners to complete a survey and get counted for a grand list of women business owners across the state.
The forerunner to This Way UP, a 2015 initiative called “Change the Story,” was the first instance where survey coordinator and Vermont Women’s Fund Executive Director Meg Smith said she noticed a lack of data on the demographics of female entrepreneurs in Vermont.
Smith said the most recent data was collected roughly 10 years ago by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners which identified some 23,000 female business owners in Vermont.
“If there is a group that is not visible, then you don’t know there are any problems. And part of This Way UP is to create visibility and give voices to women business owners and find out what they need, ”Smith said.
The survey, which asks questions about the experiences of female entrepreneurs, was officially launched in early January and has garnered a little over 1,700 responses so far. Coordinators of the year-long initiative are hopeful to collect around 10,000 responses by December.
Some of the data collected can be viewed on the This Way UP website – thiswayupvt.com – which was created by Marguerite Dibble and Shannon Mitchell from Game Theory in collaboration with branding by Michael Jager from Solidarity of Unbridled Labor.
This data represents questions like, “Where did you get the money to start your business?” “What life changes led you to starting your business?” and “What does success mean to you?” among others.
One of the statistics that most surprised co-founder of Milk Money and co-coordinator of This Way UP, Louisa Schibli, was that 28% of respondents said they most needed “introductions to potential clients or customers.”
“(These entrepreneurs) are not looking to necessarily grow by putting in some capital to grow the foundation of the business. They’re looking to grow by getting more clients, ”Schibli said. “If that still comes out as one of the top things, access to more clients, how can we support that?”
Schibli credits this statistic to the sheer number of respondents who are self-funding their businesses and slowly building up over time – which 43% of respondents said was the way they started their business.
She also acknowledged that this method of growth may be a result of women not actively seeking assistance – or not knowing where to look.
“Only 50 years ago, women had to have a man cosign a document in order for them to get a credit card (or) a mortgage. So it’s a learning curve to figure out how the loan system works. What’s the best way to finance your business? ” Smith said.
Entrepreneurs speakWhile business owners who have taken the survey come from all walks of life and a myriad of backgrounds, many took the survey for the same reasons – to connect with like-minded individuals, as a platform to get their business out there, and to support female entrepreneurship across the state.
Tracie Lewis, of The Barre Partnership, is the executive director and sole employee of her organization, a city-funded nonprofit that puts on events, supports new businesses, and promotes vibrancy in Barre.
Lewis chose to participate in the survey and share it with other local female-owned businesses in Barre because she loves the premise and hopes it will encourage other women to own businesses.
“I know a lot of sellers of mine at the farmers ‘market that would love to work their business up and open a storefront business, rather than just do farmers’ markets and online sales. If I could help promote that and make that dream happen for them, I would love to, ”Lewis said.
Vermont Manufacturing Services owner Jessica Dambrackas similarly thinks the survey will raise awareness for established entrepreneurs and for those who might be struggling to break into their industry.
Having bought the Rutland-based business in 2005 at a time when it was near bankruptcy, Dambrackas has since grown the operation into a successful warehouse and fulfillment contract assembly company it is today.
“I just thought it would be great to give (This Way UP) my information so others can see there’s yet another company out there,” she said. “I came here with no college education, no prior experience in management or running a business, and I was just determined that I was going to make it work.”
Calista Budrow, of Rutland’s Green Spell Plant Shop, was recommended the survey by another local business and participated because “the more information out there about female businesses, the better.”
Her hopes for the survey are that it provides support and images of success for women who might be struggling with the challenges that come with running a business.
As a mother, Budrow said it’s a balancing act with home and work, but she has had great success since opening her business last summer.
“I’m never home now. I’m just at the shop all the time. There’s just not enough time in the day with family, juggling everything, (keeping) a living inventory, ”Budrow said. “I just feel like I have to do everything myself which probably isn’t true. But might be the case for (other) women. ”
Larissa West and her flute studio in Barre are also newly established after moving from Virginia last summer. The major challenge her business has faced since relocating has been navigating the pandemic – online lessons, playing with a mask and making connections, namely.
But after taking the This Way UP survey on a whim, West is hopeful that the initiative might help her find some jogging in her community.
“(This Way UP) actually wants to unite women entrepreneurs. And this is great, because sometimes in the music community, I’ve just felt very secluded. It’s been a rough business and sometimes it can be very competitive. But sometimes you just need the right person to know the right person, ”West said. “I thought maybe if I try this, maybe I can help get my foot in the door.”
Akshata Nayak of the children’s media company, Little Patakha, in Jericho, was one of the first to take the This Way UP survey and has worked closely with the Vermont Women’s Fund to launch her business.
Her idea sparked from a desire to create a book for her daughter so she could learn Nayak’s native language of Konkani. The project soon evolved into creating various representations in children’s media.
A serial entrepreneur, Nayak said this survey is a great way to demonstrate the economic strength women-owned businesses have. According to survey data, the roughly 1,700 respondents earn a combined $ 1.5 billion dollars annually.
“In saying that we’re trying to count everybody, we can then show the bargaining power that we have, the leverage that we have, as women-owned businesses,” Nayak said. “Stand up. Take up your space. Say your words out and see whom you can reach out to (and) get information and the help that you need. ”
Moving forwardWhile survey coordinators are not yet sure of what the next step will look like once the data is collected, talk of creating a more detailed map of the businesses and a possible investment fund to provide entrepreneurs with micro loans are ongoing.
Smith said an advisory group will likely be formed in the fall to brainstorm more ideas.
Lindsay Kurrle, secretary at the Vermont Agency for Commerce and Community Development, said that if the state were to have access to a list of female entrepreneurs like This Way UP is creating, it could allow the state to connect with businesses and address their needs.
“It’s so important for us in our state to have a diverse population of employers that makes our community stronger. If we really want to address that, we have to put the effort in to provide extra support. This really (could) give us quicker, more direct access so that we can target our outreach in a better way, ”Kurrle said.
For now, Smith and Schibli hope to see more responses flow in from business owners of every industry, new or old, small or large.
And with nearly a third of respondents providing a narrative about their background and business experience, the voices of female entrepreneurs are growing louder each day.
“I think there are a lot of women out there who (have) struggled, and no one ever asked them a question about their business. And they are grateful to be asked these questions. Trying to figure out how to make life a little better for themselves, but also how they can help lift others up, ”Smith said. “This initiative is bigger than just yourself.”