The early part of this century has been an exciting time for women in business with a tremendous rise in women’s entrepreneurship over the past two decades. There are an estimated 11.6 million women-owned businesses in the United States, according to the 2017 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report commissioned by American Express. Women-owned businesses are defined as businesses that are at least 51 percent owned, operated and controlled by one or more females. These businesses employ nearly nine million people and generate more than $1.7 trillion in revenues. Since 1997, the number of women-owned businesses has grown 114 percent compared to the overall national growth rate of 44 percent. Today, women-owned businesses account for 39 percent of all U.S. firms, employ 8 percent of the total private sector workforce and contribute 4.2 percent of total business revenues
While these statistics show promising growth for women in business today, a broader view shows that the share of women-owned firms have grown faster by number of firms than by employment and revenues. While the share of number of firms grew from 26 percent to 39 percent in the last 20 years, employment only grew from 7 percent to 8 percent. In regards to revenues, shares declined from 4.4 percent to 4.2 percent. According to the National Association of Women Business Owners, only one in five firms with revenues of $1 million or more is woman-owned, and only 4.2 percent of all women-owned firms have revenues above that threshold.
Locally, female business owners cite balancing family and business, access to finance, and lack of confidence or fear of failure as top challenges preventing them from growing and reaching their goals. Yet despite the hurdles most women business owners face, there are many in the North Bay who have led their companies, and themselves, to success, and their stories can serve as templates for those who are looking to follow in their footsteps.
Staffing her dreams
Nicole Serres, president and owner of Petaluma-based Star Staffing, exemplifies the notion that hard work and determination leads to success. At 18, she started as a receptionist for a staffing firm. By age 25, she was an owner at Star Staffing. “It was a fast career trajectory and growth, and obviously a lot happened in those seven years,” says Serres. “I dove deep into my career and learned as much as I could about every role so that when somebody left the company I could help assume that role. My manager saw that I had a wealth of knowledge, and that helped me grow to the next stage of my career.”
From receptionist, Serres moved on to be a recruiter, then a manager and then to sales representative. At age 21, she was asked if she wanted to purchase the company. After declining the offer due to lack of confidence at the time, Serres moved into a sales role for the new owners of the firm. “I regretted not moving up in my career and accepting their offer,” says Serres. “I finally said, ‘If they had confidence in me, why didn’t I have confidence in myself?’ So I resigned and went out on my own to start my own company. A mutual friend connected me with Star Staffing, an established company. I joined the company and became an owner.”
Serres joined the company in 2009. At the time, the president was leaving the business, so the following year she became an owner with her business partner, Lisa Lichty, who currently holds the role of the firm’s chief executive officer. The company had nine employees in three locations: Healdsburg, Petaluma and Napa. In less than 10 years, the company has grown to 53 employees in nine locations, earning $33 million in revenues. The firm started gaining recognition, and today Star Staffing is recognized locally and in the staffing industry as a best-in-class staffing provider. In 2018, Staffing Industry Analysts recognized them as the fastest growing staffing firm. For three consecutive years, Inc. magazine listed the firm in the 5,000 fastest growing companies in the U.S.
Serres attributes her success to having the right people in the right place and building relationships with both her internal staff, employees sent to client sites, and the clients themselves. The company’s fast growth could not have happened without having the right people in the right positions, she says, and having all those people fit the corporate culture and having the same mindset. “It’s having the right people in the right seats,” says Serres. “It comes down to the staff. When I joined Star, they had incredible employees and everyone we hired fit the culture, was in the right position at the right time, and were all aligned in the direction that we we’re headed. We were all rowing in the same direction, so we got there much quicker because we were all passionate and aligned in what the vision was of where we were headed.” A committed focus on building strong relationships is another key component of the firm’s success, from knowing employees by name and what they like to do, to understanding their clients’ businesses and challenges.
“We focused on building the strongest relationships we could with everyone we came in contact with,” says Serres. “We didn’t make it a transaction. It was all based on relationships. With our clients, we know who they are and we understand their industry and their company so much so that we’re an extension of their human resources department. That’s not short term. It’s long-term because it does take time to learn all those skills. We want to be a real partner, so when they have a challenge, they can call us and we’re here for them, even if it’s not about the employee that’s working there.”
Because of her strong belief in building relationships and having the right people in the right positions, one of Serres’ greatest challenges is retaining her corporate culture during fast growth. In growing from nine to 53 employees, and approximately 4,000 employees sent out to client sites, it became necessary for Serres and her business partner, Lisa Lichty, to build in levels of management that could manage the increase while maintaining the corporate culture. They hired a corporate recruiter and human resource manager to source and find internal candidates. Both she and Lichty interview each candidate at the final stages to make sure they fit the company culture.
“That’s been the toughest part,” says Serres, “Building a culture that is still personalized, that represents who we are and have been, and builds a foundation for growth that’s sustainable.” To meet the challenge, growth for the company is systematic and sustainably added. A lot of planning and research takes place before the firm executes new growth in its strategy. For example, they recently opened a location in Lodi, and will most likely open one in Manteca this year, which have been in the works for some time. Serres also advises other business owners to focus on marketing and building their brand, and not being afraid to try new approaches, business channels or other strategies.
“I would invest in building their brand—not only the company’s brand, but the brand of the founder, CEO and C-level executives,” says Serres. “That’s important with where we are today in the digital marketplace, and where we’re headed.” According to Serres, leveraging social media and digital connections is also vital. “We’re always trying new strategies. Some ideas don’t pick up and we fail, but the other ones skyrocket. We move very fast but in a structured approach. If we don’t try it, we won’t know.”
Good for the planet, good for people
Susan Griffin-Black founded EO Products in San Francisco with her former husband and current business partner, Brad Black, in 1995. In 1997, they moved the company to Marin, purchased a small label company in 1999, and eventually moved to the old ILM campus in San Rafael six years ago where they now have about 60,000 square feet of space to formulate, design, and produce all of their natural bath, body, skin, and hair care products made with active botanicals and scented with pure essential oils. The company has been growing at an annual rate of 20 percent, and today employs 150 people and earns more than $50 million in annual revenues.
While the growth is steady and significant, it has been carefully managed to ensure that it’s headed in the direction that fits their core values and brand strategy. “We don’t want to grow faster than 20 percent, so we keep that in mind. We’ve turned down a bunch of business that we felt was either risky or would push us too hard, too fast or what we didn’t feel was in our best interest,” says Griffin-Black, founder and CEO. “We’ve been mindful about who we partner with, how we partner, what they buy from us and make sure that the product selection is really right.”
Since its inception, EO Products has stayed true to its mission of creating only products that are safe and effective for all beings and safe for the environment, using only pure essential oils and botanical extracts to scent their products, and manufacturing products sustainably in a way that honors every person connected to them, from farmers to customers. Indeed, it was the couple’s core beliefs that had them starting the company in the first place and what Griffin-Black now points to as her secret to success. “We wanted to create a company that we wanted to work for,” says Griffin-Black. “And I wanted to raise our kids ourselves, which meant we had to make decisions accordingly.” Since the couple didn’t want to commute more than 10 minutes they decided to base their company in Marin, where they live. “The simple quality of life and what’s meaningful was always infused in our business model,” she says. “The people that we attracted were like-minded and had the same values. We developed quite a bit now, but we’re part of a greater community. We’re an organic facility, and we’re deeply involved in organic personal care standards and safe cosmetics. We deeply care about what we do. That has created a company that we want to work for and that others want to work for.”
While staying true to their core beliefs helped build the company’s success, it has also been one of their major challenges because some decisions were not always the most financially sound. Especially being in a cash-intensive business, making determinations on how fast to grow or how to adjust their business when it was not expanding, while doing the right thing, was sometimes difficult. “For example, we always felt we should pay for at least a portion of people’s health insurance from day one,” says Griffin-Black. “So by the time Obamacare came, we didn’t have to make any changes. We were already up and running in that particular way.” According to Griffin-Black, company policies are based on what’s best for the people and the planet. “We never abandoned our values,” she says. “And that’s always kept us going.”
Besides staying true to your goals and beliefs, Griffin-Black also strongly encourages other women business owners looking to grow their companies to understand cash flow and how it can provide greater options. Knowing all the options to help fulfill a larger order, for example, such as asking family or friends for short-term loans, building relationships with angel investors, or obtaining a short-term, high-interest loan, can provide the confidence to make deals comfortably and take that next step of growth. “Over the years, I’ve talked to a lot of women about cash flow and understanding cash flow because it’s the life blood of a business,” says Griffin-Black. “Sometimes women, in my experience and in conversation, don’t know enough about it, or are afraid of it, or are ashamed because they don’t know how to talk about it or think they’re not good at it. I’ve been a strong supporter and proponent of delving into the cash flow aspect because I feel like once you understand it and master it, you have many more choices on how to solve problems.”
Climbing to the top
Linda Parks, president and CEO of Napa-based Lixit Corporation, the largest small animal watering device manufacturer in the world, which also produces small animal feeding devices and animal care accessories, started as a buyer of the company in 1971. The company was started in 1968 under its former name, Atco Manufacturing, by Frank Atchley, M.D., in his family's garage. Parks grew with the company, progressing from buyer to purchasing and inventory, to sales, general manager, to executive, and finally to president and CEO in 1994.
“During that period of time, I took almost two years off to have a couple kids,” says Parks. “Frank Atchley was a progressive-thinking boss. Now, it’s common to give women time off to have children but he said, ‘I want you here long term, so take whatever time you need and tell me when you’re ready to come back.’ He was very kind about me doing that and also allowed me to work part-time when I came back to work. When my kids were in elementary school, I was working 30 hours a week. When they got into high school, I started working 40-plus hour weeks and took the company over, and then he retired. I really credit him with giving me that kind of latitude which makes a big difference in a woman’s career.
”Today, the company has 54,000 square feet of factory, office, and warehouse space in three locations and has approximately $11 million in sales. They employ around 100 people, including about 30 adults with disabilities—a program Parks developed in 1985 in conjunction with Community Access Plus, a nonprofit organization based in Vallejo that provides vocational rehabilitation and supported employment services to developmentally challenged adults. “It’s a good thing for any company to do if you can work it into your business model,” says Parks. “You’d be amazed at how many disabled people there are. I was shocked.”
Parks advises women business owners to maintain a five-year plan to accommodate for rapid industry changes and account for scaling in the growth of the business. For example, operations that may work for producing $1 million in revenues will not necessarily work at $2 million. Likewise, she advises business owners to ensure there is adequate access to capital to fuel growth and to establish a relationship early on with a banker that will work with you, advise you, and grow with you.
“My goal has always been to grow the company every single year,” says Parks. “First of all, you have to
have access to capital and to get access to capital you have to be profitable and have squeaky-clean books. That was probably the first task I did when I took over, was revamp the accounting system and started pursuing getting financing. Growth is expensive because you have to beef up infrastructure, employees and product development.” According to Parks, another key to success is finding a banker to work with as you’re growing your business. “Mario Callegari has been with me since 1992. Finding a banker to partner with is important.”
Another foresight Parks had when taking over the business was to buy, rather than lease, a factory in Napa. She knew that Napa would become increasingly expensive, and if she couldn’t control her overhead costs she knew she could not afford to do business locally. This decision allowed Lixit to stay local, despite rises in employment costs, increasing competition from China, and an expanding proliferation of state and environmental laws and regulations that have limited the expansion of her current factory. Despite numerous challenges women business owners face, most would not have it any other way and are enjoying their work and success, and are happy to extend their “secrets to success” to other women whom they hope will follow in their footsteps.
“I believe there’s no better time than now to get involved and become a woman business owner,” says Serres. “I encourage others to build a strong support network and see what can happen. Times are changing and it’s exciting and thrilling to know you’re making an impact in the world. There are going to be bad times and you just have to find joy in those moments and know that it’s your time to shine.”
Sonoma County Economic Development Board
Women-Owned Businesses Workforce Report
In 2017, the Sonoma County Economic Development Board (EDB) published its Women-Owned Businesses Workforce report, the first of its kind in the county. The intention of the report was to provide awareness of the female business owner community in Sonoma County and the North Bay, thereby helping to guide policy discussions around encouraging and fostering women entrepreneurship. The data reveals that, while women-owned businesses are growing in number of firms, they still need to catch up significantly when it comes to revenue produced and employment numbers.
Nevertheless, the North Bay received a score of 7.3 out of 10 as a place for women to start a business in the EDB women-owned business survey. This was largely attributed to factors such as the North Bay’s close proximity to San Francisco, as well as the high degree of support for local businesses in the community.
“Compared to some other parts of the country we’re in a new area in the North Bay,” says Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. “A lot of educated, cosmopolitan people have moved here, along with the locals, and I think there is a very welcoming attitude towards new ideas and new approaches, including women-owned business, which used to be a very new idea 15, 25 years ago. It’s evolved, but I think it’s particularly well regarded here because there is a lot of acceptance here.”
The majority of survey respondents (54 percent) listed improving and increasing networking opportunities as their greatest recommendation to further support and encourage female entrepreneurs in the North Bay. More specifically, many women commented that they would value more networking opportunities with other female entrepreneurs in the area. Stone advises women business owners to take advantage of some of the resources and information that is readily available to all business owners in the community to help grow their business.
“Take advantage of the resources to do that [grow your business],” says Stone. “In our office we have the Small Business Development Center which is an arm of the SBA, the Small Business Administration. They provide free counseling and all sorts of workshops to start your business and they have all sorts of free resources. There is also the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and they provide free counseling in the start-up phase and provide a lot of wisdom for people who’ve been in business to be smart abut how to grow their business. A lot of them have been through the agonies of starting and growing a business and there are a number of women that are SCORE counselors. That’s a tremendous resource.”