Women take charge in Bristol
BRISTOL — Women own or run a heck of a lot of Bristol businesses.
Though there is no definitive list of town business, Ian Albinson, executive director of the Bristol CORE business group, compiled a list of 22 women-owned or women-run businesses virtually off the top of his head.
No one can say just why this is the case and what it means for the town’s future, but people paying attention say that the number of women in the town’s business scene and the vigor they bring to the entrepreneurial ecosystem is undeniable.
“Bristol just has this great energy,” said resident Annie Harlow, who recently founded a local business-to-business (B2B) meet-up that has evolved into businesswomen’s group. “Carol Wells (who in May opened Vermont Marketplace) is a big part of that, as well as Jess Messer at Tandem, who conceived of the Lumen Festival. Vermont Skincare (owned by Kristi LaFayette and Kasey Trujillo), is going to be big, and Cindy Kimball and her team at Kimball Office Services are indispensable to the local businesses.”
Has something special about Bristol attracted these women or have they been the creators of that something special? It’s hard to tell.
Either way, one thing is for sure: This is not normal.
Less than a third of Vermont’s privately held firms are owned by women, according to the 2016 Status Report on Women’s Business Ownership and the Vermont Economy released by advocacy group Change the Story.
The fact that Bristol has so many women-owned or -run businesses may be good for the town, said Gwen Pokalo, director of the Center for Women & Enterprise Vermont (CWE).
“Women tend to be more nimble in the ways they use employees, and they hang on to their employees longer than their male counterparts,” she said. “Many women will start a business out of passion rather than a desire for money, and for them ‘growth’ is about incorporating community.”
Women-owned businesses plow 90 percent of their revenue back into their communities, she added.
Research increasingly shows that women are good at — and for — business. As reported last year in Forbes magazine, a study conducted by the University of California–Davis of that state’s 400 largest publicly held businesses found that the 25 firms with the highest percentage of women executives and board members had higher returns on assets and equity — 74 percent (and many billions of dollars) higher.
In conversations about Bristol’s businesswomen, one word keeps coming up over and over again: “collaboration.”
“We try to be cooperative downtown, which is necessary if you want a downtown to be vibrant,” said Melissa Hernandez of Recycled Reading of Vermont, which carries books, musical instruments and art supplies. “We talk about what retail items we’re carrying so there is less overlap among our businesses. I also let customers know when they can get things at other stores.”
Longtime Bristol businesswoman Carol Wells (pictured, left, with manager Bethany Bingham) had several such conversations this spring when she opened Vermont Marketplace at 19 Main St., which carries products from 75 different Vermont companies.
“I went around to local businesses in order to not duplicate their stock,” she said. With Green Mountain Shoe and Apparel’s recent departure from Bristol, Wells considered carrying Darn Tough brand socks, which are manufactured in Northfield, but when she discovered that Jennifer Adams of Emeraldrose Gifts across the street was already carrying them, she found and stocked socks by a different Vermont company instead.
Wells did have to draw the line at maple products, she said, which are a must for a company like Vermont Marketplace.
“Collaborative” also best describes the atmosphere of Harlow’s B2B meet-up, which is a project of the Addison County Relocalization Network. “These are creative, dynamic women sharing resources, learning from one another and finding points of intersection,” she said. “Their drive to succeed is strongly collaborative.”
For Shawna Sherwin and Bonita Bedard at Vermont HoneyLights (9 Main St.), collaboration extends to producers and crosses international boundaries, informing some of their decisions in ways that go beyond just serving the women who make up the majority of their customers.
“We stock items made by women rescued from the international sex trade, like felted bags from Fibres of Life, and we’re looking at adding other product lines as well,” said Sherwin. This is as much a moral as a retail decision, very much connected to helping women, she said.
Effective collaboration is a key business skill, of course, regarded as no less critical for men than it is for women. But research is beginning to show that women are not only more disposed toward collaboration than men are, but they’re also better at it.
In their 2013 study “Are Women More Attracted to Cooperation Than Men?,” economists Peter J. Kuhn and Marie-Claire Villeval found that the answer was “yes.”
Simon Blackley in the Atlantic summarized the study thus:
“The most important conclusion involves perceptions of relative competence. Women demonstrated less confidence about their own abilities and more confidence in their potential partners’ abilities. They were also much more sensitive to increasing their potential partner’s incomes, reinforcing a well-established idea that women (are) less comfortable with their colleagues making dramatically different salaries.”
Last November the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a study examining the performances of 15-year-old girls vs. boys when they were required to work in teams. According to the results — which held true in 52 different countries — girls outperformed boys in collaborative problem solving.
“Girls show more positive attitudes towards relationships, meaning that they tend to be more interested in others’ opinions and want others to succeed,” said Andreas Schleicher, director for the Directorate of Education and Skills at the OECD, in a post-study interview.
Such research often proves controversial because on the one hand it throws a wrench into some pretty deeply entrenched gender narratives, and on the other it gets synthesized into further evidence to support “feminine” vs. “masculine” business models or leadership styles, which themselves end up reinforcing those narratives or creating new and equally dubious ones.
Regardless of how they’re classified (CWE’s Pokalo used the phrase “relational intelligence”), all of the attitudes, skills and tendencies highlighted by this research have one thing in common: they’re learned. The good ones can be taught and the bad ones unlearned. Given the right circumstances.
From a profit standpoint, it would seem, the sooner business skills and attitudes are divested from any association with the “masculine” or the “feminine,” the more widespread and effective they will become.
But the hard realities faced by women entrepreneurs are not so easily overcome.
“Research has suggested women are often offered a different array of financing products, which can emphasize higher-risk loans, for example, than their male counterparts,” Pokalo said. Financially, they also tend to rely more on friends and family than men do. Consequently they’re more vulnerable during the growth phase of their businesses (which is itself one of the most vulnerable phases). “Women also tend to pay more than men do for things like equipment,” she added.
Only 7.25 percent of the state’s working-age women own a business as a primary occupation, according to advocacy group Change the Story.
“Part of changing the entrepreneurial ecosystem for women in Vermont is not just pointing them toward helpful resources but it’s also about exposing those women to business owners who look like them, and giving them a chance to build confidence,” Pokalo said.
That ecosystem must also take into account the many hats women wear, which often prevent them from focusing exclusively on business in the way men are able to do.
For instance, of the many benefits of moving Vermont HoneyLights into Bristol back in 2002, the first one Sherwin recalled was that she’d be able to attend her two daughters’ school events. In addition to proximity, part of what also makes that balance possible is that Vermont HoneyLights is a family business Sherwin runs with her mother, Bonita Bedard.
Down the street, Wells manages not only Vermont Marketplace, but also the six-unit Bristol Suites it’s attached to, and other properties owned by Wells Mountain LLC. But she would not classify these as “women-owned” businesses. That her husband, Tom, is an attorney specializing in areas such as business and commercial law makes it highly unlikely their enterprises will suffer setbacks from gender-related discrimination. Married for 45 years, Carol and Tom are very much a “team.”
“Tom has the ideas, and I execute them,” she said with a smile.
A former Bristol selectboard member and executive director of the Bristol Downtown Community Partnership (the precursor to Bristol CORE), Carol Wells pointed out that even when a woman might serve as the public face of a business, there are often other partners, either in the business or in the family.
“It’s like the old bookstore adage,” she said. “One half of the couple runs the store and the other half has a ‘real’ job, so they can pay the bills.”
DIVERSE RETAIL PRESENCE
Hernandez, however, is disrupting that narrative. The sole owner Recycled Reading of Vermont, which she founded in 2011, she’s twice expanded into larger retail spaces in downtown Bristol — from 800 square feet to 1,800.
Her combination of books, musical instruments and art supplies makes for an unusual retail cocktail, but it’s not just her personal interests that have led her here — it’s the close attention she pays to her customers.
“If three people ask for something I don’t have, I know there are probably a dozen more who want it. What I want to be is responsive to the community.”
Hernandez began to carry basic music accessories when Bristol Cliffs Music departed from Bristol. She started carrying ukuleles because a local school asked her to.
“I really like to have instruments for kids — flutes, percussion, animal shakers. A lot of music shops don’t cater to kids,” she said.
Though she doesn’t feel like her gender has ever handicapped her business endeavors, she has noticed differences between her male and female customers.
“Sometimes when men come into the shop, they seem a little hesitant to talk to a woman about the instruments — especially the guitars.” They’re very quickly engaged, however, when Hernandez, who knows her stuff, starts talking.
She’s also noticed over her two decades of retail experience that women customers don’t get as much attention from male employees.
“I do have a lot of loyal women customers,” she added.
Demographically, Bristol is perfectly average when compared with the rest of Vermont, said Fred Kenney, director of the Addison County Economic Development Corporation.
But there is nothing average about the town’s business climate.
There aren’t any signs announcing that “Women Run Things Here,” though that is often very much the case, nor has an unusually high percentage of women entrepreneurs introduced any sort of gender-related atmosphere in the town. There is just success story after success story.
Perhaps that’s the point.
Even if turns out that businesswomen are in fact a minority in Bristol, there is plenty to celebrate about them — and much more to learn from them.
Sarah Kaeck’s story is one example.
In 2012, she converted her husband’s workshop to her own, hired a few mothers with children in local schools to work part-time to manufacture sustainable food storage products in Bristol. And thus was Bee’s Wrap born.
The company has grown and moved into a bigger space on Rockydale Road. Five years in, Kaeck’s business was selected as the Small Business Administration’s 2017 Vermont Woman-Owned Business of the Year.
It was nice to get that validation from the business community, she said, but day-to-day she doesn’t give much thought to the fact that hers is a “women-owned” enterprise.
Nor has she felt marginalized because of her gender.
“I might feel like the minority in a room full of older men,” she said. “Sometimes we’re not always taken seriously in conversations about equipment.” But that’s about it.
When she spoke about Bristol, however, she found plenty of things to say.
“What’s special about Bristol comes from the community. It has a great workforce that’s committed,” she said. “Bristol is amazing.”
Reach Christopher Ross @ [email protected].
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