Northeast Ohio’s women entrepreneurs seek connections along their journey
Sue Grabowski admits to not “knowing jack” about starting a company in a male-dominated industry like marketing, but she did it anyway when the time was right.
After working at companies both small (the former Covington Communications in Akron) and large (Progressive), Grabowski realized her vision in 1997 with Desidara, a Cleveland marketing agency built to assist a variety of businesses in communicating effectively.
Back when she started the company, then known as Grabowski & Co., she had a printer, phone and a computer with dial-up internet access. Otherwise, she did not know where a new entrepreneur could find help. Nurturing relationships with local marketing groups and chambers of commerce eventually fostered her growth in a region that Grabowski believes is friendly for women owners.
The continuing hurdle for women entrepreneurs in Northeast Ohio is knowing where and how to find contemporaries willing to help them succeed , Grabowski said.
“I wish I’d done that 20 years ago, because I didn’t feel safe asking questions when I had competitors in the room,” said Grabowski. “Since I started my business, groups like JumpStart and 10,000 Small Businesses have sprung up. The environment for women is rich because there are seasoned folks giving advice from the lessons they’ve learned.”
Kate Walsh-Dodok, proprietor of all-natural home fragrance line Peripeti Home, got her start in Cleveland’s maker movement in the 2010s. Collaborations with boutiques did not entirely stave off feelings of isolation, though, which Walsh-Dodok attributes to her head-down focus on product creation.
Northeast Ohio could benefit from more formal mentorship programs for women owners, she said.
“There is so much we can learn from each other – we can grow so much faster and stronger through these programs,” Walsh-Dodok said. “There is some of that programming available, but I want to see more of it, because there are still a lot of small business owners who don’t seek out mentorship right away. Maybe that’s our fault, but it could be publicized more.”
In a position to grow
Walsh-Dodok began Peripeti as a for-profit company, selling soy candles, reed diffusers, wax melts and room sprays. In recent years, she pivoted from a private business to a social enterprise, partnering with Building Hope in the City, a Cleveland-based nonprofit that, among other services, connects refugees with job opportunities.
A 2021 cancer diagnosis fueled the transition. Walsh-Dodok now hires refugee women for her production team. She turned to Building Hope for assistance, while getting further aid from social enterprise accelerator SEA Change.
Advice from SEA Change, in particular, honed Walsh-Dodok’s mission, values and overall business model, she said. Walsh-Dodok is also bonding with female entrepreneurs through like-minded Facebook groups, as well as women-centric conference events.
“It’s been great, because everyone I’ve networked with knows we are positioned to grow,” said Walsh-Dodok. “They’re throwing ideas at us and asking if we’ve talked to this person or that person. They’ve been very generous with their network, which is an incredibly valuable thing for a small business.”
Desidara owner Grabowski tapped a local chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organizationfor the kind of peer-to-peer communication critical for any new enterprise. Simply reaching out is sometimes challenging for women owners, while getting “typecast” into boutique lifestyle businesses by the larger community is not uncommon, she said.
Grabowski views “female entrepreneur” as a pigeonhole term that prevents women from flourishing.
“Breaking down silos would get women into spaces where they could think beyond their limitations as women and think about their limitations as business owners,” Grabowski said.
“Women are amazing multi-taskers – we get stuff done. I come on the heels of women who had to fight harder than me to be at the table. Now we are at the table, so let’s (work) together.”
Taking the leap
Women entrepreneurs are a major focus of Akron’s Bounce Innovation Hub. The group’s GROW program – which stands for Generating Real Opportunity and Wealth – provides women and people of color with idea generation skills, mentorship and brand development assistance.
Female founders comprise 57% of GROW’s clientele, all of whom run non-technology businesses due to the lack of high-tech startups among the demographic. Access and trust in entrepreneurship is crucial for a population often not given either, said Bounce Chief Operating Officer Jessica Sublett.
“(GROW) is a place that feels safe for individual entrepreneurs, while building a community they can count on,” said Sublett. “We’re cultivating a space where women can express the unique challenges they face as entrepreneurs.”
GROW participants created 140 jobs in 2022, encompassing restaurant service gigs and hairdresser jobs at personal care businesses. Though Northeast Ohio’s shortcomings for female owners are not unique – women-founded startups nationwide raised just 2.1% out of an estimated $37 billion in venture capital last year, according to Pitchbook – the region can still improve in bringing this population together.
“Women historically are homemakers, so that opportunity is not there to build professional networks,” Sublett said. “For an ecosystem to thrive, it needs entrepreneurs to connect to one another in addition to being connected to resources.”
Welcoming more women into the fold means doing a better job of sharing Northeast Ohio’s attributes, added Sublett. She points to the creation of multi-faceted “storytelling campaigns” that blend digital outreach with boots on the ground.
New entrepreneurs are wise to seek out local resources, even if that means simply turning to a Google search for a potential fit, Sublett said.
“Build a support network and surround yourself with mentors, advisers and other entrepreneurs,” said Sublett. “People who are going to help you navigate personal challenges while growing your business. And stay resilient on your journey. It’s happy and sometimes difficult, but that resilience is what will maintain a business.”
Grabowski echoed that sentiment, while also encouraging women to make the leap into their dream enterprise.
“Women have more opportunities today than ever,” Grabowski said. “(Entrepreneurship) is worth trying if you’ve got the skill set. The joy I’ve had from owning my business has been rewarding for 26 years. It’s a job I still love to get up for every day.”