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Women in Focus

#MakeItHappen: How These Women Became Small Business Owners

Emma Goddard
by Emma Goddard Published on March 8, 2015

To recognize International Women's Day on Sunday, March 8, many people are celebrating across the globe honoring women and further advocating for equality between the sexes. So to play a part in this special occasion, which should really be celebrated every day, I reached out to several outstanding ladies who started their own businesses from the ground up, proving just how much women are a force to be reckoned with. Patriarchy schmatriarchy, amIright?

London Loves LA - Ella & Sophie Berman

No matter where you are, there's always that one girl, whether a co-worker, relative or best friend, who has the ultimate style and clothes you adore. In this case, there are two: Sisters Sophie and Ella Berman were and still are those girls. The British natives have always had quite the eye for fashion. After frequent visits to Los Angeles where they'd rummage through stores and markets for vintage pieces, they found that they had become the ultimate fashion role models amongst their friends back home. Not long after, the Bermans began to recognize a desire for vintage U.S. clothing across England and created their own clothing business, London Loves LA, in 2010.

"We started selling some of our favorite vintage pieces to friends and friends of friends through our social media," the Bermans say. "Then eventually [we] got someone we knew to design a small Big Cartel shop for us and grew it from there. There are some amazing vintage stores in London and in little pockets across the rest of England, but being an online shop, we are able to sell to absolutely everyone and don’t have to charge a premium due to traditional shop rent."

Sophie and Ella, who say they handpick each item of clothing for their store, admit that though England has a variety of vintage stores, the clothing typically found there don't fit the vibe they're going for.

"Lots of vintage shops in the UK sell gorgeous 40s tea dresses and 50s leather handbags, which are great but wouldn’t make sense for our brand," the Bermans say. "We're all about leather biker jackets, ripped denim and band tees. We want someone to look at our shop and want absolutely everything on there, whereas some people will look at it and nothing will be to their taste. That’s totally fine because we want our branding, our clothes and all of our imagery to be totally cohesive and on point."

And though the sisters know their style isn't for everyone, London Loves LA has become widely successful, receiving extremely positive feedback from customers all over, with celebrities like Harry Styles (Ella had worked for his record label) even sporting their clothing.

So far, the entire process has been pretty smooth and the girls have been, "constantly updating and improving how we do everything from labeling to packaging, to customer service communication." Although they haven't experienced many blunders thus far, they, like many people starting their first business (as women especially) have still faced skepticism during their journey.

"One thing we've found is that a lot of people still expect us to have a man in the wings," the Bermans say. "Either a financial backer or business advisor helping us with the business decisions or finances. We take care of all of that side of things ourselves and even enjoy it more than the creative side in a lot of ways. It’s rewarding and also a constant learning process, especially using an online platform that is constantly evolving."

Sophie and Ella refuse to allow people to see them as dependent, but rather as strong business women who can make their own way, encouraging other women out there to do the same.

"If you have an idea that you believe in and would be happy for it to become your life, then just go for it," the Bermans say. "It’s not always going to be easy so it’s so important that you actually enjoy what you’re doing."

Monday's Child - Melinda Lynam

What do you do when someone hands their 26-year-old business down to you? You could either 1) become completely overwhelmed by the pressure and refuse, or 2) welcome the opportunity with open arms and make the business your baby. The current owner of Monday's Child, Melinda Lynam, chose option two.

The Alexandria, Va. native has been running the classic childrens' clothing store for nine years. From high school math teacher, to computer programmer, to international sales manager, to product manager, to stay-at-home mom, Lynam has done it all. And after sewing for Monday's Child for 10 years and having previously run her own home business part-time, the prospect of taking over a store was beyond exciting.

"I had worked retail as a teenager, both in a stock room (where I learned about margins) and at a register," Lynam says. "I had [also] run my own small business at home so I was used to the tax issues involved... I gave the owner a check and she gave me the keys."

Although Lynam didn't have to go through the usual struggles of starting a small business, like searching for a location, buying inventory, and building up a clientele, she experienced many other challenges that accompany the role.

"I don't do any of the design or construction but I am tasked with selecting the clothing at 'market' twice a year," Lynam says. "We only carry classic clothing, and there are dozens of vendors I can buy from, and each offers hundreds of items each season. I often finding myself wishing I had a crystal ball to tell me how much to buy for an upcoming season. In the end I have to remember that my customers prefer classics and don't want anything trendy or funky."

Fortunately, after working for a computer company, which "had very few women in upper management," according to Lynam, and feeling she'd been passed over for several promotions because of her gender, Lynam is quite thankful for all the praise and respect she's received since taking on Monday's Child as her own.

"As the owner, most vendors cater to me, and other businesses I deal with (telephone, shipping, security firms, insurance firms) all want my business," Lynam says. "So I have always been treated professionally."

Lavender Republic - Emily Jurkevics & Eva Dorcus

For sisters Emily Jurkevics and Eva Dorcus, owning a small business together had been a topic of discussion for many years. Both having an affinity for baking and cooking, having worked in restaurants together, and with similar tastes and style, it didn't take long for this dynamic duo to start up Lavender Republic in August 2014, a home business selling liège waffles, a sweet treat widely recognized in Europe.

"We love desserts," Jurkevics says. "[And] Eva and I are also in the demographic of brunchers; champagne and breakfast is our ideal Sunday afternoon. So we wanted to make something for the holidays with a kind of cinnamon and vanilla taste to it, and the way the waffle — how it smells and tastes — is just so warm and cozy. The reason we chose it is because of both of our loves: our love for brunch and our love for dessert."

Dorcus says she personally fell head over heels for liège waffles on a ski slope while she was traveling abroad, but admits that the idea to sell them on the East Coast didn't occur until she and Jurkevics began selling them to friends and family who offered them overwhelming support and positive feedback.

"When I started to run the numbers on waffles I realized people had the same reaction that I did, and that these delicous puppies could do really well here," Dorcus says. "That whole warmth in cooking and baking is something that’s always going to be a part of my life, and I've been in sales for a long time. If I can sell someone else’s product, why not sell my own?"

Dorcus, who has been working in recruiting and sales for Just Energy, says that though she's always envisioned having a coffee shop or bakery one day, the only feasible way they were able to start Lavender Republic was by thinking of a product that would be profitable and easy to make from a kitchen at home. Currently, Jurkevics works out of Blacksburg, Va. while Dorcus sells their liège waffles in Philadelphia, Pa. The two have also begun developing a market in Arlington, Va. as well. Since some might wonder how waffles, a food that's already a staple in the U.S., would take off, Jurkevics reveals how different liège waffles really are.

While most normal waffles are made from a liquid batter, their waffles are actually made from a dough that needs time to rise, and at least three hours to prepare before serving. Additionally, the pair uses pearl sugar, an imported premium ingredient that carmalizes on the outside of the waffles as it cooks on the iron.

Working with AYC Media to rework their website and logo (they've settled on a doe), the single mother of one (Jurkevics) and mother of two (Dorcus) are working diligently to expand their business and to obtain the necessary licenses to one day sell high volume orders to their customers. Juggling family life, and often rising before the sun comes up to prepare waffles, these sisters are truly making a name for themselves as women in business.

"I've done my entire undergrad at Virginia Tech as a single parent and I graduate in May, so one of the things about starting a business is that there's a great amount of risk involved," Jurkevics says. "I think for decades and centuries that’s what kept women behind. You know if you have kids or something like that, you’re not willing to take risks. [And] I found a big thing — that men who have been interested in the company —, I want them to see me as a business woman, not this cute girl selling waffles. So getting the money part down — despite your gender and the product — when you’re starting a business, it’s about whether or not you can make money off this. Can you risk everything to make a living off of your product? My advice to anyone is to believe in your prodcut but also believe in yourself."

Amanda Burnette - Amanda Burnette

Many women will tell you that they've dreamed about their wedding day for years. Regardless of whether they actually have wedding fever and are waiting for a ring, or if they're merely obsessed with the cute aspects of planning a wedding, it's something that many girls love to think about. With weddings shows all over TV and wedding photos and DIYs taking over Pinterest, it's not surprising. For Amanda Burnette, who owns a business of the same name, becoming a wedding planner had actually been a goal of hers since planning her own wedding more than three years ago. It wasn't until last year however, that she finally found her true calling, not as a wedding planner, but as a florist for the industry instead.

"Frequently I was working with photographers and other vendors that would have a unique idea that we wanted to translate into wedding inspiration," Burnette says. "In order to get this done within a certain timeline and budget, I started to DIY the flowers for these shoots. From there, it just started to evolve. Other vendors asked me to design flowers for their photo shoots and events, and last year around this time, I received my first full service wedding inquiry!"

Although her business is still in its infancy, Burnette has been fortunate enough to gain many clients over the past year, and has received support and advice from other vendors in Richmond, Va. From working on editorial photo shoots, creating whimsical floral arrangements that wouldn't typically be suited for a wedding, to offering full service wedding and event floral design with more traditional options, Burnette says she has discovered her personal flair.

"One very important thing I've learned throughout the past two years of launching a business is that you have to offer a unique product to attract a client," Burnette says. "Unique doesn't have to mean quirky or weird; it has to just be enough to set you apart from other people that offer comparable services. Through trial and error I discovered that my flower arrangements tend to have a wild, garden-inspired look to them."

Additionally, Burnette says she feels fortunate to have worked with "ideal clients" as she calls them, who shared and trusted her visions. She admits that she's struggled with self-doubt throughout this process, sometimes comparing her work to competitors, but at the end of the day she knows that even with all the challenges, it's worth making her customers happy.

"Owning a business is incredibly challenging," Burnette says. "But it's satisfying and worth every tear and drop of sweat."

Progressive Promotions - Julie Levi

As the president of Progressive Promotions, Julie Levi's knack for business and innovation began to form as early as college. All it took was one great idea at her alma mater, Douglass Residential College at Rutgers University, before the concept of starting her own business came to fruition.

"As with most successful businesses, PPI was inspired by the need to solve a problem," Levi says. "In my case, it was the need to expand the limited inventory of my college swag at the Douglass College at Rutgers University bookstore. I wanted to be able to provide fun and more diversified options for the student body to wear and it was a hit! After graduating, I made the conscious decision to continue forward with my idea and start my own company. What started at the college market segued into imprinted merchandise for the corporate market."

Though learning how to balance the growth of PPI with the influx of new business was a challenge at first, Levi quickly learned that having the right people by her side would help PPI succeed. Now, with PPI in its 28th year, the woman-owned business has grown to help "companies strategically build brands and drive sales with promotional products and programs," according to Levi. Some of those clients include companies such as Kraft, Amtrak, Verizon, American Express, and Peanut Butter & Co.

"Today, PPI provides corporate gifts, awards and promotional products that help corporations improve employee morale and build brand awareness," Levi says. "We are a one-stop shop for all of your promotional needs and the industry leader to boot."

With an impressive resume and a wealth of experience under her belt, Levi encourages other women to go after their dreams as she did.

"Be innovative and find inspiration from your everyday life," Levi says. "Distinguish [yourself] from your potential competitors and don’t give up. You may have to adapt your approach here and there but if you have a solid business idea and plan, it will grow into something successful."

​Did you start your own small business? Tweet us @wewomenUSA!

This article was written by Emma Goddard. Follow her on Twitter @egoddardhokie.

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