By Sarah Robinson/NEMS Daily Journal
New information provided in the State of Women-Owned Businesses Report showed Mississippi ranked sixth in the nation in terms of growth in the number of women business owners since 1997.
The number of women-owned businesses in the state is estimated to be 68,000 in 2013, a 77.4 percent increase since 1997. Those firms account for 6.1 percent of Mississippi’s workforce and contribute more than $9.3 billion to the state economy.
Julia Crawford opened Wet Paint, a paint-your-own craft business in the Barnes Crossing Plaza in Tupelo, when she was just 24 years old.
“I have always wanted to own my own business. …I didn’t know it would be at such a young age.” she said.
Crawford said she depended on private investment and the support of her family to get the business off the ground. She has been open for about 18 months and said she sees about 100 customers per week.
“I think a lot of people don’t see women as having the same business brain that men do,” she said.
But Crawford grew up in a family-owned business and often goes to her family for advice.
“If I have an accounting question, I go to my sister. For business questions, I go to my mom and for operations questions, I ask my dad,” she said.
Experienced business owners agree that having a close support network is critical.
Lisa Hawkins has owned Room to Room furniture on Coley Road in Tupelo for 10 years and previously owned the Velveteen Rabbit, another successful retail outlet that specialized in children’s clothing.
Hawkins said many of the obstacles women perceive are in their minds. Although she still struggles with self-doubt from time to time, “I grew up always believing that I could do anything,” she said.
Hawkins was recently chosen to serve on the Memphis board of directors for the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, a testament to her leadership skills.
She has a master’s degree in nursing, and she said education is important to give women confidence and credibility in the business world.
Finding a mentor and taking advantage of community resources can give aspiring entrepreneurs an advantage, she added.
In addition to her involvement in several nonprofit groups, Hawkins has been involved with New Expectations for Women in Mississippi, or NEWMS, an organization aimed at helping empower women to improve their quality of life.
Hawkins said women need to support one another in their business efforts, and that joining networking groups is a great way to find a support system.
According to the NEWMS website, women in Mississippi are 50 percent more likely to live in poverty than men in the state. The organization sponsors workshops, lectures and other educational programs specifically geared toward women.
Martha Swindle is active with NEWMS and said the leadership class the organization offers is “not like any other leadership class you’ve ever taken.” She said many women have taken the the class taught by local business leader Rubye Del Harden.
“One woman has taken it seven times,” Swindle said.
The Renasant Center for IDEAs business incubator also has been a jumping point for Tupelo and Lee County entrepreneurs and business owners.
Catonyia Steen went to the Renasant Center soon after she decided to open a clothing store.
She spent more than a year taking classes at the Renasant Center and worked with the staff to create a formalized business plan she used to secure bank financing.
Steen opened Fashionista in the West Main Shopping Center just over a year ago.
The Pontotoc native said her father was a business owner and she grew up working in the family owned businesses. “I guess it just came in my blood,” she said, “I wanted to do the same thing.”
In addition to growth among women-owned businesses, the annual Women-Owned Businesses Report showed growth particularly among minority-owned businesses.
Steen, who is black, said she faced more obstacles entering into business as a woman than as a minority. She said some people she has encountered think women are more easily manipulated than their male counterparts.
“They think they can easily persuade you to do different things” rather than sticking to your plan, she said.
Steen added that staying focused is important, as is learning as much as much as possible and being passionate about your dream.