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Trailblazers and Innovators: Female Founders Offer Advice During Women's History Month

Women's History Month offers the ideal opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come. One area where women have made significant strides is in entrepreneurship. Research from the Kauffman Foundation reports nearly 40% of business owners are women, and a report from the National Women’s Business Council finds women-owned employer firms have been growing faster than men-owned employer firms.

One exciting facet of entrepreneurship is the multiple paths you can take to becoming a small business owner. For Ellie Schmitt that entailed taking over a flourishing business – Salon One in Evansville, Indiana. Started in 1990 by her two aunts and their close friend, it instantly became a fixture in the community. She has retained the inclusive atmosphere, and the salon is regularly honored as “best hair salon” in local community choice awards.

Kate Potter took a different route with her business, building it from the ground up. She began attending local vendor fairs and craft shows, and as demand for her services grew, she realized she either needed to scale back or go all in. She opened her screen print and embroidery storefront-American Honey in Darmstadt, Indiana five years ago and subsequently opened a second business, Dwell Coffee Shop, when she saw the potential in a vacant building business across the street.

In honor of Women’s History Month, we solicited advice and inspiration from these motivated business owners, along with Stephanie Ewing, a successful commercial banker at Old National Bank (ONB) and co-chair of ONB's Impact Network, Women LEAD.

Breaking barriers              

Ewing has had a front row seat to the success of professional women. “I’ve had a passion for women in business throughout my career and appreciate the opportunity to help them anyway I can,” she says. That drive is what led her to reinvigorate ONB’s women-focused impact group, which had taken a hiatus during the pandemic.

Women’s History Month offers the perfect timing. “It’s important to celebrate how far we’ve come because it’s not that long ago a woman couldn’t get her own mortgage or loan,” she says. And it’s far too easy to become complacent. “I’ve never been discriminated against, but that was likely not the case just two or three decades ago. Our daughters and young professionals must never take for granted what has been accomplished.”

Potter thinks back to her agriculture heritage, where she saw her grandmother playing a key role in the success of the family farm. “I want to celebrate my ancestors,” she says, adding that her parents also owned their own businesses. “I learned a lot from my mom as I watched her juggle, including how to manage your time and resources wisely.”

“Women have really changed the trajectory of who we are and what we can accomplish,” Schmitt says, noting the incredible role models she has in the salon’s previous owners. She acknowledges it was probably much harder for them nearly 30 years ago. “I commend them because they defied the odds at that time and created something amazing that is still thriving today.”

Find the support you need for your business journey 

There’s no reason to go it alone, says Ewing, who advocates surrounding yourself with a group of women who will help build you up and celebrate your successes. "I believe in the adage that the five people you spend the most time with are the ones you are going to be like, so choose wisely,” she says.

That includes creating an adhoc board of directors, who can help you be your best. For example, while she's a top-notch banker, Ewing admits she can struggle with creativity in her marketing so she seeks help from those with that knack.

While Schmitt is fortunate to be able to continue to work with her aunts and soak up their knowledge, she also finds she gains important perspectives from online groups. She cites one comprised of other young business owners like herself, and another with fellow hair salon owners.

Potter also takes advantage of opportunities to connect with women business owners both in-person and on social media. In addition, she recommends taking classes in areas where you need to build your knowledge, pointing out that there’s so much about running a business you would never learn in school.

Not sure where to start finding fellow entrepreneurs? Ewing recommends looking into your local Chamber of Commerce and finding programs online or locally through the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). Joining a committee is a great way to meet others and make the most of your time. “You’ll get out of any group what you put into it,” she says. Another way to build connections and knowledge is to find a nonprofit you’re passionate about and sit on the board.

Strong women support other women 

While support knows no gender, there’s something special about women lifting up women. That’s an important component of ONB’s Women LEAD group, where they hold frequent client prospecting and networking events. “You build trust meeting others in this type of setting, and it’s natural to end up doing business together,” Ewing explains.

She recommends seeking out other women-owned businesses to do business with. For example, Potter sources candles, jewelry and other merchandise from local women entrepreneurs she met at vendor fairs.

Of course supporting other women also means paying it forward, as Schmitt does. “We can share the wealth. If someone wants to open a salon and they want my advice, I will definitely meet with them.”

Potter concurs, “I would like to see women overall cheer for other women. There's enough room in every space for some healthy competition.”

What better way to commemorate Women’s History Month than to cheer on other women, celebrate how far we’ve come, and set some goals for where you want to go next.

Are you ready to make a move? Talk to an Old National small business banker today.

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