Meet three female founders living the entrepreneurial dream
Start-up businesses are always challenging, and they can be especially formidable for women entrepreneurs. Acquiring the capital to establish the venture, implementing a business plan, and responding to changes in the environment to sustain the operation are among a host of steps that must be navigated successfully to ensure long-term growth. But for three Arizona women, starting—and sustaining—a business is what they know and what they do…exceptionally well.
The Risk Taker
Stephanie Vasquez is a risk-taker in an unexpected way. While working as a middle-school science teacher in the southwest Valley, she took a life-changing vacation in Costa Rica during her summer break.
“I was a completely ignorant consumer,” she says. “Before, when I ordered a cup of coffee, I never thought about how the beans had been grown in a field. But as I toured a coffee plantation, I realized the connection between consumers, Mother Earth and the pride of the people working there. I knew I wanted to share that with people here in Phoenix.”
Although she knew nothing about the coffee business, Vasquez researched it extensively. Then one day, an opportunity presented itself to her. While attending a teaching conference, her colleague received a phone call from her daughter, who was looking for someone to take over the nonprofit coffee shop she operated in downtown Phoenix. Vasquez jumped at the chance and in July 2007, she became a coffee shop owner—and had even completed the paperwork to convert it to a for-profit venture.
Determined to “educate, empower and give consumers a truly conscientious option” for some of what they consume, she slowly began to build her new business at Roosevelt and Central Avenue with the power of the fair trade movement, whose goal is to help producers of food, beverages, crafts and other commodities in developing countries achieve better trading conditions that contribute to sustainability.
Fair Trade Café, “an inclusive community space that showcases local art works and serves organic, fair trade, shade-grown coffees and teas and handmade baked goods purchased locally,” began to attract a lot of customers.
In 2008, with the help of business loans, she opened a second location on Central Avenue just north of Van Buren in a building located in Civic Space Park, a green area on the edge of downtown.
Shortly after that, however, the recession struck. She struggled to stay afloat in “the midst of the tornado that was the economy,” and managed—she believes through sheer will—to keep her two locations going for the next year. About a year after that, she knew she had to run the business full-time. She quit her teaching job, an agonizing decision.
“There aren’t words to describe how scared I was,” she says. She donated all of her teaching supplies to the school where she taught.
The key to success for Vasquez, a Phoenix native, is helping the community. She believes her involvement with and commitment to the neighborhoods surrounding her stores has helped her business become a half-million-dollar enterprise.
Every week, she donates something from her shops to a different charity. She tries to hire women who have recently been released from prison to give them a second chance. She mentors other women entrepreneurs. And through her actions and the ambience in her shops, she is “creating a culture of community, because I have so much faith in and love for it.”
The Business Builder
The community of women entrepreneurs inspires Kristin Slice, founder of Phoenix-based Empowered Lab Communications, to be a business builder.
Early in her career as an expert in organizational communications and as a marketer, Slice recognized the positive impact women business owners had on improving local communities. In 2010, she launched her first business, Three Dog Marketing, with business partner Nancy Sanders. Shortly after, the two were recruited by the Maricopa Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to help business owners implement marketing and sales strategies to create new jobs and capital.
Working at both Three Dog Marketing and the Maricopa SBDC, Slice began to “carve a unique niche working with women business owners and combining strategic communication with economic development.”
In the last several years, she says, “a growing body of research has shown that in order to effectively attract and grow female entrepreneurs in local communities, different tools are required.”
Three years ago, Slice became the grant manager responsible for executing what’s known as the Wells Fargo Lift Grant through the Maricopa Small Business Development Center. Focusing on women business owners and leveraging relationships in the community, she and her team delivered close to 1,250 hours of direct one-on-one counseling with small business owners that resulted in in 91 new jobs, 45 new businesses, more than $2 million in increased sales and $500,000 in capital invested in less than two years.
“We exceeded all original goals of cost, schedule and performance,” she says.
That success led to the establishment of Empowered Lab Communications in 2013. “Today, most of our work is with business incubators, economic development agencies and educational institutions across the country that want to attract and grow female entrepreneurship,” Slice says. “We work with organizations and leaders to create effective female entrepreneurship and gender programs using the latest innovative research and global best practices.”
Although her clients are organizations that want to help business owners, most of her clients have limited marketing budgets. So Slice’s emphasis is on creating “communication strategies that attract diverse populations of high-growth business owners.”
“Women are the fastest growing population of entrepreneurs in the country,” says Slice. “Women start businesses at three times the rate of our male counterparts. They pay their employees better, give back to their communities more and provide higher returns for investors.”
As an extension of her company, Slice also has launched Empowered PhXX, a community collaborative of women business owners, women business owner groups, and resources that serve women business owners. She is committed to the economic development of women business owners in Phoenix.
“We are proud to work with our many community partners, including the Maricopa Small Business Development Center, to continue the movement forward,” says the Phoenix native.
“I love Phoenix,” she continues. “Entrepreneurs deserve the best resources and support we have to offer. We have to continue to evolve, look to other ecosystems for best practices, base our strategies on research and push for greater innovation.”
The Game Changer
A love of innovation is what drives Jenny Poon, founder of CO+HOOTS, Phoenix’s first and soon to be largest co-working space. It’s what makes her a game-changer.
In 2009, during the depths of the recession, Poon established eeko studio, a boutique graphic design agency. She felt a need for more of a collaborative community to further her own skills and bounce ideas off of other professionals, so a year later, CO+HOOTS was born.
“[At the time,] I was thinking CO+HOOTS would be just a shared work space,” she says. “I also genuinely thought I was the first person to think about this very innovative idea of co-working. Little did I know this was actually one of the fastest-growing movements in the world and had been around eight years prior to my ‘creating’ it.”
Quickly, CO+HOOTS became a modern-day think tank, where innovation grew and businesses thrived.
“We saw a 98 percent success rate of businesses making it past the volatile first 18 months of being in business,” a period in a start-up’s life with an 80 percent failure rate, says Poon, who has been a journalist, a graphic designer and an art director as well as a business owner.
“I’ve also spent some time overseas teaching English and have a love for teaching and sharing wisdom,” says Poon, whose family values education. “They came to the U.S. from Vietnam with nothing, but they knew the only way to change the future is through education. I’m the first woman in my family to graduate from a university.”
Poon attributes the CO+HOOTS 98 percent success rate among her clients to a simple concept: “You have people to challenge you and resources to get you through challenges.”
According to Poon, businesses fail because they don’t get to their roadblocks fast enough, therefore not allowing enough time to devise a plan and overcome the hurdles ahead. The faster they can see the hurdles, the faster they can fail and try again.
“Often, when working alone, you only have yourself to bounce ideas off of and that can lead to tunnel vision,” she says.
“But at CO+HOOTS,” she points out, “when those hurdles arise—you have the wrong audience, you aren’t differentiating, revenue model is all wrong—you can reach out to the community of brilliant minds who can all help you get to the solution.”
Every team member in the space, she explains, is focused on helping others succeed.
“We believe if one of us succeeds, we all do. Also, we’ve got a good amount of weirdness and personality to our space,” Poon says with a smile.
For Poon, any entrepreneur—no matter their age, gender, race, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status—has a safe place at CO+HOOTS to launch, fail and scale their dreams.
“Basically, we are your modern-day small business resource center,” she says. “We provide educational events, a community of knowledge workers, and a culture that is based on generosity to fuel a community that’s hell-bent on creating great businesses in Phoenix.”
Story by Debra Gelbart
Photography by Mark Lipczynski