Tracy Alaia from Trafford had always dreamed of owning a boutique, but she wanted it to be more than just a shop.
“I wanted it to help other artists,” said Alaia, who was originally supposed to have a paint studio but which grew into a souvenir shop in downtown Irwin.
After developing a business plan that she described as “fairly conservative” in terms of borrowing for operations, she opened the Feathers Artist Market & Gifts in downtown Irwin in 2017.
Alaia, 49, is one of more than 13 million women entrepreneurs in the United States. That’s a huge leap from 50 years ago when, according to the Small Business Administration, there were just over 400,000 women-owned companies.
After October was recognized as National Women’s Small Business Month, the SBA indicated that 45% of all businesses in the United States were owned by women in 2019. These companies had sales of $ 1.9 trillion. Every day around 1,820 new female-owned businesses opened across the country.
Nikki Saxion, who worked in her uncle’s Italian restaurants in the Alle Kiski Valley as a teenager, had no plans to become a restaurant owner.
But she took over a cafe in Leechburg, changed the name to CoCo Coffeehouse and added a kitchen to prepare meals.
“I guess it’s just in my blood,” said Saxion.
Ashley Ralston Nicklaus, owner of Pawn & Jewelry Exchange, didn’t have a business running in her blood. Her entry into entrepreneurship came when her first husband, Matthew Ralston, died in April 2013. He ran the Greensburg pawn shop.
“I was a mother who stayed home,” said Nicklaus.
More women like Alaia, Nicklaus and Saxion turned to Chatham University’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship last year, said Anne Schlicht, center director.
Some come because of job losses during the pandemic. Others rethink their careers, and still others seek the flexibility of ownership.
The center is seeing an increase in the number of women looking to start pet-related businesses like grooming, dog trips and dog daycare, Schlicht said.
Women seeking advice at the Small Business Development Center at Saint Vincent College near Latrobe are moving from retail and service sectors to other areas such as veterinary business, engineering and occupational therapy this year, said James Kunkel, director of the center on St. Vincent.
“It’s very encouraging to see some forays into other companies,” said Kunkel, noting that women typically make up about 45% of customers each year.
The pandemic posed challenges for all companies, regardless of gender. Schlicht said, “We have been working with companies for 18 months to stay alive, keep their doors open, and give them access to federal programs.”
Access to capital has become easier for women, said Kunkel, especially with the amount of funds available from the CARES law.
Until 1988, women needed a male relative to apply for a business loan, the SBA said. That same year, the Women’s Business Ownership Act improved the SBA’s access to capital to provide financial assistance to organizations targeting small, women-owned businesses.
“The availability of capital is significantly better than it was 10 years ago,” said Kunkel.
Nicklaus said their gender is not a barrier to access to capital. Rather, it was about convincing a financial institution to lend money to a pawn shop, despite being the only state-certified pawn shop in Westmoreland County.
The availability of capital in the form of federal government stimulus checks is both good and bad for business, Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus saw the pawn shop’s business decline for about a year during the pandemic. She believes this was because of the stimulus money the families received. Because of the stimulus checks, people would not have to bring jewelry or other possessions for short-term loans.
Entrepreneurs raising young children also face the challenge of running a business and looking after children at the same time.
Saxion, a single mother, said she juggled work and parenting, although it had gotten easier with age.
“You don’t take a day off,” said Alaia, who has three children.