“The sky is not the limit, nor are the stars. Wish it... dream it... do it.”
This is the saying scrawled across the back wall of Expressive Outlet, a unique clothing store on Forum Boulevard in Columbia. A few feet away is a picture of the store’s co-owners, Molly Morgan and Michele Towns, on their first buying trip in New York City. Their story is the classic American dream: friends who dream about starting a small business together — and do it.
Morgan and Towns became friends as co-workers at MU’s Department of Planning, Design and Construction. Both enjoyed shopping, especially at Insight Outlet, which sells unique house decorations.
They saw a niche in Columbia for more unique merchandise and got the idea to start a women’s clothing store that would have a mix of styles geared toward a variety of age groups.
Their story is just one example of a trend in Columbia and throughout the country: Women-owned businesses are on the rise and doing better than ever.
They started doing daily research and planning small steps toward their goal. Eventually, they found themselves on that first buying trip in New York and drawing up the plans for the finance and construction of their business. In August 2002, Expressive Outlet opened.
According to the Center for Women’s Business Research, women-owned businesses in Missouri, like Expressive Outlet, increased by 16 percent between 1997 and 2002.
This study also showed that women-owned firms are growing across the nation. One in 11 American women owns a business, and one in seven is employed by a woman-owned business. The annual revenue of women-owned businesses total nearly $2.3 trillion.
Compared to other states and Washington D.C., Missouri ranks 22nd in the increase of women-owned firms, 10th in the growth of employment and 12th in the growth of sales.
Anne Williams, president of JobFinders Employment Service, said she has seen evidence of this trend in Columbia.
“There are more and more women-owned businesses all the time,” Williams said.
PUTTING THE FAMILY FIRST
Williams is one of many women who explains that she started her own business for the flexibility that it allowed her as she attempted to balance her career with her first priority: her child.
Another factor, she said, might be the way her generation was raised. While past generations may have frowned on the idea of women in the workplace, Williams said that’s no longer the case.
“The bottom line is that we are a generation of women taught not to be afraid of trying something new,” Williams said.
Columbia has always had a steady stream of women-owned businesses, said Mike Schrader, a consultant at MU’s Small Business Development Center, and he has worked with many of them to get their businesses running. He said many women, like Williams, open a business so they can take care of their children and earn money at the same time.
“I think a big part of it is that women are able to focus on the family,” Schrader said, “Opening a business fits in with the modern woman’s lifestyle.”
Family isn’t the only reason more women are starting their own businesses. Gwenna Peters, owner of Peters Rehab, said she started her own business because she wanted more control over the way she was practicing physical therapy. When she was working within a larger practice, she said she was expected to rush people in and out of the office and sometimes saw as many as four patients per hour. Now, she can take her time
with patients and give them the attention that she feels they deserve.
“I can be much more people-oriented,” Peters said.
She added that starting her own business has allowed her to work for the right reason, making a difference in peoples’ lives, rather than just working because she had to.
Many women owners already have learned about the business world by working up the corporate ladder, hitting the “glass ceiling” and having to re-evaluate their plans, said Robin Nichols, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce Women’s Network.
“All the sudden these women start thinking, ‘Hey, I could start my own business and make more money,’” Nichols said. Women now make up 56 percent of the workforce, Nichols said, which may have some effect on the growth of women-owned businesses.
FORMING A BOND
Sometimes, it is simply a common interest that draws businesswomen together in ownership roles, as it was for Towns and Morgan with Expressive Outlet. In cases such as these, the partnerships tend to help the owners support one another in the face of competition.
Towns and Morgan said their shop is doing very well. More customers come in all the time, and sometimes people from out of town stop by when they are traveling between St. Louis and Kansas City because they heard about the shop. Towns and Morgan have regular customers from several generations, and they know many of them by name.
“It’s a girlfriend store,” Morgan said. “Customers are looking for that extra service.”
Morgan and Towns said that the store is a creative outlet not only for them, but also for their customers.
“ It’s a place to express yourself through clothing,” Towns said.
People come in, Morgan said, and look for that an item that is just perfect for them. They sell somewhat unusual merchandise, and customers appreciate that they won’t be wearing the same outfit as everyone else.
Even so, Morgan and Towns both agree that the key to their success is partnership.
“I couldn’t have done this without Molly,” Towns said.
“Same here,” Morgan said.
The pair said their strengths and weaknesses complement each other. For instance, Morgan takes care of the business Web site and Towns handles ongoing business and fashion research. Having a partner also allows them the freedom to leave work and take care of family matters when they need to.
Women-owned businesses use cooperation on another level, as well.
Expressive Outlet is a member of the Savvy Southside Shopping Association, an organization of specialty shops on the south side of Columbia. Towns and Morgan said the members of the organization try to help each other out whenever possible and put out a pamphlet containing the names and short descriptions of the businesses, with a locator map for them on the back.
Morgan and Towns said cooperation among small business owners, both male and female, is important in order to compete with larger conglomerates, and they enjoy being on good relations with those who run neighboring businesses.
Towns and Morgan, like many other female business owners, said their work is rewarding, and the future is full of possibilities — even the sky is not the limit.
“We’re always evolving, which makes it fun,” Morgan said.