When Cathy Stafford started her business, her headquarters were her laundry room, and she had the help of one other person. Six years later, her office on Regency Road boasts 16 employees, and Stafford said she can attribute success to a few things: "prayer, perseverance, pearls, patent leather pumps and pashmina."
That might not be the traditional recipe for success, but it speaks to a shift about who is calling the shots in many Lexington businesses.
According to the U.S. Economic Census, 26 percent of Lexington businesses were owned by women in 2002. Most of the businesses are repair, maintenance or laundry services, and health care and social assistance. Although more recent numbers aren't available, local business owners, many of whom will be attending this week's Minority Business Expo, said they see a rise in women taking control in Lexington.
Stafford is founder and president of Ad-Venture Promotions and the president of the Lexington chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners. Stafford said Lexington was a welcoming atmosphere when she started her business. She joined Commerce Lexington to get advice from fellow entrepreneurs and learned that the fundamentals of building a business were the same for either gender.
"Whether a woman or a man, you just have to get out there and knock on doors. You have to swing to hit," she said.
But while getting your company's name out there is a start, Stafford said women find a disadvantage in not having name recognition. In the "good old boy system," Stafford said, male-owned businesses have had more time to establish themselves where women start from scratch.
"The business arena has historically been very male-dominated, and it's not a negative thing, it's just a matter of fact," she said. "Women haven't been in the marketplace and haven't had those contacts. Being a new business owner is exciting, but you don't have that long-standing record of service. You have to prove yourself."
Growing that reputation is a long process, said Charlotte Hunt, owner of Lexington Turf Maintenance. Hunt began her lawn care service about 30 years ago when she was one woman with a mower who needed seasonal work. She said a credible reputation is what draws clients, but she does notice a gender preference among customers.
"Most of the time it's your reputation that gets you business, but I've found women want to do business with a woman," Hunt said.
Since expanding in 2002, Hunt employs about seven people, including a few men. She said in a male-dominated industry, many women might be too intimidated to take a leading role.
"The manual labor attracts more men. Because you deal with a lot of men, some women are intimidated by that," she said. "Not all that many women will get out there and do the heavy work."
Hunt often contracts with the city to mow Lexington's parks. Marilyn Clark, minority business enterprise liaison for the city, hopes to help more women like Hunt find opportunities within the Lexington government.
Clark works to increase participation of women and minority-owned businesses in Lexington city projects. She collects the businesses in a database so she can inform local owners about bids for anything from construction to office supplies.
In 1991, the city set a yearly goal to have 10 percent of major contracts go to minority- or women-owned businesses. That goal has never been met. Clark took her position in April and is tackling the 10 percent goal through education and outreach about city projects. She said getting female business owners involved is vital to the economic future of Lexington.
"It is predicted by 2050 there will be no clear majority, so that minority base now is very important to our economic viability," Clark said. "With the number of women graduating from college and becoming entrepreneurs, if we don't make it a point to include those businesses now, we're really going to be behind.
"It's good business as well as a good social practice."
Clark has organized a series of workshops in Lexington for female and minority business owners to learn about certification and the bidding process. Melody Winer attended one of those classes to see what opportunities exist for her business.
Winer bought 51 percent of Bradley Hook It Up Mobile in early July. She started with the business by helping the former owner with some billing and paperwork as a favor, then decided to take the plunge and fulfill a dream. She took some savings and approached the owner with an offer.
"I think we all wish we could be our own boss someday, but as far as making that a reality, I never thought I would do it," she said.
While the challenges exist, Winer said she has felt welcomed into the Lexington business community as a woman and has gained confidence since taking control of the company. She said it still might be a "man's world," but she doesn't feel held back.
"Since I decided to become a business owner, I've seen what is around me and noticed a lot of opportunity for minority businesses. Lexington is fairly progressive," she said.