- Gary Dinges American-Statesman Staff
Woman-owned businesses aren’t as rare as they used to be – and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in Texas.
American Express says four of the top 10 U.S. cities where female entrepreneurs have the greatest clout – “combining growth in the number, employment and revenues of women-owned businesses” from 2007 to 2016 – are in the Lone Star State.
Austin ranks fifth, tied with Indianapolis. San Antonio, Dallas and Houston are on the list, as well.
But there are still some hurdles to overcome. In retail – the sector with the highest percentage of woman-owned businesses, according to the National Women’s Business Council – just one in five shops has a female owner.
Downtown’s Second Street District is a prime example of how Austin is bucking that trend. The tony strip of shops, restaurants and service-oriented businesses is peppered with companies built from the ground up by women from a variety of backgrounds.
“Austin ranks high on great places to start a business, yet women-owned businesses are the big story,” said Kevin Johns, director of the city of Austin’s Economic Development Department. “The diversity and longevity of women-owned businesses in the Second Street District is the local proof.”
About half of the storefronts in the decade-old district – two and a half times the national average – have females calling the shots, including merchants such as Milk + Honey Spa, Sikara & Co., Lacquer, Eliza Page, Rae Cosmetics, Hacienda, Prize, Bar Chi and Hemline.
Amli Residential, the district’s developer, says that’s no accident.
“At the Second Street District, we pride ourselves with how many women and locally owned businesses we have,” said Caitlin McConnell, Amli Residential’s retail property manager. “We feel that our commitment to entrepreneurs and local business is what makes us different from other shopping and entertainment districts. We want this to continue to be a place that embraces community and our local ties are what make that community strong.”
It’s that supportive local vibe that helped draw Sikara & Co. founder Mousumi Shaw to Second Street, where her flagship jewelry store is now located – a business that combines many of her passions.
“I love all aspects of being an entrepreneur: building and developing a team, building an amazing product and story, inspiring people with our designs and giving back to our communities,” Shaw said.
The American-Statesman recently talked with Shaw and some of the Second Street District’s other female business owners to learn more about the process of starting – and maintaining – a small business in Austin.
What they do: Spa
Address: 100A Guadalupe St.
It has always been important for me to align my work with my values. I do not measure the success of my business based on financial success. For me, what is important is that all of stakeholders win: our employees, our clients and our community.
When I was in graduate school at the University of Texas, I worked both at the Austin Technology Incubator and with a venture capital firm. I loved being around entrepreneurs and was inspired to do my own thing instead of taking a traditional job after earning my MBA. I thought a lot about different types of business I could launch, and I really wanted to do something that contributed positively to people. Milk + Honey is the result. It’s such a lovely way to make a living – knowing that our clients leave feeling more relaxed, healthy and beautiful.
It’s a rollercoaster. Excruciating at times, but also exhilarating. I still own 100 percent of my business, and sometimes I feel like I have moved mountains to get the funding I need to grow the business. In the early days, I was answering phones, folding towels and running payroll from my laptop on top of a washing machine. You have to be prepared to roll up your sleeves and do anything and everything. There were a lot of extremely lean years and deferred gratification, and also I had to be at peace with the idea of losing everything. But at the end of the day, I knew my husband, dog and family would still love me if it all imploded.
No. Many studies will show that organizations with women in senior leadership positions outperform their male-dominated counterparts. But I do find it challenging and frustrating to be a woman with so many subtle misogynist messages from the media and the regressive politics of this state.
I drove by Second Street every day on my way to UT when I was working on my business plan and watching the original Amli building go up. I am a city person at heart and there was no other location in Austin that I wanted to launch my business. It took a lot of meetings, presentations and convincing the decision makers, but eventually they said ‘yes.’ We opened our first location at 204 Colorado St. in January 2006 and quickly outgrew our little spa. We moved into our current location, next to City Hall along Lady Bird Lake almost five years ago. We now have four locations in Austin and one in Houston, and plan to add a few more locations in the coming years.
What they do: Nail salon
Address: 210 Guadalupe St.
I’ve always wanted to own my own business since I was a small child. I grew up surrounded by women entrepreneurs – my mother, my aunt, my grandmother – so I guess it is just in my blood.
I’ve always loved fashion and the idea of expressing personal style via your manicure. I also wanted to do something that felt good. Getting a manicure is one of those things you can do for yourself that gives you a boost in confidence.
It involved a lot of research. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just doing something I thought would be ‘fun.’ It needed to make business sense. So I did tons of research before starting the business. It took me three years to open the doors because of my methodical approach. During that time, I discovered a lot that wasn’t so great about the nail industry and it became my mission to help change the nail industry for the better. If you are not familiar with The New York Times expose ‘The Price of Nice Nails,’ I encourage you to look it up. Many workers are not paid a fair living wage and work in terrible conditions. I wanted to be part of a movement to redefine the industry and create a salon that was a great place to work and offered fair, legal pay to the staff.
I thought starting a business would be easier because I am a woman. I remember hearing about ‘benefits’ for women-owned businesses, but once I started looking into it, I found that there really isn’t any additional support for women. But I’m OK with that. I don’t feel like I need any special assistance because of my gender. I’ve always had a strong sense of what I want and have never let anything stand in my way.
I felt really strongly that the district needed a nail salon. There were plenty of spas and hair salons downtown, but no nail salons. With all the hotels, apartments and condos I couldn’t believe one didn’t exist yet. I had to be very patient to find the right space that wasn’t too big, wasn’t too small and had good street visibility. I love the location we are in now and feel like it was a great choice.
What they sell: Jewelry
Address: 229 W. Second St.
I have always worked for entrepreneurs or for small or startup companies, so starting my own business seemed natural. I got the entrepreneurial bug at a young age.
I had been making jewelry as a hobby for years and felt that Austin needed – and was ready for – a unique jewelry store that featured handmade, yet high quality and affordably priced jewelry. Since opening in 2004, the ‘maker movement’ has taken off in jewelry and many other categories.
I did a lot of research about the store I was going to open and the products I would carry, making sure to offer something unique but appropriate for the market.
Honestly, no. Austin is a very supportive community to live and work, and has an incredibly encouraging climate for entrepreneurs and business owners.
Knowing Austin was poised for such growth and that Second Street was right in the middle of downtown, I was excited to be part of it. I have loved seeing how the area has grown and how Austin and tourists have enjoyed Second Street.
What they sell: Makeup
Address: 237 W. Second St.
I had been a makeup artist for years, but what made me want to create Rae Cosmetics? Easy. I was a sweaty girl. Not only was I active in the gym and outdoors, but I was doing it in Texas. For me, no makeup is not really an option. I like to wear makeup and feel better when I feel I look my best. But that was hard to do. I usually ended up looking like a hot mess. There had to be a better option. Sweaty girls want to look pretty, too.
Research. Lots of research. Talking to a lot of people. Getting a lot of advice. Making mistakes. Doing a lot of things that did not work out and starting over. Doing a few things right, then making more mistakes and starting over. Being scared but excited to learn and do more.
I am so thankful that I was fortunate enough to have lived in and started my business in Austin, Texas – a city that is so very supportive of entrepreneurship, for both women and men. I couldn’t have picked a better location for home base.
The Second Street District is such a vibrant area: shopping, restaurants, music, hotels, condos all in a small area. Everything you could need or want is in walking distance. I wanted the Rae Cosmetics headquarters to be right in the middle of all the fun and excitement. And selfishly I live here, so I can walk to the Rae studio.
What they sell: Jewelry
Address: 417 W. Second St.
From the age of 10, I saw my mom, an immigrant from India, as an entrepreneurial role model. She started her own jewelry store and I started working with her on my weekends, attending trade shows, merchandising, selling, etc. She told me from a very early age it was best to be your own boss and there was no limit to what you could build as an entrepreneur. After finishing up college on the East Coast, I moved to New York as a consultant. After one year, I knew that I was meant to go the entrepreneurial route. I started a tech services startup helping companies launch and grow. Eventually I went back to business school and that’s when I decided to put all my passions for business, the arts and travel together to launch Sikara.
I have been fortunate to travel to over 50 countries. That’s the way I learn about history and connect with the world and other cultures. I love capturing what I see through the camera lens and have always loved sharing these stories when I come back from my journeys. Since I grew up in the jewelry industry, I saw an opportunity when I was in business school to create an affordable luxury jewelry brand for the woman self-purchaser.
I wrote my business plan during graduate school. Of course, business environments change and new opportunities open up so we’ve been on a journey for 10 years that has taken us through many stages. We first started off with wholesale, and then in 2009 when the economy crashed, we opened seven pop-up stores across Austin, Boston and San Francisco and eventually had three permanent retail stores across these amazing cities. Most recently, we are looking at growing our online presence and looking at direct sales.
I don’t feel like I’ve had any special challenges due to my gender. The bigger challenge is more of an economic environmental shift from offline to online. Retail is changing and we are intending on moving with the trends.
We originally had our headquarters downtown at West Seventh and Rio Grande streets in one of the old heritage homes. We loved our space, but after our pop-up store on Second Street – in the current Numero 28 space – we realized that telling our travel story through a physical storefront was a must. We are able to showcase my travel photography and take people on a journey when they walk into our Second Street flagship store. And now that Austin has become such a hot destination and that downtown has developed so much, we get a heavily touristic client base. It’s great, as we can test designs and get a nice cross-section of America – and even an international clientele – coming through our store.