Tracy Alaia of Trafford had always dreamed of owning a boutique, but she wanted it to be more than just a shop.
“I wanted it to be helpful to other artists,” said Alaia, who initially was going to have a paint studio, but that grew into a gift shop in downtown Irwin.
After developing a business plan she described as “pretty conservative” in terms of taking on debt to operate, she opened Feathers Artist Market & Gifts in downtown Irwin in 2017.
The 49-year-old Alaia is one of more than 13 million women who own businesses in the United States. That’s a huge leap from 50 years ago, when there were a little more than 400,000 women-owned businesses, according to the Small Business Administration.
With October recognized as National Women’s Small Business Month, the SBA has pointed out that 45% of all businesses in the United States were owned by women in 2019. Those enterprises generated $1.9 trillion in revenue. There were about 1,820 net new female-owned business opening each day across the country.
Nikki Saxion, who worked as a teenager in her uncle’s Italian restaurants in the Alle-Kiski Valley, did not envision she would become a restaurant owner.
But she took over a coffee shop in Leechburg, changed the name to CoCo Coffeehouse and added a kitchen to make meals.
“I guess it’s just in my blood,” Saxion said.
For Ashley Ralston Nicklaus, owner of Pawn & Jewelry Exchange, it was not in her blood to run a business. Her entry into entrepreneurship came when her first husband, Matthew Ralston, died in April 2013. He ran the Greensburg pawn shop.
“I was a stay-at-home mom,” Nicklaus said.
More women like Alaia, Nicklaus and Saxion have turned to Chatham University’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship over the past year, said Anne Schlicht, center director.
Some come because of a job loss during the pandemic. Others are reassessing their careers, and still others are seeking the flexibility of ownership.
The center is seeing an uptick in the number of women who want to start pet-related businesses, such as grooming, dog walking and doggie day care, Schlicht said.
Women who are seeking guidance from the Small Business Development Center at Saint Vincent College near Latrobe are branching out this year from the retail and service sector to other areas, such as veterinary businesses, engineering and occupational therapy, said James Kunkel, director of the center at Saint Vincent.
“It is very encouraging to see some inroads being made into other businesses,” said Kunkel, noting that women typically comprise about 45% of the clients in a year.
The pandemic raised challenges for all businesses, regardless of gender. Schlicht said that “for the past 18 months we’re working with businesses to stay alive, to keep their doors open and help them gain access to the federal programs.”
Business ownership for women has been made easier by access to capital, Kunkel said, particularly with the amount of CARES Act funding that was available.
Until 1988, women needed a male relative to co-sign if they wanted to apply for a business loan, the SBA said. That same year, the Women’s Business Ownership Act increased SBA’s access to capital to provide financial assistance to organizations geared toward women-owned small businesses.
“Availability of capital is significantly better than 10 years ago,” Kunkel said.
Nicklaus said her gender wasn’t an obstacle to gaining access to capital. Rather, it was about convincing a financial institution to lend money to a pawn shop, even though it is the only state-certified pawn shop in Westmoreland County.
The availability of capital, in the form of stimulus checks from the federal government, was both good and bad for business, Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus saw business drop for the pawn shop for a year or so during the pandemic. She believes that occurred because of the stimulus money families were receiving. Because of the stimulus checks, she said, people did not need to bring in jewelry or other possessions for short-term loans.
Female business owners raising young children also face the challenges of operating a business while caring for children.
Saxion, a single mother, said she juggles work and raising children, although it has become easier as they have grown older.
“You don’t take a day off,” said Alaia, who has three children.