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Women-led businesses find support in Rochester

Submitted by Amaris Elliott-Engel on Sun, 10/15/2017 - 10:44

Here is a recent piece I wrote for the Rochester Business Journal:

The Rochester region is open for business for women-owned enterprises, and several local female business leaders report that they have been able to find success for their companies no matter what type of industry they work in.

“The (Rochester business) climate is on fire for women,” says Lauren Dixon, chief executive officer of Victor-based ad agency Dixon Schwabl.

Dixon says that unlike some other communities, Rochester is “super-supportive of women and women-owned businesses. The mentoring and support that is going on in this community—in many other communities it is not going on to the extent that it is here.”

Tracy Scalen, president and co-owner of Rochester-based supply company Regional Distributors, says that women-led businesses can’t expect favoritism. At the same time, she says women-led businesses are not meeting prejudice, for example, because a majority shareholder at Regional Distributors is overseeing finance, human resources and receivables and payables.

“Our customers don’t care that I am a woman,” Scalen says. “They care that they get the best product at the best price with the best service.”

Christine “Chris” Whitman, the current chairman and CEO of Rochester-based package-fulfillment company Complemar, agrees.

“Rochester is very open,” she says. “There is a desire on the part of many companies to be able to find minority- and women-owned businesses to be able to provide services. I encourage both minorities and women to think about being entrepreneurs.”

While there is generally a positive climate for women-owned businesses in the Rochester region, some local women business owners say that they still face hesitancy from some quarters on doing business with them.

Sitima Fowler, co-CEO of Fairport-based Capstone Information Technologies, says that as a woman in the technology world “you have to prove yourself and show you do know what you’re talking about. That’s OK. I’m ready to work twice as hard as everyone else.”

Fowler’s spouse and co-CEO, Michael, once filled in for her on a sales call at the last minute. The potential customer indicated thankfulness that Fowler, an Indian-American, hadn’t been the one to make the call out of concern that she would have a thick accent and could not be understood, she recounts.

The lesson Fowler says she learned was that “there are people out there who are afraid to call us because they don’t think they understand us.” As a result, Capstone, which provides IT and cybersecurity services to small and medium businesses, started branding with both of the Fowlers.

Fowler, who is an electrical engineer by training, said that when she joined Capstone as co-CEO in 2006 her charge was to grow the business. She knew how to use project management to solve engineering problems, but she didn’t know how to make the phone ring with new business. So she studied up on marketing and sales, and she collected testimonials from clients as well. She developed a strategy of email blasts, social media posts and going to network events. Slowly and surely, Capstone grew to join the top 100 businesses of Rochester.

Fowler advises women to seek out the mentorship of other women and to launch their businesses without worrying if everything is perfect with them.

“Don’t worry if your product or service is 100-percent perfect,” Fowler says. “The hardest part is getting someone to buy it. Even if your product or service is halfway baked, once you start selling it you’re going to figure out how to sell it.”

Whitman agrees with Fowler that the tech world, in particular, has prejudices about women’s capacity to lead such businesses. But she thinks women can surmount that because success breeds opportunity.

Women entrepreneurs need to focus on the one thing they need to do to deliver effective results.

“If you’re bringing a solution to the table, companies will work with you,” says Whitman, who has grown several businesses throughout her career. She became CEO of one supplier of equipment for semiconductor and date-storage companies and led it into a successful acquisition by a competitor. As a partner in investment firm CSW Associates, Whitman also has invested in several tech startups and now is the CEO of Complemar in order to turn around the company.

Some women-owned businesses experience mixed results with the usefulness of being certified as a women-owned business, which qualifies them for the portion of New York State government contracts dedicated to women-owned and minority-owned enterprises.

David Scalen, vice president and co-owner of Regional Distributors, says that some women entrepreneurs who thought they would get a “marketing lead from their WBE status” probably have been disappointed. Regional Distributors has found that many of its competitors have figured out a way to skirt the state regulations regarding women-owned and minority-owned businesses, he says.

In contrast, Dixon says that becoming certified as a women-owned business has helped out Dixon Schwabl “by leaps and bounds,” including getting contracts involving the New York State Fair, for the del Lago Resort and Casino and for the World Canal Conference.

Another challenge for women-owned businesses is the balance between work and family, local business owners say, especially because many of their businesses are family-owned.

“The biggest challenge of running a woman-owned business is really striking that balance and not beating myself up if things don’t go as planned,” Dixon says. “If you have a bad day, there will be a good one tomorrow.”

Tracy Scalen says that her business wants its employees to put their families before work, adding that she and her husband have a saying: The top three things for every Regional Distributor employee should be God, family and work.

“If we’re number three on the list and they do the best when they’re at work, we can’t ask for more,” she says.

Amaris Elliott-Engel is a Rochester area freelance writer.