She’s the Boss: Four Seattle Businesswomen on International Women's Day

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Left to right: Jean Thompson (Seattle Chocolates), Shannon Perry (Sam Gherke), Adria Garcia (Sierra Stinson), Kristi Brown (Jenny Jimenez)

Large and small, women-owned businesses are no rarity in The Emerald City, but that doesn’t necessarily mean women have it easy. Ranked #56 of 100 in WalletHub’s 2016 Best and Worst Cities for Women-Owned Businesses, Seattle is solidly in the middle in terms of female entrepreneurship, overall new-business friendliness and business climates for women. It could be worse, but it could certainly be better. Even with the great many strides made in the past century, the economic gap is still not projected to close for a least another 100 years, according to the Global Gender Gap Report’s 2016 data.

Yet all across our city, female leaders are working to close that gap by pursuing meaningful work in all kinds of ways: from organizing marches and helping to ending youth homelessness to building their own businesses. In recognition of this year's International Women’s Day and its theme to "Be Bold For Change"—a call to action to help forge a better working, more gender-inclusive world—we spoke with four area female entrepreneurs about their role in Seattle's business community and their thoughts on some of the themes surrounding this year's International Women's Day. 

In response to A Day Without a Woman, "one-day demonstration of economic solidarity," if you can't avoid shopping today, consider supporting a small, woman- and/or minority-owned business.


Adria Garcia. Photo by Sierra Stinson  

Seattle Magazine: What inspired you to open your business?

Adria Garcia, owner of vintage clothing store, Indian Summer: I have always loved and worn vintage clothes, out of poverty, for the love of well made beautiful clothes, for the environment, the need for bizarre one of a kind glamour. I started selling in 1997 and have never stopped. Vintage is all encompassing for me, a way to express myself, express art, regalia, a political statement, a way to honor Mother Earth, and a way to boycott fast fashion.

Shannon Perry, owner of Valentine's Tattoo Co.: I needed a space to work that was free of the tattoo industry's typically male-dominated and macho tendencies, and I wanted to create a space for tattooers with alternative-style work.

Jean Thompson, owner of Seattle Chocolates: I was an early investor in Seattle Chocolates which was founded in 1992. At the time it was primarily a gift box business and sales were limited to the northwest and struggling to grow. I invested bigger after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake condemned our building and we were faced with a go or no-go decision on the future of the company; I became owner and shortly thereafter, CEO. I chose to invest money, time and heart into the company because I have always loved chocolate and thought Seattle Chocolates made a delicious product that was a well-hidden gem in Seattle. It had a lot of potential and just needed someone to take it on.

Kristi Brown, owner of That Brown Girl Cooks: I wanted to share my love of food with people, beyond my abilities [just] to cater. I wanted to create and play a game with big stakes, and create a brand that connects people and their families with healthy and sustainable food options.

SM: The theme of this year's International Women's Day is "Be Bold For Change." As a female business owner, how do you interpret the idea of "being bold," and how does it factor into your work?

KB: Honestly living in Seattle, being a successful black woman chef who cooks from a variety of cultures unapologetically, is bold all by itself. So when I show up to events to cook or to speak, I may be the first Black woman of my stature that people may have met. And my cooking and flavor are just as outspoken as me.

JT: I have never been afraid to take a risk, fail, learn and move forward, innovating and implementing without fear. I don’t believe it’s necessarily different as a female owner. I hear too often from others that “other people do this and it works for them, we should do that, too” and on the surface this is the safe route. I don’t believe it is safe; I think it’s doomed to fail and therefore, risky. How do you differentiate yourself if you act like everyone else? A recent example of boldly-going at Seattle Chocolates is investing in and entering retail at a time when all the research and news sources point to growth online and the shrinking of brick and mortar. It was true that our online business was growing faster than the rest of our business, but we had an opportunity to create a unique retail chocolate experience with the opening of a tour and we took the leap with The Experience Chocolate Tour in February.

SP: I suppose it was bold of me to open a tattoo shop without many years of professional experience—it's frowned upon within the tattoo community. However, my decision was borne more of necessity/opportunity than choice. I didn't feel that my work fit in with a lot of the shops in my area, and around the time I was looking for a place to work, I ended up having the right conversation at the right time, which led to me having the opportunity to move into Valentine's beautiful loft. There's no way I would have passed up the opportunity!

AG: Owing my own shop means I take risks with the things I buy to sell, I rely on my taste and hope others love what I'm doing. Owing my own business has meant feast or famine, living by my own motivation, knowing how to save and do the books and I have to rely on myself for all of my needs. Sharing my space and opening my life to others, that is bold to me: self sufficiency, self confidence, self trust. My business is a place that honors all genders, all sexualities, all bodies and a percentage of my profits go to a charity of my choice [like] Planned Parenthood, Standing Rock, punk rock camp for girls. My business model is about inclusion and social change through reused fashion, it's about connection with the community and about sharing my space with local artists and musicians, having group conversations and dinners in my backroom with a full kitchen and fireplace, as well as selling beautiful clothes, too. I realized a business should serve the community, be part of the community, not only provide a service, but better the neighborhood. There is no line between my political self and my business self, Women's issues, feminism, racial inclusion, body inclusion. I'm also a mother to a two-year-old and navigating how to work, care for my child's growing needs, my partner, time with friends and my art.

 

SM: And what about change? What are some of the ways your business has changed over time, and what are some of the ways it's changed you?

KB: In late 2009 after I closed my first business, That Brown Girl Catering, I had to really accept that although I am my business, my business is not me. That was a wakeup call, it meant that even though the business brand is built around "Kristi Brown" being the main representative of my brand, that doesn’t mean that without the business I don’t exist or don’t matter.  That lead me to truly embrace what matters the most; that I am excellently taken care of. I really gave myself the freedom to begin to define my own self.  No longer solely based on the belief of my family or my traditions but also the "Kristi" I’ve become.  I gave myself permission actually be me.


Kristi Brown. Photo by Jenny Jimenez

JT: Ultimately, chocolate is food that is meant to be shared. We have a deep commitment to giving back to our Pacific Northwest roots, while also supporting and donating to organizations that better the lives of American families, specifically groups dedicated to ending hunger here in the U.S. In 2012, we created the jcoco brand with a focus on feeding hungry families, at its core. For each jcoco bar sold, we donate a serving of fresh, healthy food to a family in need through food bank partners across the country. We also support this mission with our annual "every chocolate gives" campaign to raise donations to food banks at their busiest time of the year. To date, we have donated more than 1,500,000 servings of fresh food.

AG: I started with a love of clothes and styling, and through the years the clothing has been the lure that has introduced me to some of the most beautiful and important people to my life. Friends who have taught me more about social justice, changed the way I view society, the world and myself.

SP: For the first year, Valentine's Tattoo Co. was just me. I didn't initially intend to have co-workers, but loneliness and the opportunity to expand my space encouraged growth. Now the shop consists of four women, and though it's a ton of work to tattoo full time and manage the shop, it's the most rewarding journey I've ever embarked on. 


Shannon Perry. Photo by Kelly O

SM: This particular IWD, what are the issues—professionally and beyond—that matter to you?

SP: It's hard to pick a particular issue that matters most when it feels like there are so many fundamental rights under attack by the Trump administration. I'm most interested in trying to elevate the voices of POC, indigenous, immigrant, refugee and queer communities, because they are the most at risk for bigoted legislation and discrimination.

KB: I generally go with themes in my life. I pay attention to what I hear and see, there’s usually a concurrent theme that speaks to me. "Examine your privilege" is my strong suggestion to everyone right now. No matter your race, gender or beliefs. It is imperative that we all see how we have individually contributed to our current climate. 

JT: I want to see more women business owners; it’s the ideal lifestyle for a woman. Business ownership allows flexibility and freedom to working mothers, we get to call the shots, we get to choose the people we work with and use our instincts and interpersonal strengths in every aspect of our job. This requires banks and investors to take a chance on women in the role as owner. Overall, I want to see women celebrated for their strengths and differences and paid (at least) as much as their male counterparts. I would like to see everyone respect a woman’s choice to work or not after having children. I have experienced judgment on both sides of this choice. I stayed at home with my children for 11 years and often felt that people saw me as non-ambitious or idle. I’ve worked for 15 years while parenting, and sometimes felt judged as selfish or uncaring about my children. We are fortunate to have choices and we need to make the right decision for ourselves without judgment from society.

SM: In your experience, what's the best part of being a female business owner in Seattle? Anything that needs improvement?

JT: Seattle has a friendly, supportive community and is generally accepting of women in business. I still experience an occasional old school business leader who thinks I’m the administrative support at a meeting, but I love taking that assumption and turning it on its ear. It gives me the opportunity to tell them that I run a manufacturing plant in Washington state; something most of them have not done.

AG: This question is weird for me and I'm not sure how to answer it. Would it be different if I identified with another gender? I love running my own business, I love Seattle, I love being a woman.

SP: I'm not sure how to define my experience as a "woman business owner", because I've never had the opportunity to experience business ownership from a perspective other than my own. Not that I don't take pride in being a woman who owns a business, but I don't like to treat the fact that I am a woman in business as a novelty. Just the same as a lot of female musicians have been bucking the label of "female musician" in favor of just "musician." We need to dismantle the idea that the label "musician" (or "business owner") would typically infer that the person was male. I try not to dwell on hardships that come as a result of sexism, and keep marching forward. It's when I spend too much time focusing on those hardships that I become disheartened. I feel strongest when I expect equality. 

KB: The best part of being a female owned business is the amazing network of women doing phenomenal things that I get to call my community.


Jean Thompson. Photo courtesy of Seattle Chocolates

SM: What other female business owners in Seattle are being bold for change?

JT: Jody Hall of Cupcake Royale seized the opportunity brought about by the legalization of marijuana and opened a new business of edibles called The Goodship while continuing her Cupcake business. That was brave and bold and I’m happy to see she’s doing great.

AG: So many. Shannon Perry of Valentine's Tattoo, Davora Lindner and Camilla Eckersley of Prairie Underground, Sharon Arnold of Bridge Productions. This list could go on, but these particular women are really doing something new, fresh, interesting, inclusive, beautiful, meaningful. Business should serve the community, be part of the community, not only provide a service, but better the neighborhood.

KB: From Danyale Thomas Ross—the former owner of Good Hair Salon— to Louise Chernin of The Greater Seattle Business Association, I get the opportunity to watch these wonderful examples of leadership and learn from this incredible group of brave forward thinking women.

SP: Adria Garcia, owner of Indian Summer, a vintage clothing store on Capitol Hill, has been fostering a more body-positive fashion hub that provides cool vintage clothes in sizes that cater to folks who don't fit into society's waif-ish fashion standards. But waifs are welcome as well!  

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