Back in business: EDC hears plan to create women-led companies

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Tanya Combs is pictured behind the counter of her consignment shop, Wise Buys, in Essex Jct. last week. (Photo by Tom Marble)

Tanya Combs is pictured behind the counter of her consignment shop, Wise Buys, in Essex Jct. last week. (Photo by Tom Marble)

When she opened her first store in Essex almost 25 years ago, Tanya Combs didn’t think it was the most business friendly place to grow her consignment shop.

Four and half years later, it closed. Combs spent the following 12 years saving to buy her own space and enrolled in a women’s small business course at Trinity College.

Today, her consignment shop, Wise Buys, is running full-throttle, and Combs has a new outlook on the Essex business community.

“It’s very different than years ago when I first started out,” Combs said.

Kristin Humbargar, founder of Living Room: Center for Positivity in Essex, wants to keep that trend going.

As part of a plan to encourage the creation, growth and support of women-led businesses in Essex, Humbargar presented the Essex Economic Development Commission with a preliminary plan November 14 to help the area transition into a hub of female-owned businesses.

“If what drives an economy is constantly trying to pull other people in from outside of your borders, you’re missing a huge opportunity,” Humbargar said.

That untapped potential, she said, lies in female entrepreneurs.

“Fifty-one percent of the Vermont working population is women,” Humbargar said.  “And only 9 percent of the revenue generated in Vermont is from [women-owned] businesses.”

In her plan, Humbargar outlined possible steps Essex could take to foster a climate that will attract female entrepreneurs and business owners. These include starting a Women Business Owners Network chapter in Essex, acknowledging businesses that keep women’s issues at the forefront of their business strategy and creating incentives and mentorships at female-owned businesses.

Humbargar said commissioners seemed receptive to the ideas. Commission chairman Greg Morgan agreed but said Humbargar’s independent initiative would be critical in implementing her plan.

“The role the town plays is trying to be supportive, but the staffing isn’t there to be directly involved,” Morgan said. “So it’s done largely by the people in the community and volunteers.”

Humbargar’s willingness to seek out other organizations for support also got the commission’s attention.

“She’s reached out to the women’s network in the state and seems to have established some really firm connections,” Morgan said. “I think it’s a great idea.”

Chandelle Johnson organizes counter space at her consignment shop, The Exchange, in Essex Jct.    (Photo by Tom Marble)

Chandelle Johnson organizes counter space at her consignment shop, The Exchange, in Essex Jct. (Photo by Tom Marble)

Lisa Danforth, a Waitsfield-based business strategist for female entrepreneurs, is one of those connections. As a consultant, she helps women create long-term, thriving businesses.

Danforth, who met Humbargar at a WBON meeting last month, will host a workshop at the Living Room on December 6 with information to help women grow and sustain their companies.

As a woman who has started four businesses, Danforth said she has faced obstacles unique to women in the workforce, particularly when it came to applying for a loan.

“I had to jump through more hoops,” she said. “I had to have my husband sign, which men don’t typically have to sign with a woman when they are getting a loan.”

Although women continue to face disadvantages in the business community, Chandelle Johnson, owner of The Exchange consignment shop in Essex, believes Essex is on heading in the right direction.

After 25 years working in retail sales, she has noticed a change.

“I find more respect,” she said. “I have definitely seen business for women and respect for women increase.”