Women in Business

The disappearing glass ceiling: Women-run entities rise in importance, numbers

coverLisa Leatherman wasn’t trying to prove a point when she joined Nantahala Power and Light in 1987, the company’s third-ever female meter reader. She wasn’t trying to make a statement by moving up through the ranks as a powerhouse operator, engineer, vegetation management worker, relicensing agent or, as of January 2013, district manager for Duke Energy. 

“I didn’t accept the job wanting to blaze some trail because I was a woman,” she said. “It was a job to do. I’ve generally always approached any job like that. I try to do it my absolute best.”

Evidently, that’s been a winning strategy, because the district manger job title comes with a lot of responsibility. The six-county jurisdiction covers all of North Carolina west of Haywood County, and the job description involves working with everyone from government officials to dissatisfied customers to grant applicants.

It’s a big job, but a conversation with Leatherman about the day-to-day involves a lot of sentences begun with the words “I can,” a confidence that comes from the varied portfolio of experiences she’s built over of the last 27 years. Working off a biology degree, Leatherman’s experience in varied facets of Nantahala Power and Light’s operations — her accomplishments include helping the company develop its own in-house mapping system of power lines and taps to help it pinpoint problems — has proven invaluable. 

“I got to really understand our power system in the Nantahala area,” she said. 

But then, she moved to Charlotte for her first job with Duke Power, as a hydro operator. Those six years were pivotal in a different sort of way. 

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“You had all kinds of professionals that were there and you had all kinds of female professionals,” Leatherman said. “We [Duke Power] had our first female president during that time.”

While at the beginning of her career there was nary a woman to be found in the utilities business — Leatherman oversaw an all male staff in her days as powerhouse operator — things were changing. It’s still a male-dominated business, but women are present, too. Of Duke’s 14 district managers in North Carolina, five are now women. Before, that number was zero. 


Main Street and beyond

Across industries, recent decades have seen a shift toward more and more women taking leadership in the business world, whether as entrepreneurs, business executives or leaders of boards and nonprofits. 

“As  I look through the membership list, I see more women in those positions, which 10 to 15 years ago were historically held by men,” said Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. 

Of the chamber’s more than 400 member businesses, 46 percent are either owned or managed by women, Spiro said. Those industries range from Main Street shops to Jackson Paper, one of the county’s largest employers, which has a female president and COO. 

It’s a different landscape from when Spiro, a Jackson County native, was growing up, or even from when she took the executive director job 15 years ago. Though she doesn’t have any hard numbers, her best guesstimate is that the number of female-owned or managed businesses in Jackson County is up about 20 percent from a decade ago.

Linda Harbuck, executive director of the Franklin Chamber of Commerce, says she’s seen a similar trend. The chamber doesn’t keep numbers on female versus male-owned businesses, but Harbuck reeled off a laundry list of businesses owned or managed by women, along Main Street and through town, selling everything from furniture to donuts to yarn to shaves. 

“I’ve noticed that there’s more and more women who are the executive directors or presidents of chambers of commerce,” said CeCe Hipps, executive director of the Haywood Chamber. “When I first started, there were very few women in those roles and even more so when it comes to economic development and government relationships. Those were typically areas that were male-oriented.”

Today, six of the seven chambers of commerce in The Smoky Mountain News’ coverage area have female executive directors. 


A nationwide trend

These aren’t trends that are limited to Western North Carolina. Between 1997 and 2014, the number of women-owned firms in the U.S. increased by 68 percent, one-and-a-half times the national average of 47 percent for all businesses, according to the 2014 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express OPEN. Over the entire 17-year period, an average of 591 women-owned businesses started each day. Women-owned firms — a statistic that includes only businesses with 51 percent or more female ownership — account for 30 percent of all enterprises. 

And North Carolina is at the head of that pack. According to the report, the state ranks ninth in the number of women-owned businesses, with 267,800 at the beginning of 2014, and it ranks third in overall growth since 1997. The state has seen a 91.4 percent increase in the number of women-owned firms since then. However, the state ranks 17th in overall economic clout of women-owned firms, as growth in firm revenues ranks only 41st, with 48.6 percent growth. 

The outlook will likely continue to be good for North Carolina women, said Andrea Harris, senior fellow in the N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development. 

“I would suspect that when the next census of women-owned businesses is released in the summer of next year, 2015, that we’re going to see — particularly in North Carolina, even around the country — significant growth in the number of women-owned firms,” she said. 

Some of that has to do with businesses that were started to add extra income during the recession expanding after experiencing success, some has to do with women being encouraged enough by the success of others to start their own venture, and some is still on the horizon as the aging baby boomer generation creates more opportunities for female businesswomen, particularly in North Carolina, where growth of retirement communities is one of the highest in the nation. 

In short, it’s increasingly common to be a woman at the helm of the business.


Bursting on the trout scene

But that’s not to say women in leadership don’t still encounter raised eyebrows. Sally Eason, 15 years into her role as CEO of Sunburst Trout Farms, has encountered more than a few of those in her time in management. 

“Nobody comes in and says, ‘Wow, you’re the CEO!’ but you can always tell,” Eason said. “They look at me and go, ‘Who’s in charge?’ I say, ‘Well, I guess I am.’”

She doesn’t get offended, though. 

“I think it’s fun.” 

Around since 1948, Sunburst is a family business, run by Eason and her husband Steve after Eason’s father handed it off. 

Sally and Steve took on the business just years before a wave of financial hardships almost ended in disaster for the trout farm. There was a pair of hurricanes in 2004, and in 2006 arsonists burned the farm to the ground, though not before stealing $100,000 worth of caviar. Then there were several years of bad disease caused by drought and hot weather, one year bad enough to kill all the fish. And earlier this year, Steve passed away, throwing Eason into total management of the farm overnight. 

Sunburst could have gone under, but it didn’t. In fact, it’s thriving. Eason and Charles Hudson, the company’s research and development chef, are now working on a consultancy branch of Sunburst, advising on aquaponic systems, business planning, grant writing, value-added product development and food safety protocols for selling seafood. They’re scoping out the possibility of building an aquaponic farm, and Eason’s daughter, Katie, is busy running Sunburst Market, a separate business from Sunburst Trout that sells local food products — including trout — in downtown Waynesville. And in the midst of all that, Eason’s also a part owner with her siblings of Lonesome Valley, a gated community in Cashiers featuring a top-notch restaurant, forests dotted with mountain homes and popularity as a wedding destination. 

Creativity accounts for a lot of that success. When weather-induced financial woes loomed, Sunburst turned to grant writing. 

“He [Hudson] wrote a grant that saved Sunburst in 2011-12, gave us the funding that we needed to get back on track,” Eason said. 

Then, after the money came through, the pair realized that “we had spent so much time away from the farm working on saving the farm that the farm could run by itself,” Eason said. Eason’s children had taken on enough leadership that Eason and Hudson could start expanding the business in other directions. 

There’s a lot of coordination and collaboration that goes on between the various members of the Eason family to keep its portfolio of businesses going. It’s part of Eason’s job to facilitate that cooperation, and she sees her gender as an asset, more than anything, in making that work. 

“I think women tend to manage from their heart a little bit more and men manage from their head. That’s probably true in lots of aspects,” Eason said. “I think you get more work out of people when you do it the way I do it.”


Serving more than pancakes 

Maybe there’s some truth to that, but Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House in Maggie Valley, has found that sometimes being a woman in management means that you have to tap into your assertive side more often than you might like. In her nearly 50 years on the job, her experience has been that sometimes women have to one-up what’s considered average in order to be taken seriously. 

“You have to be better. You can’t be average,” O’Keefe said. “You have to be superior. Or that’s the way I’ve seen it.”

O’Keefe can recount instances when salesmen asked to talk to her husband before she bought a car, or times when her speech has had to be on the verge of combative to get the point across. 

“It’s been an issue for me over the years,” she said. “Sometimes men would rather flirt with you than respect you.”

The men she speaks of, though, are those who handle the restaurant’s food orders or deliver the kitchen equipment, not the ones who work inside, or the one who started the whole thing. 

“I worked hand in hand with my husband, and my husband had absolute ultimate respect for women,” O’Keefe said. 

O’Keefe first arrived in Maggie Valley with her husband Joey, who has since passed away, when the pair took a summer off from their working lives in Florida to look at buying a hotel further north. They stopped in Maggie Valley on the way and noticed a restaurant for lease just down the road from Ghostown, which was then drawing 10,000 visitors a day. And, as O’Keefe knew quite well, when people go on vacation, they eat breakfast out. 

“We said, ‘You don’t have to be a rocket scientist,” O’Keefe said. “Breakfast, pancakes, and we’re going to make a lot of money.”

After that summer, Joey decided he was tired of being a hotel executive and tired of working year-round. The couple came back to Maggie, bought the restaurant and operated it as six-month-per-year venture. 

“I was a model, I thought I was someone special,” O’Keefe said. “Like a lot of people in Florida, I was kind of obnoxious. But learned so much right away from the young women I met who went to work for us.”

That first group of women, hired in the late 1960s, now includes some of O’Keefe’s closest friends. Children who came to Joey’s for the first time on vacation with their grandparents return as adults, bringing their own kids to make their own memories.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Is this really a restaurant I’m running?’” O’Keefe reflected. “It just seems like so much more.”


Over a glass of good wine

That’s what Maleah Pusz, who’s edging close to the one-year mark of business ownership, is hoping to build at Bosu’s Wine Shop in Waynesville. And it’s why, as much of a non sequitur as it might seem that someone with a master’s degree in teaching might decide to buy a wine shop, she feels that it’s the perfect fit. 

“Sharing a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a meal, a dinner — these things are very spiritual, and creating the experience for people to come and talk to each other and have the kinds of conversations that end up changing a worldview and [showing] what it feels like to be someone else, that’s all teaching can ever be,” she said while prepping for a wine and chocolate tasting at the shop. 

She and her mother, Denise Pusz, started a side business in chocolate-making about four years ago. At the time, Maleah Pusz had no idea that the wine shop was in her future, but now, as she gets ready to offer her guests her mother’s chocolates paired with wine, it makes perfect sense. Other ties have also surfaced as important, with Pusz’ relationship with businesses such as The Strand Theater and Sunburst Trout resulting in Strand popcorn served with champagne, Sunburst caviar paired with wine. 

Tony Gaddis, who Pusz met while working at Panacea Coffee Company after finishing her master’s, was another one of those important relationships. As the two got to talking, it became clear that they had the same passion for wine and for community. When a rumor began circulating that Bosu’s owner Bob Dune was thinking about retiring — and when the rumor proved true — it didn’t take long for Gaddis and Pusz to throw their hat in as business partners. 

They split ownership, 50-50, taking over in February. But not before spending a full year volunteering at the shop, getting to know the customers, the selection, the ins and outs of wine and what makes Bosu’s, Bosu’s. Pusz had eight different paying gigs that year, working at Panacea, The Strand, as a bookkeeper and for a winery in Argentina, for starters. 

“I basically did whatever I could do to learn as much as I could so that once I got behind the counter, when I shake your hand, I know what to do,” she said. 

It’s been a hard road, and there are still a lot of late nights, a lot of weeks when it seems like there are just not enough hours in the day to get it all done. But while it’s harder than she expected, Pusz says it’s also more fun. And like O’Keefe, who’s firm in her belief that she runs more than just a restaurant, Pusz knows she and Gaddis run more than just a retail store. 

“The first month that I was here by myself, someone came in and said, ‘I need wine to take to someone because it’s the last wine he will ever have.’ So we cried. We cried and then we picked out wine,” she recalled. “Then he came back and said, ‘That was really good.’”

That kind of relationship played out from the other side when Pusz lost her father just before the business sale went through. 

“Part of what I have learned about business is that it isn’t that you put on your stiff upper lip and you get through it,” she said. “It’s that I have the best job in the world because my customers are my friends.”

Those are all challenges and revelations that would be true of any new business owner, male or female. Though Pusz defines the wine business as a male-dominated one, she believes she’s benefited from being under Dune’s wing for so long, from having suppliers see her as someone who comes with Dune’s endorsement. She’s also seen some trouble from people who look askance on her age — Pusz is 27 — and question whether she’s really the one in charge. 


Momentum forward

But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to get the job done and leave gender language out of it. Success in business demands both stereotypically male and stereotypically female traits. 

“If you want to make generalizations, that [creating community] tends to be women’s work,” Pusz said, “but Tony [Gaddis] and I did all the demolition for our renovation by ourselves, 50-50.”

At the end of the day, the mark of a successful businesswoman is the ability to roll up the sleeves and get the job done, whether the obstacle be trout-killing drought, a complicated power outage, revenues and expenses that just aren’t panning out — or gender discrimination. 

“Coming up with $200,000 to pay bills was challenging and would be challenging for anybody,” Eason said of Sunburst’s particular dilemma. “It wouldn’t matter whether you were a woman or a man or a monkey.”

Because when it comes down to it, a woman in business is just a person in business, and businesspeople must be smart, firm and creative. When asked why it’s important to have women represented in the business world, all the women interviewed for this story had echoes of the same response — because, why not? 

As O’Keefe put it, “If a woman can do the job, give her the job. I’m not for displacing men from jobs in any way, but if a woman can do the job, give her the chance.”

There are still obstacles to that. 

The pay gap, for one. According to U.S. Census statistics compiled by the American Association of University Women, the average woman in the United States makes 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. North Carolina is better than the average, ranking 10th out of 51 with 83 percent earnings for women. In U.S. House District 10, the numbers are even a little better, with 84 percent earnings for women. 

But it’s still less, and Harris pointed out that it can also be harder for female entrepreneurs to come by the capital to get started. 

“I think access to market opportunities still becomes a challenge because we have oftentimes this mindset that ice that’s sold by men is colder than ice that’s sold by women,” she said. 

Still, the momentum is moving forward, if for no other reason than the encouragement that the girls who will grow up to lead the business world of the future derive from seeing the success of females around them. 

“There’s no reason why anyone can’t be what they want to be in this day and time,” Leatherman said, “male or female.”



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