Between the Lines: We’ve come a long way Vermillion – thanks to women

By David Lias

Describing the impression that I had while staring through my camera’s viewfinder Monday morning is a bit difficult.

I’d like to say it was simply an “aha moment,” – a time of sudden insight.

David Lias

David Lias

There was, after all, an immediate, fresh bit of comprehension as I focused in on 16 women, standing in single file, across Main Street in the heart of downtown Vermillion.

There was also a sense of disappointment. It had nothing to do with the weather (it was cold) or the lighting (partly cloudy) or the subject matter.

I was disappointed with myself. Disappointed in how I have somewhat taken these people for granted.

Downtown Vermillion is a lively place today, thanks to women.

Like downtown districts in virtually every South Dakota community, there have been times when the rows of shops lining Main and other downtown streets resembled a jack-o-lantern’s smile, with a vexing gap here and there caused by a vacant shop.

Fortunately, some Vermillion women have helped kept a strong presence on Vermillion’s Main Street over the years during both good and not so good times.

Yes, there are still a few empty spots downtown. But, getting back to that palm-slap moment that struck me so clearly Monday – downtown is currently thriving. The liveliness can be largely attributed to the entrepreneurial spirit of local women.

It’s a trend that Nancy Naeve of KSFY television couldn’t ignore, especially after a group of downtown businesswomen invited her to visit with them. Naeve, who attended the University of South Dakota here years ago, became familiar with downtown Vermillion’s strengths and weaknesses at that time.

While roaming Main Street Monday morning, she noted that the downtown business climate is much stronger now.

That strength comes from a strong entrepreneurial spirit in our community – and it turns out that a similar trend is growing across the country. Recent studies show women are exceptionally skilled at entrepreneurship.

The 2013 “State of Women-Owned Businesses Report,” a survey commissioned by American Express, found women own 8.6 million businesses in the U.S. That’s up 59 percent since 1997. These businesses account for 7.8 million employees and $1.3 trillion in revenue.

While the recession caused an overall slump in private-sector job growth, the report recognized women-owned businesses as “the only bright spot” for actually adding 175,000 jobs since 2007.

According to the report, there were 14,121 women-owned firms in South Dakota in 1997, that employed 14,323 people with total sales of $1.2 billion. By  2002, the number of businesses owned by South Dakota women grew to more than 15,500, employed more than 17,000 people and had total sales of $1.5 billion.

Women-owned South Dakota businesses numbered nearly 17,100 by 2007. They employed 17,120 people, and generated more than $2 billion in sales.

In 2013, according to survey estimates since the year is not yet complete, the number of women-owned businesses by the end of the year will total 19,000, and will employ 18,900. Total sales this year are predicted to total $2.6 billion.

Crunch all of these numbers and you come up with these trends: From 1997 through 2013, the number of women-owned businesses in our state has grown by nearly 35 percent. The number of people employed by these businesses during that time period has ticked up 32 percent.

Total sales by women-owned businesses over the past 16 years are expected to show a total growth of over 116 percent.

Wow.

South Dakota women, and particularly a number here in Vermillion, have forged ahead, ignored possible internal and external obstacles, took risks and challenged themselves.

They are the champions who have laid the groundwork for more female entrepreneurs. Their personal successes in a business climate that can be challenging could be all that it takes for that next woman with an idea to start a business here in Vermillion – next week, next month, next year.

This is a trend that would be lauded by any community, and it’s certainly not something that should be taken for granted here.

Vermillion women have always, to some degree, provided a unique influence to the local business climate. A traditional career path for some has included working side by side with husbands or other relatives in family-owned businesses.

Business opportunities for past generations of women in Vermillion have, just like elsewhere in the United States, not been as plentiful as they’ve been for men.

The survey above, however, indicates that those times are changing. Women, it appears, are making progress in knocking down barriers in the workplace by creating their own businesses.

For South Dakota and the Vermillion community, that is indeed good news.

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