By David Lias
The growing influence of women entrepreneurs in downtown Vermillion was noticed immediately by Nancy Naeve of Sioux Falls television station KSFY as she and a cameraman visited the community Monday.
Naeve was responding to an invitation she received from Bekki Engquist-Schroeder, owner-operator of The Spa at Wynie Mae’s, located downtown at 120 West Main.
Naeve said she followed up with a call to the Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company, who also noted that a good portion of community’s downtown business sector is owned or operated by women.
“They (the Chamber) also said that while that is one factor, a second factor is that downtown is thriving,” Naeve said. “So many downtowns have empty businesses or empty buildings, and Vermillion’s downtown is thriving.
“Not only are the women owning their businesses or getting involved in the community, they are also serving on the city council, they are active on various boards, and in the Chamber,” Naeve said, “and I think, as a woman who graduated from USD and who loves Vermillion, that that is a great story.”
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.
The study also shows that women entrepreneurs in South Dakota have made remarkable progress in business start-ups for more than a decade.
“It is a man’s world, it is. And I think it’s unusual to see so many women stepping out,” Naeve said, adding that along with making the decision to begin a business, they have decided to take a personal and financial risk.
“To own a business – that’s a huge commitment,” she said.
To help illustrate the story for television, more than a dozen Vermillion women business owners/operators stood in a line across Main Street. The scene, Naeve said, has a lot of impact.
“I think people assume that most of the businesses are owned my men,” Naeve said. “I think it’s great that you don’t know, until you see them out like that, that they are successful.
Naeve, a graduate of USD, remembers when downtown Vermillion lacked the vitality it demonstrates today.
“For me, to be here and see how much it’s thriving – I love this community, I have the best memories from here and I still come here for D-Days,” she said. “I was so happy to see all of those women … and I love that they are teaching other young girls who are going to school here or growing up here that you can do anything. I love women who are empowering other women.”
That’s a message that Engquist-Schroeder hopes to spread. Along with operating The Spa at Wynie Mae’s, she also plays a leadership role in the Vermillion Downtown Action Team, which has been successful in its efforts to make the downtown area the center of more retail and cultural events.
“We just want to show the next generation of women, to kind of mentor them, to let them know that they can do this, too,” she said. “We need to keep this momentum going – women are stepping out and doing their own thing … many of us have had to make sacrifices, but it’s totally worth it, and it’s so exciting.”
“Vermillion is unique in a lot of ways, but our downtown is really bucking a lot of trends,” said Steve Howe, executive director of the Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company. “You see so many downtowns that are failing in smaller communities.”
Operating a business is a challenge, he said, with so many shopping options available in the tri-state area around Vermillion.
“With those options, it would seem that downtown Vermillion would be ripe to die, and we’ve really bucked that trend,” Howe said. “We’re seeing a really, really vibrant downtown, and part of that is due to the commitment from female business owners.”
Like Naeve, Howe noted that business is a male-dominated career path.
“The typical profile, when talking about people who start-up new businesses, usually centers around men,” he said. “In Vermillion, I think it’s very unique that we have so many business owners who are female. They are bright and aggressive and trying to find ways to get people to be aware of their businesses.
“They have also worked very hard at getting to know their marketplace,” Howe said. “These women are adapting their businesses, and being aggressive while understanding what the marketplace wants and needs.”