Women small-business owners uplifted at entrepreneur event

Poignant stories of challenge and success, and encouraging words of advice and support flowed freely at a recent event that drew more than 100 women who are either thinking about or who have started their own business.

Women Entrepreneurs of the 21st Century was held May 6 at the Flamingo Resort & Spa with Keynote Speaker Elizabeth Gore, the entrepreneur-in-residence at Dell, Tara Sharp, chief marketing officer at Sonic, and two panels of successful women entrepreneurs who recounted their inspirational stories.

The gathering is part a year-long effort by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board to reach out to small business entrepreneurs with events and workshops, and connecting them with resources. The event was sponsored by Summit State Bank and organized by the Small Business Resource Network (SBRN), which consists of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, North Bay Black Chamber of Commerce, Small Business Development Center, Latino Service Providers, Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County, La Luz Center and the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

Sonoma County’s Year of the Entrepreneur ( is partnering with public and private supporters for upcoming hackathons and a speaker series launching June 23 with Neal Gottlieb, founder of Three Twins Ice Cream, and Lyn Graft, founder and CEO, LG Pictures.

The May 6 event targeted women, encouraging them to move forward with their business venture ideas.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane gave a shout out to the handful of men in the room for their attendance and support, and also delivered some statistics: There are 9.9 million women-owned businesses in the U.S. that generate $1.6 trillion in annual revenue. From 2007-2012, Hispanic women-owned businesses grew by 87 percent, and African American women-owned businesses grew by 68 percent. And in Sonoma County, for every 100 residents, there are 3.43 women-owned business.

“We are a force to be reckoned with,” Zane stated.

While women entrepreneurs face some of the same challenges that men do, like securing start-up funding, they also have a tougher time of it.

According to the National Women’s Business Council, women business owners get 2 percent of their funding from outside equity, compared to 15 percent of men-owned counterparts.

Another part of the picture is a confidence gap. Women need to get better at a couple of things, Gore said; asking for what they need, and taking financial risk.

Serafina Palandech is president and co-founder Hip Chick Farms. Mothers in the room attested that their children are “addicted” to the company’s organic chicken nuggets. Palandech and her partner, Jennifer Johnson, run the successful business from their farm in Sebastopol.

When it comes to finding money, she said it pays to be scrappy.

“I have done everything. On a bad day - we thought we might lose our farm - I was up late at night Googling rich people to ask for money. Never take ‘no’ for an answer,” Palandech said.

Gore, who also chairs the United Nations Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurs Council, pointed out that women go into business for different reasons than men. Women start a business because they see a need. Asked if she wanted to go into business either to make a billion dollars, or to supply all refugees in Africa with a vaccine, that question needed no answer.

“Women put purpose into profit and care primarily about service. They start businesses that support the planet and its people,” Gore said.

While the unicorn is the symbol for start-up companies valued at more than $1 billion, Gore proclaimed the phoenix as the symbol for women entrepreneurs, citing their strength and capacity for compassion.

“With wings on our back we will rise up and create our own path,” she said. “Just accounting for capital doesn’t fit in today’s ecosystem for entrepreneurs. It’s not all about how much money you make.”

Teresita Fernandez is the owner of three ice cream parlors across the North Bay, called La Michoacana. She spoke about her terror at going to the county permitting office. After being given a stack of papers to fill out she sat in her car and cried because she didn’t understand the technical language of the process. She bolstered her strength, however, and fighting back tears went back into the office and asked for help. The clerk led her to the manager’s office, who sat down with her and went over everything she needed.

Then, Fernandez opened her business in 2008 during the economic downturn, despite people telling her the timing was bad. But her intention was to offer people something pleasurable and fun. “It worked because it was something people could afford. Maybe they couldn’t take their family on vacation, but they could go to the ice cream parlor,” she said. “I wanted to give pleasure and fun, and even in hard times, it worked.”

Intention, and listening to your gut are very important, she said, and Gore concurred.

“We hesitate. We want to collect all the data to find the best answer. With a start-up you need to answer quicker. Show the world unabashedly what’s in your gut. Nobody knows you better than you,” Gore said. “Don’t be afraid, it (the business) is a creature that gives back.”

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