Small towns, BIG opportunities

Road trip? 
Ely is 240 miles north of the Twin Cities on Highway 169; Owatonna is 65 miles south of the Twin Cities on I-35.

“Ely is the end of the road. There is no place to go except out on a canoe,” said Thea Sheldon, a certified life coach who does her work from the small northern Minnesota town. One look at a map and it’s easy to see she is telling the truth. Though three state highways feed into Ely, only smaller roads lead the way out. The town is a launch pad for excursions into the wilderness of the Boundary Waters. Ely has fewer than 4,000 residents, yet Sheldon has built a successful business here. How? Does every resident of Ely see Sheldon for life coaching sessions?

No. In fact, Sheldon’s business, The Prime of Life Coaching, strictly focuses on counseling women aged 50 and older. “I couldn’t do my work without technology,” Sheldon said. “I use the telephone, Internet and email to keep myself connected.” Technology has helped Sheldon bolster her coaching business and secure the small town, northwoods lifestyle for which she had longed. “I left the metro in 1995,” she explained. “I was 49 years old. I had always wanted to be here in Ely. I loved the landscape and the people.” There is a downside to her reliance on technology, however. “Now I’m in my office all day, alone on the phone and Internet. I needed interaction,” Sheldon confessed.

To secure that interaction, Sheldon decided to create some social groups for local businesswomen. Unlike many small towns across America, Ely has yet to do battle with a big-box retailer. This means Ely is full of small businesses, many of which are run by women. According to the Ely Chamber of Commerce, women own more than 20 businesses in town.

Sheldon knew that if she could gather even a portion of those women in one room, she could make friends, find support and help others do the same. She planned a monthly event, dubbed the Women’s Soiree, which has taken off. “There’s no agenda, no program. There is gourmet food, punch and wine,” Sheldon explained. “It’s a time for women to meet and get connected to resources.”

Wendy Lindsay and her husband co-own the Ely Pebble Spa. Lindsay participates in the Women’s Soiree and another smaller, tightly focused group Sheldon formed called a “Success Circle.” Lindsay, who moved to Ely from Seattle three years ago, said it’s taken time for her to acclimate to Ely’s business climate. “In the city,” Lindsay explained, “I went about my work with no support from anyone. There was a division between my job and my personal life. But in Ely, I’m a walking advertisement of my business. Every time I go to the grocery store I have to be presentable and nice.”

Being a part of the Success Circle, Lindsay said, “… has helped me create a better focus for my business. It’s not quite so overwhelming anymore. The group has helped me see that I need to focus on a certain demographic.

“And it’s nice,” she continued, “that we can all relate to one another. We are all business owners and because we run around so much during the day, we don’t usually have time to stop by each other’s business. It’s good to check in and see how everyone is doing.”

Next door to the Ely Pebble Spa is The Secret Sisters Boutique, owned by Marcia Chambers, Susan Replogle and Autumn Cole. All three participate in Chamber of Commerce events and Women’s Soirees. Chambers credits her success and that of many of Ely’s small businesses to the town’s unique atmosphere. “The reality of it is that there are no corporate jobs in town,” she said. “There’s work. There’s opportunity. It is easier to meet people in Ely. You talk with others and sparks fly. The ideas get moving. You see other people starting businesses and you think you can do it, too.”

Deborah Sussex, owner of Deborah Sussex Photography, agreed that there is something special about Ely and the people who choose to call it home. “Ely people, if I were to generalize, are very independent. They’re reclusive by nature, they plug away on their own,” she said. “The kind of people who migrate here are highly motivated. It is really clear when you move here that if you’re not willing to be creative, if you’re not willing to persevere in a fluctuating business economy, you’re not going to make it. You really do have to want it bad if you’re going to live in Ely.

“People are accustomed to seeing women in business up here,” Sussex said. She doesn’t think gender played a role in determining whether she would receive a low-interest business loan through the city to renovate an old house into a storefront studio and gallery. Instead, a real challenge she does face is connecting with other photographers. “There are not many people doing what I do up here. I do need to talk to other photographers and I’m forced to go outside my community to do that,” she said, explaining that she networks with other photographers via the Internet and two trade organizations. Yet staying connected with local women business owners keeps her grounded in Ely, which is why Sussex also participates in the Women’s Soirees and the Success Circle.

Three hundred miles south of Ely, the southern Minnesota town of Owatonna has 81 women business owners, according to the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce. Though that isn’t a huge percentage-there are 191 male-owned businesses-it’s significant progress, said Sue Pap, who, along with her business partner, owns four Subway franchises and Central Park Coffee Company. “There’s been such a growth in women-owned retail businesses in the last 15 years. It’s so commonplace today [for women to own businesses] that there are almost as many women Chamber of Commerce Ambassadors [a leadership group elected from members of the Chamber’s board of directors] as there are men.” It’s a successful group, Pap said, who, in their role as ambassadors, make more PR contacts with other businesses than their male counterparts. “I’ve been an ambassador for 12 years,” Pap said. “Women have been allowed to be ambassadors for about 15 years. Some good old boys will say that they wish we still weren’t.” When asked if the men are joking or serious, Pap said, “Serious.”

Pap thinks it’s easier for women to lead in privately owned, especially locally owned, businesses than in large corporations. Owatonna’s seen a number of big-box retailers spring up on the edge of town.

Downtown businesses have fought back by creating a group called the Downtown Business Partnership. Norma Louis, who owns Banbury Cross gift boutique, is a member of the downtown partnership, which includes many women business owners. “We’re all really focused on keeping the downtown alive and nurturing it,” she said.

“Downtown is charming, clean, pretty, friendly. It’s wonderful,” Louis explained. “When I opened my shop three years ago, there was no place I wanted to be in town but here.”

As a member of the downtown business partnership, Louis has found nothing but ” … absolute, 100 percent support,” she said. She called other members “exceedingly helpful.” Louis is especially mindful of one unspoken rule: “This is a small town,” she said, “and you do have to be careful to respect each other’s boundaries. When I am looking at new merchandise, I always ask, ‘Does anyone in Owatonna buy from you?’ If so, I walk away. I need to. This makes sure that everyone is a little unique and different.”

Kristi Larson, who owns Kristi’s, a clothing and jewelry boutique, said that the women of the downtown business partnership share camaraderie. “This morning Norma popped in to say, ‘How’s it going? How’s your week going? Saturday was slow, wasn’t it?’ I might do the same thing … we wouldn’t pop into a man’s shop and say that. I do see us supporting each other in business, even if we’re not necessarily friends outside of work.”

Kathy Purdie is a former president and longtime member of the Steele County chapter of the Business and Professional Women’s Club (BPW), which includes Owatonna. For 36 years, Purdie ran a beauty salon out of her home; now she is a Re/Max real estate agent. The Steele County BPW meets monthly. Each year, Purdie said, it elects a Woman of Achievement and a Woman of the Year from among its ranks. It also grants four scholarships a year, two to women who are nontraditional students returning to school.

“It’s a nice place to network and get ideas,” Purdie said. “Women are gatherers. Women are nurturers. It’s normal for women to discuss their lives-personal or professional. Women tend to talk to each other and BPW provides a place for them to get out away from work and do that.”

Sonya Arndt, owner of Gone Beadin’ bead shop, agreed that women need to get away to a place they can call their own. She has worked hard to create an atmosphere that caters to women customers. She said that customer service is key to success in a small town. That means opening up if it’s after hours and a customer comes by, tracking down special requests, and more. She spoke for many business owners when Arndt said, “otherwise, a customer might just as well go to Wal-Mart.”

In addition to supporting other women, a common thread among women business owners is the importance of community involvement-whether it’s formal, such as Pap’s work with the Chamber of Commerce, or informal, such as Arndt’s policy of giving free beads to kids who make the honor roll. “I believe in giving back to my community,” Arndt said. “I run a business here, but I live here, too.”

Road trip?
Ely is 240 miles north of the Twin Cities on Highway 169; Owatonna is 65 miles south of the Twin Cities on I-35.