Women in charge Female-owned businesses on rise in South Carolina

Angie Baker teaches ballet at DanceCarolina, which she started in 2005.

Kristin Fry wanted to start a home-based travel business so she could raise a family.

Susan Hull Walker wove a respect of different cultures into a clothing line.

Angie Baker turned her love of dance into a career.

The three Lowcountry residents are among a growing number of women who own businesses in South Carolina.

Since 1997, the number of female-owned firms in the Palmetto State has jumped 78.3 percent to 114,500, according to a new report from American Express Open, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That compares to the national change of 67.8 percent over the same period. There are now nearly 9.1 million firms headed by women in the U.S.

South Carolina is sixth in the nation in the number of women-owned firms, according to Julie Weeks, research adviser for American Express Open. Twenty-eight percent of all businesses in the state are owned by women. That compares to 30 percent nationally.

The reasons for the growth of women-owned businesses in South Carolina are twofold, according to Amy Brennan, executive director of the Center for Women in Charleston.

"Many of the organizations in South Carolina are small businesses that don't have large staffs," Brennan said. "On the other side there are not a lot of opportunities for women to advance either through gender bias or traditional ways of doing business," so they set up their own firms.

When women own their own businesses, Brennan said, "they control the amount of time they work and they have control over opportunities for advancement."

Christie MacConnell, director of the S.C. Women's Business Center, said money is another the reason more women step out on their own.

"Women can't find jobs that pay them (good) wages, and they are turning to starting their own business to earn a living wage," she said.

Besides having more businesses, sales at female-owned firms in S.C. also have grown by $5 billion, or 47.2 percent, over the past 17 years. That compares to a national rate of 72.3 percent.

Employment, though, remains virtually stagnant for firms headed by women.

That could be because of various factors, Brennan said.

Many businesses fail, for whatever reason, shortly after starting, she said. The economic downturn that started in late 2007 further stunted business growth for women- and men-owned businesses. Also, small businesses tend to start with a small workforce.

"Even though there has been an increase in the number of women-owned businesses in the past 17 years, there are still small businesses that don't have large staffs," she said.

Weeks, a Michigan-based research adviser, said the reason for flat growth in the number of people employed by women-owned businesses in S.C. is because many of them are relatively young. More established firms tend to grow and add staff, she said.

"Ninety percent of female-owned firms are one-person firms," Weeks said. "They are not adding jobs other than the job they are adding for themselves."

For Fry, Walker and Baker, that's especially true. For the most part, they are one-woman companies, though they might have a few helpers.

Fry started her business because she loves to travel and put together vacation packages for other people.

"I was trying to think of a business to start that would allow me to work from home and have a family," she said.

Fry, of the Daniel Island area, started The Shady Umbrella travel agency in 2009. She specializes in honeymoons and destination weddings.

The business is a good fit for the new mom. Her husband, Jason, works four days on, four days off at Nucor Steel, and now that they have a 7-month-old boy, Sutton, she can juggle being a mom with being a business owner from home. Her husband pitches in when not working, allowing her to focus on the travel business. "It allows me a lot of flexibility," she said.

In Mount Pleasant, Baker loved to dance but got tired of doing it part-time and working an office job, too.

"I worked limited hours and made a limited amount of money," Baker said. The Awendaw resident decided in 2005 to strike out on her own and form her own dance studio in Mount Pleasant.

Her firm, DanceCarolina now offers classes to 260 children ages 3-18 and some adults, and it grows each year.

"This way, I can get the administrative and corporate side ... but I still get to teach dance in one job," Baker said. "It is exactly what I wanted to do since I was a child."

Walker, a former minister who loves to travel, wanted to keep the tradition of handweaving alive by buying foreign-made items from women artisans in cooperatives in India, Madagascar, Mexico, Guatemala, Laos, Thailand, Ethiopia and Indonesia.

Her business, originally called Illoominata when it started two years ago, has morphed into a clothing, home textiles, pillows and accessories line called Ibu, which is a term of respect for women in the Malay language spoken in Indonesia.

Walker can hold some trunk shows from her downtown Charleston home but travels the nation showing her unique wares to would-be customers. She opened a pop-up shop briefly last year at a vacant space at King and Wentworth streets, but she wants to open her first, flagship retail store in Charleston. She's just not quite ready.

By keeping hand-weaving traditions going in foreign countries, she believes she is empowering women in not only maintaining cultural identities but helping them to become self-sufficient.

"When women begin to make money, they can make choices in their lives," Walker said. "They can get out of an abusive relationship if they have one. They spend what they make on their children to make their lives better. Financial independence leads to leadership and prosperity. It's important that they not leave these skills behind and go to work in a cellphone factory. Some are passing it down to their kids."

Walker bought a loom years ago and made items that have long since sold. "I could weave for the rest of my life, but I could never do what they do," she said.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524.