Self-Starter Women: Part 1
Social Entrepreneurs in the Upper Midwest
Taking Risks: Repurposing Lives
After pursuing a career path in a traditional workplace, Lissa Carlson concluded that working for an employer wasn’t going to use her love of writing or provide the flexibility and growth she was seeking. “I started looking into what it would take to start my own publication,” Carlson says. Having “rather impulsively started up a coffee house magazine” shortly after college, Carlson had the confidence that she could do it, and within five months of her initial research, she had launched Coulee Parenting Connection in 2001. It is still the only parenting magazine for the Coulee Region, and Carlson is proud of the way it has helped expand family programming in La Crosse.
For Ana Skemp and her husband, the sacrifices of pursuing academic careers while each working on a Ph.D. didn’t seem to be leading to the kind of life they wanted. Skemp was in a prestigious program, being groomed for a successful career in science. But “we were working 80-hour weeks. If we weren’t in on the weekends, we essentially got scolded by our advisors,” she says. “Life is short, and you only have one shot at it, and if the path is not right you just have to immediately change and let go of anything that’s not working. So we moved back to La Crosse.”
Skemp’s searching eventually led her to establish Deep Roots Community Farm, an innovative, organic family farm that provides a wide range of educational programs. Deep Roots also collaborates with Grow La Crosse, connecting kids to healthy food and to nature.
Women have been starting up businesses at a higher rate than men for over 20 years. It turns out women are also more likely than men to start enterprises that they define as vehicles for social change or for improving the environment. Of course, people launch businesses and nonprofits for many personal, social, and economic reasons, and my interviews with ten women from the Coulee Region, the Twin Cities, and Madison showed this range. All of these women launched organizations, for-profit or not-for-profit, that had a social or environmental mission, putting their values and dreams into action in their livelihoods. Despite varied backgrounds, all of them are problem-solvers, risk-takers, and innovators who want their life’s work to connect to something larger than themselves and the task of making a living. They are contemporary examples of women social entrepreneurs.
From a historical perspective, these women are pathbreakers. The majority of women were denied access to male professions and leadership roles for most of recorded history. Even after many American women won the right to vote in 1920, discrimination in hiring and promotion on the basis of gender and race were legal in the U.S. until 1964.
Not until 1974 did women have full access to credit without discrimination, to do things like buy their own homes or get a business loan. Long considered inappropriate, or at best, secondary breadwinners, even today women still earn only about 77 percent of what men earn, and in Wisconsin, four out of five business owners are male. But thanks to feminist legal actions and social movements, women have greater opportunities to start their own ventures or to pursue just about every type of occupation.
Charting a New Path
The stories I collected for this project, as well as from the wide range of research on glass ceilings, pay gaps, and women’s growing interests in owning their own businesses, reveal some reasons why many women have stepped off traditional career paths. Women who choose to start their own ventures often actualize ideas they don’t see anyone else doing, and some advance social and environmental commitments through their work.
Kate Herzog abandoned a lucrative corporate career to found House of Talents in Minneapolis, a fair trade social enterprise connecting talented global artisans to consumers, addressing poverty while giving people dignity and hope. Herzog was a successful professional with strong business credentials and worked for Target Corporation after moving to the United States. She grew up in Ghana, spending part of her childhood living in someone else’s garage while her father pursued a college degree. Herzog had a keen sense of how her life opportunities were different from so many of the family and community members who still lived in Ghana.
Awareness of the real reasons people were in poverty stayed with Herzog throughout her time working for Target and having children. “Every time I make another milestone, I have to go back and think of all the other people who could be doing this, because I wasn’t very different from them,” she says. Kate always wanted to create more opportunities for people in countries like Ghana. “I think, in all of us, there is something that we have to answer to, otherwise we never find peace. For me I wanted to be able to tell the story of the other side of poverty where there is an enormous amount of dreams and aspirations and dignity and all of that. I wanted to be able to tell my story through others. That photo that you see of that child in torn clothing looking—what is the word that people use? ‘Impoverished?’ The word impoverished just makes me always cringe when I hear that; there’s so much ambition there.”
With her spouse’s encouragement, Herzog quit her corporate job and pursued her MBA while continuing to reflect on how she wanted to play a part in alleviating poverty. She didn’t want to tell people how to get out of poverty, however. “I wanted them to tell me how they thought that I could help to make their lives better.” She also wanted to empower people to be able to make mistakes as they found their own ways forward, and to “make decisions that they felt would take them from A to B, around the things in society that help people get out of poverty, which are education and economics.”
Once Herzog understood what she wanted to do and the resources she had to offer through her business knowledge and education, she decided she’d sell the creations of artisans. “I’m going to work with the poor who really are very good at what they do. So that is how House of Talents came to be.”
Embracing Unintentional Change
For Herzog, the decision to start House of Talents was very deliberate. For Skemp, forging her own way involved extricating herself from a path that had many benefits of traditional career success, including a highly skilled job with well-defined expertise and continued opportunities for growth. For other women, the opportunity to pursue a dream came at moments when their lives were already in flux, and they used those moments to try something new.
Heidi Andermack had been an arts activist, a freelance writer, a fundraiser, and a partner in her husband’s graphic design business, doing marketing and business management. She had many skills and she knew how to make things happen, like working with her community to salvage a building to create an arts center and develop an Arts Action Plan for her Minneapolis neighborhood. People in her community recognized her talents, but Andermack prized her independence and didn’t see herself in a traditional job.
Transitioning back to Minneapolis after a brief move away, Andermack grappled with finding a path that could provide a livelihood. “I wanted to build my family unit and I couldn’t” because of the cost of housing,” she says. She had started cooking and had talked with a friend about opening a restaurant, and she began seriously brainstorming with the friend’s sister. “We started having the same kind of fantasies together … about a restaurant. But we didn’t want to do a restaurant because running a restaurant is expensive to start and had huge overhead and a potential for failure. And we weren’t willing to go work in the kitchens around town with male-dominated, berating chefs. We knew how to cook. We knew how to cook good food that people liked. So we just started doing it.” They launched Chow Girls Catering.
Over time, Andermack and her business partner moved Chow Girls toward values of community and sustainability that Andermack had always held, and their business became the first Twin Cities company to offer locally sourced, organic catering. “I wanted to do quality food, and I knew it was a growth scene,” Andermack says. The decision dovetailed with related community investments, like Chow Girls’ donation of food to Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association events and serving on local nonprofit boards.
For La Crosse native Mandy Roush, too, a period of flux and reflection launched her on the path to owning a business that became the first of its kind in La Crosse. As a community health educator at a local hospital, Mandy enjoyed the challenge of her work, the diverse roles she played, and the projects she engaged in. But over time, she says, the business side of working in a large health care organization became more of her work than she wanted. She says she wanted to be “on the frontline with the patient,” to work directly with people, and to see the results of better health in people’s lives. “At the same time, I was not super happy, and at that time my own health was not great.” Mandy resigned and decided to run her family’s rental property business.
Still, Mandy “felt a calling to provide an outlet for people to find themselves and to grow mentally and physically through a yoga practice. It made such a tremendous impact in my own life that, when you love something, or when you have a deep connection with something, it’s natural you want to share it.”
La Crosse’s first hot yoga studio, Root Down Yoga, began in Mandy’s garage and grew into a successful and growing business on La Crosse’s north side. Root Down has distributed nearly $30,000 to local charities through its weekly Karma classes involving a volunteer teacher time and donated class fees.
For all these women, the pull of a larger vision—and a belief that they could make it a reality—fueled their success while also contributing to their communities. The next installment of this series will look at examples of women social entrepreneurs turning economic challenges into new opportunities that improve their communities.
Notes: Transcribed quotations from the interviews have been lightly edited for clarity. This research was made possible by a Faculty Research Grant from University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Jodi Vandenberg-Daves is a historian and professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. She is the author of Modern Motherhood: An American History (Rutgers University Press, 2014), and editor and co-author of Making History: A Guide to Historical Research Through the National History Day Program (ABC-Clio Schools, 2006), as well as numerous articles on women’s and educational history. Dr. Vandenberg-Daves serves as the director of the Greater La Crosse Area Diversity Council and is a member of La Crosse's Women Writers Ink.