Self-Starter Women: Parts 2 & 3

Social Entrepreneurs in the Upper Midwest

Jodi Vandenberg-Daves

About this 3-part series: Traditional workplaces don’t work for every woman with ambitions, perhaps especially for women who want to innovate, who want the autonomy to pursue their own projects, and who don’t feel they fit well within hierarchical structures or tightly defined job descriptions. Some of these women become social entrepreneurs, creating their own organizations to make social change while also earning a living. This three-part series focuses on women in the Upper Midwest who have done just that, contributing significantly to the vibrancy and well-being of our communities.  
Part II: Lemons from Lemonade: Women Social Entrepreneurs in a Tough Economy
Jill Hayes. Photo Contributed.
Jill Hayes. Photo Contributed.

Jill Hayes, one of the youngest women I interviewed for my project on women social entrepreneurs, found her path as a result of the acute frustrations felt by her generation of college graduates who were trying to use their degrees for professional work as they hit the job market in the depths of the Great Recession. As a college student at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse, Hayes had been passionately involved in Awareness Through Performance, a social justice theater project pioneered at UWL. “I learned so much about diversity issues and had the opportunity to get to know people on a one-to-one basis, face-to-face, in that space where conversations and authenticity can happen.” She was hired by UWL to expand the program, including to local schools.

When the program’s funding was cut, Hayes struggled to find a job. “It really came down to whether I was going to get a job for the sake of having a job, or if I was going to find a way to do what I really wanted to do. I probably applied to 100 nonprofit organizations and maybe had five interviews and didn’t get a job.”

Six months after graduating, Hayes finally got a job offer as a flight attendant but was uninspired by the work. “While I was thankful to have any sort of job in that job market, ultimately I wanted to spend my time doing something meaningful.”
Hayes and two friends still wanted to expand the Awareness Through Performance model. Although they lacked a business background, Hayes and her friends researched community resources and models, sought out free legal advice, and educated themselves. Within a year of Hayes’ graduation, they founded EDIT “to empower youth to promote equity, diversity, and inclusion together in our communities through service learning, leadership, and the arts.” The Minneapolis-based organization served over 600 participants over the course of its eight years as a non-profit. Two of EDIT’s program facilitators continue to work at a community partner organization, bringing with them the values and skills they gained from their time at EDIT. Since closing EDIT, Jill and her husband Ben have turned their attention to two private sector businesses: Lucid Wood, which specializes in iconic and custom wood photography, and Homespun, a home decor and gift store in South Minneapolis featuring products made exclusively by Minnesota artists.

To grow the program, Hayes and her cofounders all worked part-time jobs and put the rest of their time into their budding project. With no capital start-up funds, they held a fundraiser and raised a little more than their $750 goal, the cost of filing the paperwork to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Hayes eventually pursued her nonprofit management degree to gain more skills. It took about two years for the founders to be able to pay themselves anything, but it was always the mission, not the money, that drove them. EDIT became “a creative outlet for the ideas I had for social change and helping the community. The sense of accomplishment I felt in that was part of my identity.”

Similarly, Jillian Varney made her way as a young woman with limited networks and resources into developing her own version of a model she admired: the community supported agriculture (CSA) model. “I was a young person looking for something to do with my life,” she says. She spent six years working on farms in the U.S. and internationally, and in Chicago, she worked with a large CSA operation. The CSA model, she says, “looked like a financially stable way to get into farming to me at the time. I did the farm tours and the potlucks. I just kind of fell in love with the idea of CSA, and then, even though I’m young, I just thought I wanted to try it.”

With technical help from her sister, childcare assistance from her mother, and the support of what she calls a large “organic community,” Varney and her husband developed Small Family Farm CSA, located on a picturesque ridgetop between Westby and La Farge, Wisconsin. Their CSA provides local, organic vegetables to families in the La Crosse area and participates in the FairShare CSA Coalition, a Madison-based nonprofit organization that connects Wisconsin CSA farms with consumers and. Small Family Farm also operates a program to provide low-income families with access to CSA shares, and they have a program in which members trade work hours for a CSA share. For Varney, it all adds up a sense of participation in an important mission. And for her family, including her young children, “it’s a good life.”

Resourceful Re-Imagining

Susan Noble. Photo Contributed.
Susan Noble. Photo Contributed.

In nearby Viroqua, Wisconsin, Susan Noble found a way to seize an opportunity for her community and meet economic needs in an innovative way, and it’s become a project to which she’s dedicated her heart and soul.
The project grew out of a community economic crisis. In 2009, the small community of Viroqua suffered a devastating loss when the National Cash Register company closed, eliminating 81 jobs. “That was when stores were closing downtown, employers were laying off people,” says Noble. “Many people had worked for 30 years at this company and did not have other options.” Noble felt strongly that “if there was a facility to help businesses start and could help them beyond just a bank loan, we could have a very thriving community.”

At the time, Noble was the leader of a fledgling nonprofit, the Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA). Owning a building was not in VEDA’s strategic plan, but they recognized the opportunity’s great potential for community economic improvement. Overcoming many obstacles, Noble negotiated for the 100,000 square foot building abandoned by National Cash Register and secured millions of dollars from both federal and regional sources, including area banks, to open the Food Enterprise Center in 2012. The center is dedicated to housing local businesses focused on food, health, and well-being, a mission that has attracted businesses that employ fair trade practices, sell organic products, and earmark percentages of profit to local communities.

Throughout the long process, Noble had faith in herself, her ideas, and her community. She had an uphill battle convincing some community economic leaders who wanted to throw their energy behind the old model of attracting another multinational corporation. “I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” Noble says. “I’ve lived on soft money for 20 years, so I’ve always created a project that helped articulate a vision, whether it’s mine or one I’m facilitating.”

Noble has used that autonomy and vision to house 18 tenants in the Food Enterprise Center, located in Viroqua, including the Fifth Season Cooperative, which she helped launch in 2010 to connect regional companies with local food. And she is very proud of the small businesses thriving in the Food Enterprise Center. Unlike the last large corporation, which stayed in Viroqua just a year, Noble says, “These tenants are involved in the local schools, in the Rotary, in the PTOs. They are people who stay in your community and build your community.”

Creating community and purpose out of economic adversity, these women social entrepreneurs have shown the way through their social imagination, risk-taking, and determination. In the next installment of this series, women social entrepreneurs share more detail about the rewards and sense of purpose their organizations provide.

Part III: Growing Connections and Improving Communities: Women Social Entrepreneurs Reflect on the Meaning of their Work
Kelly Parks-Snider. Photo Contributed.
Kelly Parks-Snider. Photo Contributed.

The sense of purpose felt by the women I interviewed for this project is powerful. For example, Madison-based Kelly Parks-Snider, who founded Project Girl with Jane Bartell, works to give girls an outlet to critique media representations of girls through art. She sees this work as a way to build a bridge to the next generation. Young people, she says, “have to feel that purpose in their own life, but the community has to give them that space to be successful, and they can’t do it alone.”

Parks-Snider’s comments are echoed in the voices of others of the other women I’ve highlighted in this three-part series. Many of them have created spaces, literally or figuratively, for new voices and talents to try things out: for diverse young storytellers in Jilly Hayes’ EDIT, writers on issues of importance to parents in Coulee Parenting Connection, global artists and craftspeople in House of Talents, local food and fair-trade entrepreneurs at the Food Enterprise Center, and seekers of health and community connectedness at Root Down Yoga Studio. All of these women social entrepreneurs work to contribute and belong to larger networks while executing the missions of their organizations.

Whether as businesses or nonprofits, their ventures advance the economic, social, and environmental health of their communities and offer inspiration to others. As Susan Noble says of the Food Enterprise Center, “Hopefully we are also building wealth in the community” and modeling “the potential for change in rural communities.”

The social entrepreneur activities of women in wealthy countries like the U.S. connect to global developments. Research shows that around the world, women entrepreneurs contribute significantly to local and national economies. When women have significant control of financial resources in a family, in general, the children in that family are likely to be better educated. Women social entrepreneurs put more of their earnings back into local economies, on average, than do male entrepreneurs. In these ways, women business owners worldwide are fostering new opportunities for families and communities, regardless of the specific focus of their entrepreneurship.

In terms of the personal rewards, all of the women I interviewed expressed appreciation of the autonomy and flexibility of ownership, along with the opportunity to develop their gifts, their leadership, and their own networks and collaborative projects. “Having my business, I get to choose what I focus on,” says Heidi Andermack of Chow Girls Catering. “I definitely have to focus on the business, but that’s been an evolutionary thing, and part of my work through my business is to donate my time to nonprofits and to part of these movements to understand sustainability better, to understand community better, and to build relationships.”

No one accomplished the task of founding an organization without substantial obstacles and challenges, including financial uncertainty along the way. Andermack acknowledged the risks of business ownership and the fact that it’s not for everyone. In fact, about one-third of small businesses fold within the first two years. But for Andermack and the other women in this series, the risk was worth it. “There are going to be scary times, and that is just part of life,” she says. “So you can choose. Do you want the scary times to be at the mercy of somebody who owns a Fortune 500 company and is giving you your paycheck, or do you want to be on your own?”

Kate Herzog of House of Talents (Part I) concurs. “I’m living my life well and I’m living it fully.”

If you are thinking about starting your own business or nonprofit, know there are lots of resources in the Coulee Region, including UW – La Crosse’s Small Business Development Center, which offers low-cost classes on many aspects of the process, as well as the Small Business Administration. The La Crosse Public Library has a resource section for finding funding for nonprofits, and if you live in Minnesota, see the Minnesota Council of Non-Profits.

“Don’t do it alone,” advises Susan Noble. “Build a team. Find out what your strengths and weaknesses are and build your team around that. But get off the couch. Just do it! And then celebrate success.”

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. Photo: Contributed.
Jodi Vandenberg-Daves. Photo: Contributed.

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.