Entrepreneurship and motherhood: Finding strength in overcoming bias

This story is the second in a three-part series looking at how five women entrepreneurs are tackling the challenges of growing a business while raising families. Read part one, about how entrepreneurship can strengthen a family, here.
Erin Cole is perpetually positive. In addition to being a mother, Cole co-owns the eastside Detroit farm and agriculture education center, Nurturing Our Seeds: Farm, Garden, and Agriculture Education.
Like many women, and women of color, she is not immune to race and gender-based bias. But she believes Nurturing Our Seeds is helping to overcome those barriers and demonstrate that people from all walks of life can work together to uplift struggling neighborhoods by creating healthy, sustainable, local food havens.  
"Operating Nurturing Our Seeds helps crumble the stereotypes and myths that young, black men and women of the community are dangerous or innately violent," says Cole. She and her husband, Magnetic Sun, are working to make the business available and visible throughout Detroit. The farm was featured in the Keep Growing Detroit garden bike tour in early August.

Cole working on her farm
Ali Webb, director of Michigan programs at the
W.K. Kellogg Foundation, says that when the foundation was making the case for racial equity, they found that gross domestic product in Michigan would increase by 7.5 percent or about $31 billion, if earning gaps by race shrank.

"What that tells me is that, in Detroit, if we have more successful entrepreneurs of color, everyone's going to win," says Webb. "The entrepreneurs are going to win, their families are going to win, the community at large is going to win."
Jess Sanchez McClary, owner of McClary Bros., says that owning her own business has helped mitigate, but not remove, some race- and gender-based barriers she's faced as a Hispanic woman. Having been raised by a single mother, McClary has confronted economic barriers her whole life, and still faces those same barriers in growing her business. While Hispanic women continue to experience wage inequities, McClary is equally infuriated by the overt gender-based barriers.
"I once had an investor tell me, after many discussions and analysis of my business, that he wasn't sure I could handle an investment like this because I had a husband and house and family to take care of," says McClary. "Women entrepreneurs face ignorance like that on a regular basis."

Jess McClary, owner of McClary Bros.
Webb says that studies have corroborated McClary's experiences—women entrepreneurs face greater challenges. In addition, mothers are most often the primary caregivers for children, which can be yet another challenge to running a business.
"Starting your business is a lot harder than showing up for work at someone else's business," says Webb. "I think entrepreneurship, being an entrepreneur, when we strip away some of the romance, is a very difficult path."
Since Karen Guilmette started her business Natural Red, a personal and family care products company, she's encountered more gender bias than ever before. "Nothing extremely blatant, just a general attitude that my company is 'cute' and that I am not always taken seriously. I feel like the root of that attitude is based in my gender."

Karen Guilmette making lip balm
While much of the strength to overcome gender or racial barriers comes from within, other more practical supports are available for entrepreneurial newcomers. Many food-based start-ups are involved with
FoodLab Detroit, a support system of locally-owned food businesses. FoodLab provides connections for commercial kitchen rentals, farmers markets, grants, and its meetups are invaluable for support, networking, and learning.
McClary was an early member of FoodLab. "Navigating the food industry is difficult, but being in FoodLab was like always having someone in your corner, supporting you, helping you, rooting for you."
Guilmette got help from the BUILD Institute, which offers start-up tools and classes. She found it extremely helpful with business planning, entrepreneurial support, selling opportunities, and business connections.
"I give them credit for part of the growth that Natural Red is now experiencing," says Guilmette, who also took classes at TechTown Detroit and LifeLine Business Consulting Services (she won a class at LifeLine through Motor City Match).
Cole found support through Keep Growing Detroit, The Greening of Detroit, and Ravendale Community Center.
"It's important that individuals who have this desire to be their own bosses and to run businesses and create businesses, have access to capital and technical assistance," says Webb.

[For more on all the resources available to a Detroit entrepreneur, check out this Model D article on the city's economic ecosystem]
That is particularly true for women and people of color who face real barriers in accessing credit, getting business loans, or learning how to establish a business. Training, how-to advice, and networking opportunities through programs like BUILD Institute, ProsperUS Detroit and FoodLab, along with small business funding and support from foundations like W.K. Kellogg, are all part of building a small business infrastructure in Detroit.
Hopefully it's closing the gap in getting all entrepreneurs, regardless of race and gender, the help they need.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

All photos by Nick Hagen
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Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and editor for Model D and other IMG publications. She is project editor of Resilient Neighborhoods, a series of stories on community-building in Detroit Neighborhoods, and project manager and editor of the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative. View her online portfolio here.