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CEO Roundtable: Women in Business

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Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson discusses women in business trends with Heidi Crane, chief financial officer at CPI Technologies; Emily Church, CEO/owner of Everything Kitchens LLC; Susie Farbin, co-owner of MaMa Jean’s Natural Foods Market LLC; and Kathy Richards, secretary and treasurer at Harter House Eastgate Inc.

Eric Olson: In one word, how you would describe the climate for women in business in our community?
Emily Church: Opportunity.
Heidi Crane: Evolving.
Kathy Richards: Warm.
Susie Farbin: Opportunities. I don’t think it was there 30 years ago as much.
Olson: What has changed? Why do you see more opportunity for women in business today?
Richards: More respect.
Crane: The opportunity has evolved over the years because what you see and experience every day becomes your norm. Thanks to some predecessors that paved the way for women, I think more and more the opportunity has come along to evolve women into business.
Farbin: The female politicians. Some of them have been around for a long time. As that has increased, I think that has given people like, wow, they can do that. I can. It’s giving them the courage.
Church: I also feel like sometimes women can perceive it as a very negative business environment because the poorer male examples that exist, they get put into the news. But the opportunity is there, and everybody who is doing it right, those aren’t the stories people talk about.

Diverse beginnings
Olson: What was the crux of your decisions to get into business? Did you have aha moments on your path?
Richards: I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. [Laughs]
Olson: How did you get there?
Richards: Family business.
Farbin: When I was 11 years old, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. There was a thing called soapbox derby and my brother was in it. (Dad) just loved to help them build the cars and race. When girls could enter ... I said, “I’ll do it.” Because it was the first year girls could be in it, sponsors reached out to us because it costs about $500 to build your car. It’s 1971. You can buy a new Subaru for about $1,400. Who reached out was the (National Organization for Women) chapter of Chicago. I came in second place that year, and then the next year, I won it for my area. My dad was extremely chauvinistic. So we go downtown Chicago and there’s this room full of very radical, women’s (liberation). They were kind of intimidating. My dad was the only male in the room, and they said, “Would you like to start and introduce yourself?” My dad stands up and he says, “Hello, I’m Bob Farbin and I’m Susan’s mother.” [Laughs] The room didn’t stop laughing for half an hour. I was exposed at 11 years old to really powerful women. It was a launching point for me.
Crane: Mine is family, as well. Our company has been women-owned since the 1970s. That was my normal. My mom was a very powerful woman. I assumed I was going to run the family business when it became my turn. The aspect of providing a lifestyle and a life for the 70-some people that work for us is what makes me get up every morning. I’m very proud of that.
Farbin: My mom started a store called Jean’s Healthway. It’s been in business about 30 years, and she started it with a $400 investment. It grew in an economy when it was supposed to be like, don’t start a business – late ’70s. And rural Missouri and natural food? All the noes were there, so she made them all yeses. She did hair on the side just to help pay her bills, but her passion was natural food. I ended up working with her for like 14 years in Ava, and then decided to do my own thing and got with Diana Hicks, the other business partner, in Springfield – where there’s people. The square footage of her store exceeds the population of the town she’s in.
Church: The main reason why I started my business was I honestly was kind of in a bad spot at that point in my life. I had finished my schooling, but I didn’t have my GED or diploma. I was working a very low-paying job and was completely on my own. I realized it was going to take me a long time without any proof to prove to anyone else what I could do or what I was worth financially, and I could do that faster myself. I decided to start my own business. I launched it when I was 20, and I had my daughter when I was 21. I was still timid about actually launching it, but the thing that pushed me over the edge is when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I wanted to be able to have a career and take care of my kid. It’s grown past that now. Now, I have a nursery in my office for my other baby.

Motivating factors
Olson: A survey of women business owners by Guidant Financial says the No. 1 reason why they started a business was “to pursue my own passion,” next was “to be my own boss” and lastly was “the opportunity presented itself.” What motivates you today? What’s your why?
Farbin: Passion. And believing in what I do makes a difference.
Crane: My people are who drive me every day. I also was able to raise my children in my business, as well. Three days after I had my children, they came to work with me. That spirit in me that wanted to work and to carve out my little spot in the world and still raise my children was priceless.
Church: CEOs actually in some ways have that the hardest. You can’t just say I’m going to quit and raise kids for a couple of years. The business keeps going. But there is a lot more flexibility.

Pay equity
Olson: April 2 was recognized as Equal Pay Day. It symbolizes the approximate day when women’s earnings catch up to what men earn the previous year. In dollar terms, it would be about 80 cents of every dollar, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last year.
Crane: So it takes women 16 months to make the same thing that a man would make in 12 months.
Olson: Yes. What advice do you have for women to close that gap?
Farbin: Knowing what the position would pay before you even go in there so you’re prepared.
Church: I feel that when this topic comes up, it’s easy to be like, those evil guys aren’t paying us enough. There’s more to it than that. I think there’s some biology that’s involved in this as well. Women, because they have the uterus and they’re going to be the ones bearing the children, as an employer, I very often see two employees completely equally paid for what they’re doing and trying to climb up the ladder. One of them goes to have a child, and she wants to leave for a few years, sure. The guy is, on the other hand, knocking down the door for opportunity because he’s going down to one income. When you go to promote someone, very often the person who’s the best fit for the job was the one who’s been doing the closest position to that job for 10 years. Women end up, just by biology, backing down the ladder. I’m positive that some of it is because you have way more males in the position higher up in the company that are not valuing their women enough. I’m sure that’s part of it. Some of the way that gap is going to be closed is for women to be supported better biologically so they can have children and still be able to maintain a job. We’ve changed our maternity policy, for instance, where women can come in later for a substantial period of time after they’ve had a baby.
Olson: It’s hard to see those factors when you just look at statistics. Do you think, then, there will ever be this equal pay day?
Crane: It’s pretty hard to fight the biology. I also want to add to that it’s been psychologically proven that women …
Richards: Are better than men? [Laughs]
Crane: Women question themselves more than men. They undervalue themselves. A man who is less qualified for a position is more likely to go after it when the woman is sitting there overthinking it. Am I qualified? Can I do it?
Church: I’m more likely to have a guy ask me for an opportunity to advance and have to offer it to the woman. I have to actually encourage women in my workplace to step out. I think that’s culturally and relationally, and I’m sad to say it, but they’re asked to shut up and sit in the back. That cultural attitude can translate to work. It’s finding ways to build your worth at the company.
Richards: Thirty years ago, my father would give a man a raise if they had a baby. But if a woman had a baby, she didn’t get a raise. Until I came along and said, “Dad, this ain’t fair.”

Shifting work culture
Church: I want to throw something out there that I think will help close the gap. But I don’t know who to talk to about this. I want to put a day care in our building. I think that will help tremendously because if you’re a guy or a woman, either one, it’s going to be helpful to have your kid on the premises. We can have women building their careers and having their children simultaneously. It seems as though the legalities of this is – I pretty much have to run a day care and run my business. It seems that the red tape should be less when the parents are on-site.
Farbin: Maybe a co-op? I’ve thought about it.
Crane: Technology has done a lot for probably closing that pay gap because women are allowed to work from home.
Olson: What you’re talking about are huge cultural shifts in your businesses.
Church: I feel like the attitude toward women at work has changed for the better. It’s an opportunity for business. Right now the unemployment rate is low. You need to be attracting good talent. And if you have people staying home because they have the skills that you need but they can’t be supported enough to work, it’s a huge advantage to your company to be able to attract those people to your work. I can’t, because I don’t have the day care. I want that really badly. I have the space to build it.

Defining value
Olson: What are the biggest challenges in your work?
Richards: Sometimes I feel like girls have to work harder to prove themselves than guys.
Olson: How can we be fixing that problem?
Richards: That’s a tough one.
Church: I feel there is a cultural problem toward women, where women are valued for beauty. I feel that so many women pursue that so hard because they see that’s where men see their value and it hurts them in their career because they ended up pursuing things that don’t pay in the end. We need to be strong and assertive in saying, “No, we have more value than this.” We will never ever be equal if we’re going to take a passive seat.
Crane: I read a study that 25% of women would rather win “America’s Next Top Model” than they would the Nobel Peace Prize. By the time a girl has left elementary school, I read in a book, she’s already dumbing herself down to please boys.
Church: A smart woman has a harder time finding a guy who’s not intimidated by her. It’s true.
Crane: It’s a tenuous position for a woman to be in to show emotion, and anger in particular, because then you’re a whole lot of other things besides a professional. I’ve experienced that multiple times. I’ve conditioned myself to not respond to emails until I’ve had a chance to calm down, not confront employees until I’ve had a chance to calm down. If my male counterpart, which is my husband, were to say or do the same things that I would do, it’s fine for him.
Church: If a man is assertive and strong and shows some level of anger, that’s considered normal and acceptable. But it’s not normal and acceptable for a woman.
Richards: They call us the b-word or a crybaby.
Crane: I’ve had employees go to my husband and say, “She was mean to me.” I hear him talk to his sales guys and I’ve learned to work with sales guys. I’ve said, “I don’t ‘f-ing’ care what you think the selling price ought to be. This is my company,” because he pushed me to that point. I got called into my husband’s office. [Laughs] I guarantee you he has said the f-word and yelled at them and no complaints have been filed against him.
Church: I have felt that way at times at meetings with vendors, where they expect certain behaviors. I feel like it’s helped me in my business to be strong and assertive.
Farbin: I had an estimate for the Sunshine building. It was time to inspect the sprinkler system. This company called and said they did the inspection and it was going to be almost $4,000. I said, “Please send me that list of repairs and anything over $1,000 I’m now accepting bids on.” A few days later they came back and it was $1,400. Just question everything. Some people try to take advantage.

Next up
Olson: What’s next for your companies?
Richards: Just trying to keep up with the competition. We’ve had like five stores open up around us and now we’ve got Hy-Vee coming. We had a good year this year and last year, but when Hy-Vee comes we’re going to be struggling again.
Farbin: Competition is constant, but I’ve always tried to have the thought: Somebody is always going to come in and try to do it better than you. The worst thing you could ever do in businesses is get comfortable. You have to keep making things better and just focusing on what you do best.
Church: Our biggest threat is Amazon. They’re putting out small retail everywhere. We’re going to the exclusive route on a lot of products. My husband [Chad Carleton] moved into the COO office to help provide more time for me to work on a lot of these projects.
Church: I feel like there’s a ton of opportunity for women in business.
Crane: I think the future is bright.
Church: There’s a cultural pressure, too, for businesses to equally represent women. When we have manager meetings, for instance, it’s very diverse. And in just about any way you can think of. We didn’t structure it that way. It happened because we hired people that we thought were the best person for the job. How are you going to attract the best if you only hire males?

Excerpts from Features Editor Christine Temple,


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