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Keep moving forward

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For Tara Elder, director of the Women's Business Center in Beckley, the perception of women in business has improved a lot but there is room to grow for new opportunities.

"There is still a lot of work to be done to make government contracting equal and to make financing equal," Elder said. "In some respects the lending community is still not quite as women-friendly as they should be.

"You have really good lenders and then you have some who feel they need the spouse's signature on the loan for a business."

On Wednesday, the Charleston Area Alliance will host its annual Elevations Academy, celebrating female business success stories and preparing future female business leaders at Embassy Suites.

The director of the West Virginia Women's Commission, Tara Martinez, agrees with Elder.

"Our culture in this state is set back several decades," Martinez said. "We still have a very traditional mentality and educating women on how to couple tradition with innovation is something that we really hope to be able to accomplish."

In downtown Charleston, business owners Danielle Snidow of Uncork & Create and Ellen Beal of Ellen's Homemade Ice Cream say they weren't focused on being women, but on running a successful business.

"I naively assumed I could run the business and I really had no idea what it was going to be like, but I believed in my ability to do it," Beal said.

When Beal made the transition from a professional flutist to running a homemade ice cream shop, there were only a few retail businesses on Capitol Street, including Taylor Books and the now-closed Charleston Bagel Shop. She said people would walk into her shop and ask her if she knew how many businesses had failed there before.

"I think when I opened I didn't even consider the fact that I was a woman or not," Beal said. "That's just something that was never in my life -- I did what I wanted to. So, it's great that other women are having that feeling."

This year the West Virginia Women's Commission updated "The Status of Women and Girls in West Virginia" report from 2002, which showed both stagnation and improvement.

"When I sat down and got the first draft [of the report] I literally cried," Martinez said. "After 10 years of work we were still last in the nation in so many areas for women -- healthcare, mental and physical well being and employment and earning."

The highlight that surprised her from the report was the increase in women's entrepreneurship in the state. Martinez said the report showed modest growth since 1997 in the number of business firms owned by women and has increased very substantially in the most recent years in the state.

"From 1997 to 2012, West Virginia has experienced faster-than-average growth in the revenues that these firms are contributing to the economy. During this time period, the state's revenues from women-owned businesses grew by 85.3 percent, resulting in a ranking of 11th on this indicator for West Virginia among all 50 states and the District of Columbia," according to The Status of Women and Girls in West Virginia report.

Martinez added the women of each of the five regions of the state they study face different challenges. The goal is to connect those women with the resources they need.

"We want to look at what is hindering further growth and what's hindering that break into business," Martinez said.

JoEllen Zacks of the Charleston Area Alliance said there has been a cultural shift toward women in business.

"We've got women in the pipe line, we need to keep them moving forward to the top," Zacks said.

The Elevation Academy aims to do that. The event will feature business owners, women involved with policy making and inspiring start-up stories like Snidow of Uncork & Create.

"It's about rallying the women in the community and saying you can go our there and make change," Snidow said.

This will be the first year Snidow speaks at the event but has attended before. She recalls being inspired by Betty Schoenbaum's positive outlook and moving the community forward.

When Snidow started her business she said many people told her art classes weren't a sustainable business. She chose to listen to herself instead.

"I just thought it would work because I had that feeling and knew it would," Snidow said.

Uncork & Create has already expanded in its first year of business to Huntington. When asked if she was surprised by the success, Snidow said she knew it would happen.

Snidow added her mother was a major influence on her willingness to trust her business plan.

"I've never felt like I couldn't do something or was held down because I was a women," Snidow said. "Then you're setting a ceiling for yourself as soon as you have those thoughts."

Zacks said you look at all the business downtown and where you would take your friends on a weekend, and they're all female owned from Taylor Books, Mission Savory, Charleston Bread Company, Ellen's Homemade Ice Cream, Uncork & Create and The Charleston Brewery Company to name a few Zacks said.

"We're on the cusp of some really great things but we really need to fully engagement of leadership in all sectors of our community and that means women," Zacks said. "Businesses operate much better when they have the diversity of skills and viewpoints."

To learn more about the 2013 Elevations Academy, visit www.charlestonareaalliance.com Registration is $100 for Alliance members and $155 for future members. Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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