Women encouraged to start their own small businesses after pandemic job losses


WASHINGTON (Gray DC) – It’s early morning and the sign on The Brew Shop doors haven’t flipped to open yet. But inside, Virginia business owners Julie Drews and Beth Helle are hard at work preparing orders before their customers arrive.

The former coworkers turned best friends have been running their small business in Arlington,Virginia for nearly 7 years. And, they say, you can do it too.

“If you want to do it, do it, go chase your passion. You really have to be all in. And that gets communicated to the people who come into your store, too. So people see us in here, they know that our passion is here. We’re all in on this,” said Drews.

Between March and April of 2020, the number of women in the workforce dropped from 57% to 55% according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Two years later, things are getting back to normal. Yet the number of men in the workforce still outpaces women. Last month, that same data showed working men stood at 68%, compared to 57% for women.

The U.S. Labor Department reported during at the height of the pandemic that women were more vulnerable to job losses. The U.S. Small Business Administration wants women to follow Helle and Drews’ example. On Sunday November 20, the nation marked Women’s Entrepreneurship Day. As part of efforts tied to increasing the number of women-owned businesses, the U.S. Small Business Administration is also opening Women Business Centers nationwide and supporting efforts to educate women on the resources available to them.

Find resources for women who want to start their own small businesses here

Learn more about workforce participation rates among women and men here

“I think one huge issue goes back into childcare and caregiving in general. That typically falls on women being single mothers like myself or even married women,” said Tene Dolphin of the National Women’s Business Council about the challenges female professionals faced during the pandemic. “When schools were out and childcare was hard to connect to, this really forced women out of the workforce. A lot of women made those decisions and some, again, took that opportunity to also turn to entrepreneurship.

Dolphin added plenty of women are still working to figure out their next step, giving this advice to women who are considering becoming their own boss by opening a small business.

“Know your market, know if you’re going to do a brick and mortar, if you’re going online. Really do the research and the planning required before you start your business. But then third, I would say make sure that you get comfortable with your numbers. What we saw at the beginning of the pandemic was that a lot of small businesses didn’t get to connect to the resources, both locally and federally, because sometimes their books weren’t in order,” she said.

For Julie Drews and Beth Helle, they decided to give up their jobs as litigation consultants when they started their own bottle shop. The pair also followed the advice given by Dolphin, by first doing their market research.

“Did all of our market research, figured out where to put it, and here we are,” said Drews.

“It’s a long process and I think everyone prepares you for that,” Helle added. “One of our business advisors describes it to us like pushing a boulder up a hill. And that truly is what it feels like, because each step of the way you have to put in maximum effort. So everything from figuring out the alcohol laws to going through the permit process, to understanding architecture and construction and hiring the right people.”

Drews and Helle feel fortunate that their business was able to stay open during the pandemic. They saw demand soar in March of 2020 because their bottle shop was one of the few alcohol-based businesses allowed to operate. However, the sudden increase in demand also presented big challenges, as Drews remembers the time period as ‘wild.’

“There was this real sense of panic, even for us as well. We didn’t know. We were declared essential, but it felt like at any moment that could be taken away. Things were constantly changing. We didn’t know if we were going to have to close the shop tomorrow, you know. So we had a lot of scary conversations about, you know, what will it look like if we are closed?” said Drews.

Helle launched an online store to ramp up their operations. However, during that time period she too lost her childcare. According to Child Care Aware, a network advocating for more child care resources, “recent findings from the RAPID-EC survey indicate that 40% of female respondents had left their jobs or cut back on their work schedules – most of them due to child care constraints.”

Helle noted how this impacted her as a small business owner, “it presented a real challenge for us because I couldn’t be here as often as I normally am. I was splitting childcare with my husband. I also learned that I was pregnant in April 2020, so I had a lot of things coming at me at one time.”

The pair offers this advice to new female business owners.

“I would say patience is is truly important and making sure you’re surrounding yourself by the right people,” said Helle. “It’s easy to to just go with the the easiest option or the easiest attorney or the easiest real estate agent or whoever it is that you’re working with or the easiest landlord. But you really have to wait for the right opportunity to make sure that those people have your genuine interest at heart.”

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