The Rise of Women-owned Specialty Food Businesses
With female-owned businesses on the rise in the United States, the specialty food industry is seeing more women than ever at the helm of some of its most innovative and exciting companies.
As of this year, women-owned businesses in the U.S. account for 11.3 million businesses that employ nearly 9 million people and generate more than $1.6 trillion in revenue, according to a recent report by American Express OPEN.
Julie Weeks, the author of the report and president of advocacy group Womenable, says more women are starting businesses across all industries, especially within accommodations, food services, and manufacturing. With more female-owned businesses than ever before, she explains, it stands to reason that there are also a lot more women going into specialty food now compared to a generation ago.
“It’s a steady march of women going into all corners of entrepreneurship,” she says.
Additional research shows that New York City’s foodservice industry saw a substantial boost from women-owned businesses from 2007 to 2012. The segment grew 45 percent and added 4,000 new food businesses in that time, according to a report from The Center for an Urban Future.
Making the Entrepreneurial Leap
Many women are starting their own businesses in order to take control of their lives and their time, says Nadia Hubbi, founder of Middle Eastern confectionery and snack purveyor Sweet Pillar. “Entrepreneurship is a way to do that and food happens to be something that a lot of women are very good at, either out of necessity or out of passion,” she says. “Whatever the reason may be, I’ve noticed a lot more women are in the food space.”
Women are finding their niche in everything from copacking to retail and manufacturing, and their businesses are popping up in big places. Kate McAleer, owner of healthy candy bar company Bixby & Co., was recently awarded a $100,000 business grant through a fellowship program with the Tory Burch Foundation. For McAleer, being recognized as a member of the food industry was especially rewarding.
“It was all about empowering female entrepreneurs on so many levels,” McAleer says of the fellowship experience. “From the quality of the programming, the speakers, and presenters, to the interaction with Tory and her team.”
Fran Davis, a personal chef and chapter president for the National Association of Women Business Owners, believes it is an excellent time for women to build businesses and become successful in the food industry. “Women are really making an impact on the economy in terms of their ability to generate more revenue for their businesses than men are,” she says. “They’re creating more jobs, they’re hiring more people. It’s an interesting time where we’re really seeing women coming into their own and feeling more confident.”
Lisa Mabe-Konstantopoulos, founder and CEO of Green Purse PR, agrees with Davis. “The specialty food industry is ripe with opportunity and it’s a terrific space for innovative and smart women to thrive and grow,” she says.
Overcoming Occasional Stigma
While some female entrepreneurs occasionally see pushback from a sometimes male-dominated industry, most agree that the specialty food sector is an embracing and helpful one. “The community as a whole is a really family-oriented community,” says Sabrina Valle, co-founder of Brooklyn-based The Jam Stand. “We’ve been around for the past few years and have been able to reach out to different companies with similar products and everyone has been very helpful.”
While Hubbi still sees the specialty food industry as a boys’ club that can occasionally be intimidating, she feels a great sense of community among other female business owners. “The good is that women tend to help and work together in a tribal type of way so automatically I felt I was part of a larger more connected network,” she explains. “I’ve connected and learned from so many women in the industry. We share similar stories, extend a helping hand and lean on each other when needed.”
McAleer says that while women have made great strides in business, they still have a long way to go. "You can't shy away from your goals and dreams and you've got to make stuff happen," she says. She also believes organizations like the Tory Burch Foundation are helping to push the dialogue on women in business.
“If you have a vision and you have an ambition to realize something, you have to keep after it even though not everyone may think you're headed down the right path," she muses.
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