Don't let them call you sweetheart: Women entrepreneurs break the glass ceiling in West Michigan

These West Michigan  women are kicking butt and taking names. As business owners and entrepreneurs in male-dominated fields, they're proving there's no glass ceiling that can't be shattered.
It was suggested, in an article in Entrepreneur magazine, that "successful startups demand entrepreneurs who are all in, and women are subject to second-guessing" and are "less inclined toward the hyper-confidence and self-promotion often associated with success."

A quick look at the women entrepreneurs of Grand Rapids and West Michigan, however, shows that this couldn't be further from the truth.

According to the sixth annual State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, a comprehensive report commissioned by American Express OPEN, women-owned businesses are quickly becoming the norm, not the exception. As detailed in the report, women are the majority owners in 38 percent of United States businesses, up from 29 percent in 2007. Michigan is in the top 10 states when it comes to the greatest number of women-owned firms, with the state now having about 289,300 such businesses -- a 56.7 percent increase over 2007. Michigan also counts itself in the top 10 fastest-growing states for women-owned firms.

Here in the Grand Rapids-Wyoming metro area, there were 2,631 women-owned firms with paid employees, compared to 11,033 male-owned ones, in 2012, the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
And while women in our state and community still face challenges every day that their male counterparts do not, the female entrepreneurs of this region are not letting those barriers derail them. Especially the women in fields that are still primarily dominated by men.

Building confidence in a male-dominated world: Katie Vanderploeg, K Motion Design

For example, Katie Vanderploeg, the founder of K Motion Design, is using her self-confidence and experience to help put the assumptions of the aforementioned article to rest.

"If you would have asked me eight years ago if (sexism) was a problem for me, I would have said yes," says Vanderploeg, whose Grand Rapids-based multimedia design firm has worked with such clients as Steelcase, Amway and Herman Miller. "But, when I started, I didn't have the confidence I needed." However, since launching her business in 2008, she's changed how she approaches things.

After working in firms and for others for a large part of her career, Vanderploeg wanted something different and the chance to take on more of a leadership role. She started freelancing, picked up a number of good clients, and was suddenly working all day and night just to keep up. After adding a few people to her team, she knew she wanted to stay a boutique firm in order to allow herself the flexibility of choosing her clients and projects.

And, while she acknowledges that she's working in a very male-dominated field, her past experience in a body shop gives her a leg up. "I can actually hold a conversation better with men than women,” she says.

"I don't feel like I get disrespected or that they don't trust me," she continues. "But, that comes with confidence, which I have in my team and what we do. I don't feel like I won't get a job just because I'm a woman."

She has noticed that men don't always take women seriously when it comes to technology. "IT often talks down to me. They don't think a woman could understand what they are talking about."

But she doesn't let these or any other incidents shake her confidence.

"I stand my ground. I look at being a female entrepreneur as a great thing because I feel like people respect me more."

And, when standing her ground, she doesn't give an inch. "I've fired clients that have made comments and disrespected me. You have be aware and not naive. Stay professional, don't get walked on and don't let them call you sweetheart."

The buck stops here: Kelly Rozema Finchem, Dutch Girl Brewery

When Kelly Rozema Finchem turned 21, Founders was one of the only craft beer options in Grand Rapids. But, her husband, Luke, had experience as a home brewer, and Rozema Finchem had always been a craft beer drinker. Today, as co-owners of Dutch Girl Brewery in Spring Lake, they are hoping to turn the lakeshore into a craft beer destination.

Kelly Rozema Finchem

Since opening in July of 2015, Dutch Girl Brewery has added a kitchen to the space where they offer food, craft beer, Dutch Girl merchandise, and a relaxed atmosphere. While in the tap room, you can expect to see Rozema Finchem behind the bar, in the brew room and even stirring the beer. Though a co-owner with her husband, she manages the day-to-day activity of the bar, brew room and kitchen. She also handles the marketing, website, social media and merchandise. "There's not a part of this business I don't touch," she says. "The buck stops here."

Plus, people appreciate seeing her around the bar, doing the work and running things. "People get really excited when they hear I'm an owner, they get really enthusiastic...I would too. The brewing industry is mainly guys." She gets a lot of questions on getting started and is happy to answer. "I'm the Dutch Girl. I'm the face of the business."

As sole owners of the bar, they worked incredibly hard to fundraise and put in their own resources to avoid outside investors. They both are highly invested in the day-to-day running of the equipment and learning how to repair it if something goes wrong. And, as the one at the bar every day, Rozema Finchem had to learn to understand the daily challenges and how to fix any problem that may come up. "You don't want to buy something new if you should be able to fix it. Not having big loans makes you appreciate the struggles, especially when you knock something out of the ballpark."
She also appreciates the women who came into the bar either looking to learn more about the industry or simply to try craft beer for the first time. "It's great to be able to get together with women and just talk about beer. Sometimes, I'm so engrossed in work that it catches me off guard what I'm actually doing."

And, what she's doing is working. A lot. She's been averaging around 80 hours a week and is only now starting to scale back. When you start a brewery, she says, "you'll have a vision of how much you're going to work. Double that."

And, while there may not be a lot of other women in the industry, the ones she has met all have something in common. "They don't feel like challenging anyone; they just want a really damn good beer."

Writing bad ass code: Becky VandenBout

As a graduate of Kettering Engineering School, a former employee of GM and one of the only senior level developers in Grand Rapids, Becky VandenBout says it's risky to be a girl, especially a girly-girl, in the development industry. "You can get discredited for being a typical girl that wants to program,” she says.

Becky Vandenbout

But, through her freelance development work, her fashion blog with a successful local series, and an online styling business that is a hybrid traditional personal shopping service and a subscription service, including a publication featuring local designers, she is proving all that matters when you are a female developer is that you write "bad ass code."

"It's become trendy now to have women in developer roles," she says. "But people don't really understand the actual problem. Simply hiring women for more diversity is not the goal."

The goal, she says, "is to change what it's like to work in the industry." Which is why she was a part of bringing a local chapter of the organization Girl Develop It (a nonprofit organization that exists to provide affordable and judgment-free opportunities for women interested in learning web and software development) to Grand Rapids. While she had to step aside due to other commitments, VandenBout wanted to make sure that women in the area don't have to adopt an "I'm one of the guys" mentality just to succeed in the web development industry.  

She explains that organizations like Girl Develop It and others are trying to eliminate challenges women face in the tech scene by exposing both women and men to the realities of being female in the industry.

The right things will happen: Valerie Obenchain, AIRS

When Valerie Obenchain, creator of AIRS (an Advanced Interactive Response System), which recently moved its headquarters from Grand Rapids to Newaygo, meets the obstacles that face her as a female entrepreneur in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field, she simply looks to her product and business plan for confidence. "A solid business and a solid plan will speak for itself," she says. And her plan is to patent and produce devices that save lives.

Valerie Obenchain

A registered respiratory therapist, she was able to see the problems with current oxygen systems. "People don't like the way things are done now," she says, "Patients that need oxygen (and those caring for them) have to constantly check to see whether oxygen is being delivered." Her system is bringing oxygen into the digital health era.

While Obenchain hit challenges when looking for funding (about 38 percent of new businesses in this country are started by women but only between 2 percent and 6 percent of those founders receive venture capital funding, according to Wharton Business School professor Ethan Mollick), she found camaraderie in the many groups found in Grand Rapids that support female-owned businesses.

"The Michigan Women's Foundation (MIWF) got me involved in their Dolphin Tank pitch competition, which got my product out there and put me in touch with the attorneys that helped me draft contracts for investment rounds,” Mollick says.

Through this and other organizations, Obenchain found the support system she needed. "Guys tend to stick together, and the business world can feel like a good ol' boys club,” she says. This club mentality can be isolating to the women in the industry, which is why organizations like MIWF are so important. "Women are so great about giving back to each other...they are compassionate and lift each other up, not try to step on each other."

These organizations are also great for showcasing the work that women are doing, with Obenchain noting that "they help bring us into the light and show what a great asset women can be in business."

This year, Obenchain has the opportunity to coach and mentor another female business owner. "I'm still new, but I've made it over a lot of hurdles and see a bright future. It's really important to be passionate and persistent. Have a little faith, do the right thing, and the right things will happen."

Shredding stereotypes: Organizations work to support women

While these female entrepreneurs look to break through ceilings and shred stereotypes, behind them are the organizations throughout the region that want to help. In their startup and growth division from September of 2015 to today, Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) has served more than 397 women. They offer the resources meant to "be there for the lifetime of their business,” according to Mary Hartfield, program manager and business consultant at GROW.
Kris Ridings, assistant director and volunteer network coordinator at The Michigan Women's Foundation says, "To make a lasting difference requires countless individuals and organizations aware, willing and able to work strategically to address (the issues women face). These challenges demonstrate the importance of a strong community of women willing to support other women: a rising tide lifts all boats is a saying I often repeat."

As the tide of women entrepreneurs in the region rises, it's clear they have the skills, tenacity and confidence to weather the storm.

“Making It In Grand Rapids” is a series about local entrepreneurs and the issues that matter in building a sustainable startup-friendly community. Support for this series is provided by Start Garden. You can reach the author of this story on Twitter @allyspoon or e-mail her at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.

Photography by 
Steph Harding
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