Shelley Nystrom started her soy wax candle business in earnest 14 years ago, crafting her wares in her kitchen and garage and selling them at craft fairs and farmers markets.
Eco-friendly candles were just beginning to take off, and people quickly grew excited about Nystrom’s products, leading her to rent a space in Oshkosh in which she eventually opened a small retail space for her company, Eco Candle Co., before opening a second store in Neenah.
When Nystrom grew tired of landlords raising her rent, she looked into buying a building in downtown Appleton, assuming she wouldn’t be able to afford it. She was pleasantly surprised to discover spaces were less expensive than she’d anticipated, and in 2010, with the help of a loan from the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp., or WWBIC, she purchased a building on College Avenue.
Today, Nystrom runs her business, which includes the retail store, online sales and wholesale to 800 stores nationwide, in the heart of Appleton’s downtown. It’s a location she says offers distinct advantages, in which visitors attending a Fox Cities Performing Arts Center show at night can spend the day walking College Avenue, shopping and enjoying lunch, dinner and cocktails.
“The more businesses we can have down here, the more exciting it will be to come down and really take advantage of it,” she says.
Perhaps she didn’t know it at the time, but Nystrom is part of a growing trend. Research from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. shows women entrepreneurs represent one of the fastest-growing segments of business owners nationally, outpacing openings of male-owned businesses by 150 percent in the past 20 years.
In 2016, Errin Welty, downtown development account manager for the WEDC, surveyed 27 downtown communities across the state and found that women-owned companies comprise 39 percent of all businesses.
That statistic mirrors what’s going on nationwide. The National Association of Women Business Owners found women-owned firms account for 39 percent of all privately held companies, contributing 8 percent of employment and 4.2 percent of revenues. Wisconsin downtowns are faring particularly well, with a 2016 Kauffman Foundation study ranking Wisconsin second in the nation for
Main Street entrepreneurship.
Welty says many factors contribute to the trend of women opening businesses in city centers. It doesn’t hurt that the strong economy is favorable to people opening businesses in general, but downtowns offer particular benefits to female-fueled startups. They tend to have smaller, more affordable properties available, making them more cost-effective as startups, as well as providing a source of camaraderie.
Downtowns are the lifeblood of small communities, and people increasingly want to support entrepreneurs, Welty says. “I think it’s important because it’s the future of what our communities are going to look like.”
Coming full circle
MaryAlexis Pfutzenreuter has watched retail trends evolve throughout the decades. The 60-year-old owner of 345 Main, a downtown De Pere personal training center for women, grew up in a time when downtowns thrived. She watched tastes turn to malls and big box stores in the 1990s, and today she’s enjoying seeing people return to shopping small.
Today, Pfutzenreuter is one of more than 70 women small business owners in downtown De Pere.
“I grew up with a vibrant downtown, so I know what that looks like. But I also remember the move away from that to malls, suburban living,” she says. “It was very familiar to go back to saying, ‘OK, downtowns can be these vibrant, wonderful places that people walk around, they feel
a personal investment in, there’s a community involvement.’”
Kristy Bohun, owner of The Puddle Duck in downtown De Pere, also has seen both sides of the trend, working in corporate roles for Kohl’s and Shopko before purchasing the store from her mom and aunt in 2016 and remodeling the space. They opened the store in 1986 in Green Bay before moving it to De Pere in 1992.
The Puddle Duck, which sells baby and toddler clothes as well as gifts for all ages, has seen ups and downs throughout the years, but is going strong thanks to loyal customers, she says.
De Pere offers a unique mix of shops, Bohun says, also praising the work of Definitely De Pere, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting the city’s downtown. She’s active in the organization, attending meetings and serving on its retail committee.
In her research, Welty also identified this trend of civic engagement, finding that more than 60 percent of women business owners are actively involved in community initiatives through activities such as participating in downtown organizations or holding civic office.
Bohun says that sense of community helps bolster her business.
“I think the cool thing is that the women business owners are so willing to share information with each other. We’re all here to help each other, and each business is so important to my business,” she says.
Brooke Bebout, who owns The Revival, a clothing and accessories store with locations in downtown Waupaca and Neenah, has found the same. She and her fellow business owners work together rather than compete.
“We feel like when you’re downtown, the more the merrier,” she says. “You don’t want to have empty spaces, and people don’t come to a downtown for just one place. We work together to give people a really good shopping experience.”
In addition, Bebout says renting space in downtown is affordable and offers unique, rather than cookie-cutter spaces. The “Main Street” scene in both cities complements her store’s vibe.
Two new resources have recently arrived in Northeast Wisconsin for women wanting to launch their own business.
WWBIC, which started in Milwaukee, opened a Northeast Wisconsin office in Appleton in June. The organization offers education and training as well as loans. Wendy Baumann, president and chief visionary officer for the organization, says women can face some hurdles in launching a startup, which lenders can view as a risky venture because there’s no track record.
WWBIC helps women navigate that through support, coaching and helping them create a business plan. In getting established, it’s important to zero in on a specific target market and to tie the financials to the company’s story.
“That number part, or those financials, have to match the story part,” Baumann says.
Eco Candle Co.’s Nystrom says seeking funding for her business was a “horrible experience” in which every bank she approached turned her down because she was a sole proprietor and didn’t own her own home. The loan she received from WWBIC was instrumental in helping her grow her business.
The Northeast office serves counties from Fond du Lac to Vilas, and Alyse Rust, project director for the office, says the organization believes in supporting people’s dreams, whether it’s a woman, man, minority, veteran or low-income individual.
She advises people with those dreams to “walk, not run,” to know it’s a process and to take advantage of WWBIC’s classes, many of which are free or have a minimal fee.
“Their enthusiasm goes a long way, but it’s definitely something you have to seek out help for,” she says.
Bridget O’Connor, who herself opened her own business — O’Connor Connective — in downtown De Pere in 2014, recently launched The Connective, a collaborative professional office building catering to the needs of female entrepreneurs.
The 10,000-square-foot Main Avenue building in downtown De Pere offers a co-working environment while still providing the privacy to advance independent business needs. O’Connor wants to draw from her experiences to help other women, and for her, there’s no better place to do that than downtown.
“The energy and the synergy of being surrounded by coffee shops and restaurants and professional businesses and theaters and art museums — there’s just something very magical about that,” she says.