Before the COVID-19 pandemic, women in the United States were fueling the engine of entrepreneurship by starting new businesses at twice the rate of men. Women-owned enterprises represented 42 percent of all businesses in the U.S. They employed 9.4 million workers and, according to a 2019 American Express report, generated $1.9 trillion in revenue.
Owning your own business isn't a dream that's out of reach. But there are lessons to be learned in the stories of women who've already traveled that path. Their journeys featured below demonstrate smart ways to fine-tune your business plan, secure financing, find professional fulfillment and build a prosperous future.
1. Do your homework before starting a business
Five years ago, Laurie Radovsky, a family physician in St. Paul, Minnesota, was on the brink of burnout from the demands of working in a conventional medical practice for 25 years. She went into her annual wealth planning meeting with her RBC Wealth Management financial advisor with one question: “Can I retire?" The answer was no.
Instead, her financial advisor gave her some homework: research alternative career options and ways to practice medicine. Radovsky interviewed other physicians who'd gone into private practice, and one doctor's philosophy helped her decide to make the leap. Her formula is based on the idea that one-third of medicine is the actual techniques doctors use, one-third is whether the physician is happy and one-third is the intention, compassion and respect doctors bring to their patients. “That, to me, meant if I wasn't happy, I was already one-third of the way behind in getting people better," she says. Within three months, Radovsky gave notice and began planning her private practice, where she continues to see patients on a smaller scale with less stress and lower overhead.
Radovsky credits her financial advisor with giving her the push she needed. Modern-day financial advisors help clients like Radovsky think through potential scenarios, ranging from if a new business fails to if it grows so quickly you need to hire more people, says Ann Senne, head of Advice and Solutions at RBC Wealth Management–U.S. “They can be a key part of planning for success, by meeting you where you are, helping you lay out your goals and setting up the best plan to get you to where you want to go."
2. Secure financing
One of the roadblocks to starting a business can be an outdated view of what it means to take on debt, says Fred Rose, head of Credit and Liquidity Solutions with RBC Wealth Management in Chicago.
“We were trained this way. If I'm getting a car, I get an auto loan. If I'm buying a house, I get a mortgage. If I'm buying a boat, I get a boat loan. And if I'm starting a business, I get a small business loan," he says. Rose encourages clients to view their balance sheets more holistically to consider a wider range of financing options.
Budding entrepreneurs can seek small business loans, but there are other lines of credit available, including home equity and life insurance. Another option is a securities-based line of credit, which involves harnessing the value of your investments by borrowing against them without cashing them out.
Such lines of credit are free to set up and maintain, with a rate typically lower than other options available to small business owners. There's also flexibility in repayment, allowing interest-only options until you have increased cash flow to begin repaying principal.
Before prospective business owners get started, they should explore the array of credit options, Rose says. “I would always encourage people to set up lines of credit in good times, access them in bad and keep your options open."
And the amount of capital investment needed relative to your current resources is always a key factor in financing decisions. There may be times where looking at other alternatives to raising equity, such as crowdsourcing or finding investors, makes sense, Rose says.
3. Find your passion to drive a new business idea
Katie Cushmore and her wife relocated to the Minneapolis area from San Francisco almost three years ago. A veteran of several Silicon Valley startups, Cushmore first considered opening a gluten-free bakery. She shelved the idea when a problem emerged: the headache of finding summer camps and activities for their two children. That headache turned into an idea for a new web and mobile service aimed at making planning summer and extracurricular activities easier for busy families.
The platform, Plandini, will find, schedule and book camps, share calendars and manage kids' summer activities.
“For me, the problem is also where the passion comes from," Cushmore says.
Cushmore says meeting as many people as possible, with an assist from her RBC Wealth Management financial advisor in making connections to business services, has also fueled her venture.
4. Take advantage of opportunities during turbulent times
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the prospect of starting a business inherently more risky. But if you have a business plan that makes sense for the current economy, there are still opportunities, says Cyndy Ranzau, a wealth strategist with RBC Wealth Management in Denver. “With interest rates as low as they are, it's not a bad time to take on debt if you are comfortable taking on the risk," she says.
Many organizations that support female business owners have COVID-19 supports available, Ranzau says. Women who started working on their business plans six months before the pandemic hit should revisit what those organizations have to offer.
And once things stabilize, some lessons learned from the COVID era should stay with new business owners, Ranzau says. “Building adaptability into your business plan is probably something that we should focus on, because this could happen again, and what would you do if it did?" she asks.
5. Plan for tomorrow and beyond
Ranzau also urges women to seek out mentors. When Kathryn Hall, the proprietor of HALL Wines and WALT Wines, decided to rejoin the wine business after serving as U.S. ambassador to Austria, she found knowledgeable mentors willing to give advice, and hired people who had the expertise she lacked.
“If you really want something, you're going to suffer the embarrassment of asking dumb questions because you really, really want it," Hall says.
During a recent seminar with female business owners, Ranzau observed another common issue: The struggle to focus on more than just staying afloat. “The hardest thing seems to be, 'How do I get from where I am now to the next phase?' It's important to take the time to work on the business—not just in the business—and focus on where you want the business to go," she says.