Features

Scaling the ladder to success

Two organizations join forces to help grow female-owned businesses

By Kevyn Burger

A sick dog gave Ali Jarvis her classic entrepreneur’s flash: that moment when she needed a service that didn’t exist and figured that, if it was something she valued, other people would, as well.

“My dog had a rare neuromuscular disease, and I needed to give him medication several times a day. I was looking for a list of businesses where I could take him while I was running errands, as well as restaurants and coffee shops where I could hang out with him and my friends,” explains Jarvis. “When I couldn’t find it, I decided to start it.”

Today, Sidewalk Dog Media — Jarvis’s digital media platform founded in 2008 — offers dog owners an expansive online accounting of hundreds of restaurants with dog-friendly patios, breweries, stores, dog-friendly events and dog parks where their best friends are welcome. It also includes helpful information about pet resources, products and rescue nonprofits.

“Our site is about living your life with your dog by your side,” Jarvis says. 

Sidewalk Dog quickly went from Jarvis’s side hustle to a full-time job. Today, she works from a co-working space and employs a staff of four, plus a pack of contractors.

But Jarvis, 47, who majored in French literature and has a background in publishing, knew she needed to bone up on her business skills to continue her growth trajectory.

“I wanted to learn how to scale. I needed help analyzing our business model and coming up with additional revenue streams,” she says. “But most of all, I was looking for other women business owners who were in the trenches like I was.”

Jarvis found what she was seeking in ScaleUp!, a new offering from WomenVenture, the Minneapolis nonprofit that provides resources to female entrepreneurs, such as courses, coaching and business loans. 

A community of support
“When we ask women business owners what they struggle with the most, it’s finding that community of support. We know that being with like-minded entrepreneurs is a consistent accelerator for women’s economic development,” says Elaine Wyatt, WomenVenture executive director. “That piece is often missing, but it can make the difference for these women on the pathway.”

In its pilot program started in 2016, ScaleUp! selected 22 women with midsize businesses that had established track records and were poised for exponential growth. The program is funded by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to help boost the participants to the next level, with the accompanying expansion of jobs and revenue.

As part of the ScaleUp! training, WomenVenture contracted with Lani Basa to facilitate a Business Women’s Circle (BWC) with the participants.
Basa co-founded the BWC concept with Myrna Marofsky in 2009, starting with one circle of 12 women, and adding three additional circles within six months. The circles bring together women business owners for monthly gatherings for problem-solving, learning and support.

According to research from the National Women’s Business Council, women who make strategic use of peer-to-peer networking gain a distinct advantage. The study by the nonpartisan federal advisory board reviewed best practices for mentoring and found that women benefit most from structured programs that use peers to monitor goals and bring together business owners who are well matched in the stage of their business development.

“For each woman, the BWC creates an accountability piece. The other members in the circle can ask about how they’re moving forward, what’s holding them back in bringing their vision to fruition,” Basa says. “When they come in, they don’t know each other but we dive right in and quickly reach a level of frankness. They find their tribe.” 

A venture to success
Typically, business owners pay $1,200 for an annual membership to a facilitated Business Women’s Circle; an alternative program brings together women executives and costs $1,400. WomenVenture paid the bills for one year for the ScaleUp! class. 

“With Business Women’s Circle, I have a room full of business coaches,” says Keia Isaacson, 39, president and co-owner of Lakeside Floor Covering. Her Fridley-based business, which has $2 million in revenues, employs 11 people in its retail store and as floor installers.

“I needed focus and direction as we prepare ourselves for the next stage of growth,” Isaacson adds. “I also get practical help. We network about our banking, accounting and marketing relationships. I’ve been through three accountants, and I got a referral through the circle hat has worked out for us.”

“The members in the [BWC] circle can ask about how [each other is] moving forward [and] what’s holding them back in bringing their vision to fruition.”

The BWC allowed Melissa Lonsky to see the universal scope of business challenges. A speech pathologist by training, Lonsky, 41, had no formal business background when she founded Family Speech & Therapy Services 13 years ago. Today she operates four outpatient clinics that provide speech, occupational, physical and feeding therapies for children and also contracts with several Twin Cities–area school districts to provide therapy services.

Experiencing a recent burst of growth, Lonsky increased her staff by 50% in the past 15 months, growing to 62 employees.
“The huge takeaway has been seeing the ins and outs of businesses that are not unique to me and seeing how every business has a cycle of growth,” Lonsky says. “Regardless of the industry, we have themes in common.”

As the one-year experiment between WomenVenture and the Business Women’s Circle drew to a close, 10 of the 12 participants decided to continue to stick with the circle concept and fund their BWC memberships. 

One of those is Ali Jarvis.

“Lani is so gifted at facilitating and helping us connect the dots and problem-solve,” she says. “We all struggle with getting bogged down in the day-to-day. Through our conversation and exercises, this work forces us to work on the bigger picture.”

As she exited the ScaleUp! program, Jarvis achieved her goal of launching her Sidewalk Dog platform in a second market, adding a Chicago-based website in 2017.

“When you own a business, you can’t stress out to your employees. You don’t want to burden your friends and family with business issues, so it can get lonely,” Jarvis says. “To me, the BWC is like therapy. You pay someone to listen and help you. Not everyone needs that type of support, but I’ve learned that I do.”