Women run businesses commonplace in Northeast Arkansas

by George Jared ([email protected]) 573 views 

Lori Carpenter was an avid basketball player in high school. One fundamental that was stressed by her coaches was to establish a pivot foot. Being able to pivot is a key skill in basketball and it’s one she has incorporated in her small business ventures through the years, she said.

Carpenter owns Lori Carpenter Designs, a home decoration consulting business based in Ash Flat. Her business has morphed several times through the years, but being versatile has allowed her to stay in business even as the economy has ebbed and flowed in the rural Ozarks.

“There are going to be mishaps … things don’t always go the way you plan them,” she recently said at a women’s business conference, the accelHERate event held at the Ozarka College campus in Ash Flat. “To achieve your dreams … sometimes you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”

The event was part of a program through the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center (ASBTDC) in early March before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down state activities. The center holds these events to encourage women entrepreneurship, business consultant Sidney Rebstock said. About 39% of businesses in the U.S. are owned by women.

There are a lot of tools that potential female entrepreneurs are unaware of, she said. A lot of market research has already been done and the ASBTDC does a lot of training workshops and classes, she said.

“We do a lot of one-on-one confidential counseling,” she said.

Her first business, the Grapevine, started off as a gift and home décor shop inside a small three bedroom house. She started it on a shoestring budget, and something happened after she opened.

Carpenter carried one item, Beanie Babies, and they became a sensation across the country. She would have customers sitting in her driveway on delivery day at 5 a.m. waiting on the latest one to arrive.

“You just couldn’t believe it,” she said with a laugh.

Eventually her focus shifted to decorative furniture and home interior consulting. At one point, she closed the the gift shop and re-branded. Lori Carpenter Designs was born.

“You have to be able to pivot when you need to,” she told the mostly female crowd.

Carpenter’s forays into entrepreneurship more than two decades ago echo a recent trend of women running their own businesses. An estimated 11.6 million businesses and firms are owned by women in the U.S., according to the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). That generated $1.7 trillion in sales and employment of at least 9 million people.

Those businesses and firms account for 39% of overall businesses in the U.S., and they contribute 8% of the total employment in the country along with generating about 4.2% of all revenues. About 20% of firms that earn $1 million or more in revenues are owned by females. Women of color own 5.4 million businesses and those generate $361 billion annually, NAWBO reported.

Graycen Bigger, executive director of Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority and AVP community development/marketing coordinator at Farmers & Merchants Bank, said scaling a business can be challenging, but there are resources out there. The ASBTDC has a lot to offer as do other economic organizations such as the Spring River Innovation Hub.

“Scaling a business can be scary,” she said. “Debt can be scary, but it can be critical to develop a business.”

Sharp County recently joined the intermodal authority. NARIFA was formed in 2009 to stimulate job creation and economic development in Northeast Arkansas. At one time, the organization included Corning, Hoxie, Pocahontas, Walnut Ridge and three counties — Clay, Lawrence and Randolph. NARIFA was instrumental in landing the Peco Foods poultry processing plant and hatchery in Pocahontas that opened last year. The $165 million plant employs more than 1,000 workers.

A main focus of Bigger’s job as executive director is to network and study numbers within a community to understand what businesses make sense for a certain area. For example, Peco was a good fit in the Randolph-Lawrence County area because of its strong agricultural base, while businesses that locate in a town like Hardy are more tourism driven.

“I do research constantly so we know what’s going on in our communities,” she said.

The census is looming and a lot of federal aid is tied to the population count and that will have a trickle down impact into the local economies of Northeast Arkansas, Bigger said. Everyone needs to make sure those census forms are filled out accurately so that communities throughout the region receive proper compensation, she added.

Successful businesses start with ambitious owners with a solid game plan, Bigger said. Another component that is just as important is hiring the right staff. Labor costs for the average business can run around 33% so hiring decisions and labor retention are critical components. When a business is losing employees, she has one question she always asks.

“How much are you paying them?”

Starting a business in a rural area is fraught with challenges, Bigger admitted. But, the barrier to entry is low and the cost of living is relatively lower than in many parts of the country which give it a competitive advantage.

What are some other keys to success?

“What’s your brand?” Bigger asked rhetorically. “Know who you are. Make sure what you do is on purpose.”