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What does it take to start your own business as a woman?

The old adage goes that in life, there are followers and there are leaders -- those that are different from the rest, separate because of extraordinary success and drive. In Richmond, these are the entrepreneurs. In a city of budding industry and culture, small businesses have taken on a role of individuality and trust within the community. 

Women in particular have gained remarkable momentum as business owners in the last few years, overcoming the ingrained prejudices and societal expectations conventionally held for women.

In the age of the “Girlboss,” five female entrepreneurs reveal what it is like to be a CEO while balancing families and facing other social standards. Together, these women question the ideals of modern feminism and how the word has come to be perceived today -- all while imparting wisdom for any aspiring entrepreneur.

“I want to move past feminism as a label,” Kim Mahan, owner of the technology-based company, MAXX Potential, said. “Is there data that shows there is discrimination, yes, but you can’t act on that per say. The most effective way I can help other women entrepreneurs is by being a really good one.

“In general, whether you are a man or a woman, you have to tune out the negative noise and not focus on it. The minute you start worrying about whether people think you’re good enough or not, you’re already compromising the mental strength and clarity it takes to be successful.”

Emily Hudspeth, with her choppy, lavender hair, runs the company Real Life Beauty, a hair and makeup service with an intimate storefront.

When asked if she’d describe herself as a feminist, Hudspeth pulled out her phone and showed me the phone case -- the words “wild feminist” were inscribed on the back.

“Probably,” she said. ‘Maybe a wild one.’”

Hudspeth emphasized that being a feminist is not a bad thing, although the word has often been used as a slam.

“I think in this day and age, we’re not pushing down the boys to raise the boys up,” she said.
“You’re encouraging the girls and the boys. It’s more of an equal opportunity thing. The girls, historically, haven’t had as many opportunities so I think we’re just trying to even out the playing field. We don’t want to push anyone down to make that happen.”

Sandi Cauley, owner of Turn Cardio Jam Studio, leads her fitness classes with a broad smile and an easy laugh. She radiates positivity and respect for others, and expresses her beliefs in the same vein.

“I embrace that there’s a feminist quality in that women can do anything, and that we don’t have to wear certain clothes or say certain things,” she said. “But at the same time some people have taken that word and twisted it to say that women are better than men. For me, it’s just about being an entrepreneur, meaning I don’t really think that I’m necessarily better than my male counterparts, I just want the same opportunities that they have.”

Cauley, a former executive producer for Channel 6 News in Richmond, is well-versed in leadership.

“There’s been a big push for women taking on leadership positions and executive positions and I love that,” she said. “But if you’re going to decide as a woman to leave your job and take care of your kids, to me that’s still feminism -- you empowered yourself to make those decisions, and I think that’s fabulous.

“I caution that we are hiding behind a label rather than becoming a diverse yet equal group of people. I mean, I’m also hispanic, but I don’t call myself a latina business owner. I don’t want to hide behind these labels, I just want to be a business owner and run the path.”

Like many women in the workforce, Cauley has often struggled with balancing her family and her career.

“You find yourself employing nannies and babysitters and kind of just missing out on life,” she said. “We don’t reward nurturers. The stay-at-home mom doesn’t get as many accolades as the mom-preneur. But you have to give yourself some down time to be with your family, and to nurture them. It’s okay if you’re not doing fifty million things at a time and constantly building your career.”

Richmond native Kathryn Starke, CEO of Creative Minds Publications, a literacy-based company, agreed that it is important for women to follow their own path. Starke is a former teacher dedicated to eradicating literacy in inner-city Richmond public schools, through teaching reading skills and writing children’s books.

“People ask and assume that you’re married or that you have children, but for my personal lifestyle, I don’t want to get married just to be married,” she said. “To me, you just have to do what works for you, and follow your path. It’s important to balance your work and your lifestyle.”

For women who want to be entrepreneurs and still have families, Caroline Hutchings, owner of C&C’s Cinnamon Rolls, can vouch for her success in doing so.

“It’s not easy to balance both, but it’s definitely worth it,” she said. “I have a five year old daughter, and I’ve heard her say, ‘oh, my mom has her own business.’ She watches me do everything, she tells me how she’s going to have her own business one day.”

Hutchings strives to spread sweetness in Richmond with her homemade cinnamon rolls. She plans on passing the secret family recipe on to her daughter.

Mahan also grappled with parental responsibilities and career-based ones. As a young, single mother of three, Mahan taught herself to design webpages. Her self-taught skills eventually enabled her to find success in the corporate realm, she said.

Today, Mahan runs a company designed to give real-world experience to STEM workers trying to get a job in their field.

“What I really needed was someone to take that chance on me,” she said. “I’m trying to create that opportunity for more people. We’ve built Maxx from day one as a true learning environment where we experiment and learn from mistakes. We’re giving people a safe place so that they can make those mistakes. No one here is afraid to ask questions.”

Behind these five successful women are worn stories of upward battles and epiphanies -- their paths have led them astray, but dedication and grit have led them to success.

“Everybody has this feeling inside them -- this burning, this yearning,” Cauley said. “At the end of the day, we all want to be great. Working at a TV station, I thought that was it. I won the Emmy, I was an executive producer, but I still didn’t feel great.

“One day I pulled my car in the driveway and I looked at my house and I was like, this house feels a little unfamiliar, I’m never here. Is this great?”

Cauley’s quiet voice filled the silent room -- you couldn’t help but listen, her words felt so profound.

“Doing what I do now, doing what I love, there’s less salary and less recognition, but now -- now, I feel great,” she said.

Starke also emphasized the importance of passion in her career.

“I was the child that never left the house without a book in one hand,” she said. “I taught school all the time -- I would go to school, and come home and play school. You have to know yourself, and figure out your strengths, and then surround yourself with people who complement those strengths. Read as much as you can, become a lifelong learner. Do what you love.”