Putting women, nonbinary entrepreneurs on the map

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 06-06-2023 5:11 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When meeting new people, Megan Allen has found herself at times on the receiving end of preconceived notions and incorrect assumptions about her intelligence when she indicates that she grew up in Florida.

Defying social expectations like negative stereotypes — like Allen’s example about the intellect of people from the South — is one of several issues that can discourage women entrepreneurs on their pursuit to successful careers.

That’s where a new project called The Sphere comes in. Co-created by Allen, who owns a business and lives in Florence, the new initiative seeks to offer solutions to barriers to success, and aims to strengthen the community of women and nonbinary entrepreneurs in the greater Northampton area by providing a network of support that helps cater to individual needs.

“Whether it’s access to funding, a fear of failure or balancing work and family life, these issues can be a real barrier to success for women and nonbinary entrepreneurs in the Northampton area, and we want to grow, establish connections and ensure that Sphere entrepreneurs are guiding that growth,” Allen said.

The Downtown Northampton Association, a nonprofit subsidiary of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, helped launch the organization in early May after securing a $200,000 grant from the Innovation Institute at the MassTech Collaborative’s Strong Entrepreneur Ecosystem program. The Sphere is a cooperative effort led by the DNA and Allen’s Florence-based tutoring service.

Patrick Larkin, program executive at the MassTech Collaborative and director of the Innovation Institute at MassTech, said in a statement that The Sphere, which was one of three grantees awarded funding, understood how to leverage resources in “their own backyard” that will help “entrepreneurs get off the ground and ensure startup founders know where to go when they’re ready to launch their idea.”

This funding award follows a $25,000 planning grant the entity received in August 2022.

Allen teamed up with DNA Executive Director Amy Cahillane to test The Sphere’s concept.

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“We know the business world does not support all genders equally. Women, nonbinary people, and folks with other marginalized gender identities have been excluded from opportunities needed to launch and maintain successful businesses,” Cahillane said in a statement.

To get a better sense of the local barriers, Allen and Cahillane worked with Vince Jackson, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, to convene an advisory committee of women business owners to study the issue in partnership with Emily Norton of The Design Thinking Initiative at Smith College. Through interviews with women in business, the committee identified several barriers in this region, including a lack of access to resources and funding as well as a lack of time, and a lack of support due to intersectional identities, such as racism, sexism and ageism.

In that research, Allen explained that those interviewed spoke of not being offered opportunities to purchase brick-and-mortar spaces and were instead often encouraged to seek out rentals.

Amanda Shafii, co-creator of The Sphere and owner of Northampton printing design agency CopyCat Ink, was among those tasked with interviewing entrepreneurs. Shafii, who also serves as a board member of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said that many of the conversations she had with the women business owners felt very familiar.

Early on in her career, she felt at times customers might not be taking her as seriously as they might if she was a man.

“It never occurred to me that others might be feeling or experiencing similar feelings or situations that I was — it wasn’t just me. It was validating to hear those same experiences,” she said.

Mapping out support

Now that the research has been completed, The Sphere’s goal is to create a community that believes in building support among women, nurturing a work-life balance, and expanding access to monetary and educational resources.

“The Sphere is named as such because of the cyclical nature of support and community,” Allen said.

To achieve those goals, co-creators Allen, Shafii and Christina Webster, owner of event consulting business Priceless Picnic, have begun holding monthly gatherings and community-building dinners. The inaugural event, which was inspired by the historical origin of salons, was held at Northampton Brewery and was attended by more than 100 people. Webster explained that the event was meant to be fun and supportive, but also practical for and by female business owners.

“I’m proud to report that 89% of our budget for the event went directly to local, female-owned businesses,” Webster said.

Women and nonbinary entrepreneurs had the opportunity to have free headshot photographs taken and learn how to use the photos for branding. They also learned tips, tricks and touch-ups by a professional makeup artist.

One of the next big steps the team will take is to create a map of all women- and nonbinary-owned businesses in Northampton and build a digital database to encourage connections with those in the informal economy who don’t run brick-and-mortar businesses.

Preliminary research in U.S. Census data indicates that of the 885 brick-and-mortar businesses in Northampton, women own just 197, said Allen.

To create the database, the team has put together a survey. Within that online database, the team is also hoping to include strengths and skills of entrepreneurs to create more of a virtual community of resources to help save time and money.

In the future, The Sphere also hopes to hire a team of virtual assistants who will support the network of entrepreneurs.

“We’re still thinking of ways to support that, but we want to be able to help with those big time-sucks, so that entrepreneurs can concentrate on business,” said Allen.

In the meantime, the team is gearing up for its second salon event, which will be held on July 25 from 4 to 7 p.m. Though the next location has not been announced, Webster said the focus of the event will be on the visual aesthetics of business owners’ social media business platforms with specific lessons around digital media.

“Being a business owner made me realize how many possibilities there are. We want to spread an awareness that if you pursue your passion, you can be successful, and by providing a network of resources, we hope to lead women and nonbinary entrepreneurs in the right direction,” said Shafii.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>