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A woman's place?

Lake Oswego has been named one of the best places in the country for women to start a business, but that's no surprise to the entrepreneurs who are thriving here

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Sisters Deborah Ulrich (left) and Suzanne Buxton opened On a Whim Studios in downtown Lake Oswego after realizing that we would hire us in a minute. The community has supported the retired teachers from the first day we opened up, Ulrich says.REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Mary Lou Burton opened Bravo! Weddings and Events 28 years ago. I find that theres a lot of networking support in Lake Oswego from other women-owned businesses, she says. It doesn’t surprise Judith McGee that Lake Oswego was recently named one of the best cities in the country for women looking to establish and grow their own businesses.

McGee is the owner of McGee Wealth Management, which has a large Lake Oswego client base, and she can list myriad store and restaurant owners, attorneys and doctors in the area she knows and admires — all of whom just happen to be women.

“‘Entrepreneur’ to me means someone who takes themselves up and builds something from nothing,” McGee says. “It’s not just retail, it is the professions — the CPAs, attorneys, medical doctors. We have a unique population of very cultured and educated and savvy women in Lake Oswego, and they’re also networked really well. And I think that that’s one of the reasons that they do well. There’s a lot of community support.”

McGee’s observations are the same criteria used by the data firm GoodCall in determining which U.S. cities are most amenable to women looking to establish businesses. In addition to education level and general networking atmosphere in each city, the GoodCall study also took into account the percentage of women-owned establishments and the change in gross domestic product for each metropolitan area it examined.

The affluent Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, Ga., snagged the survey’s top spot. It has a population of just over 57,000, and nearly a third of its businesses are women-owned. Lake Oswego came in 21st, just above West Linn. Meanwhile, Hillsboro came in at number 70, and Oregon City took the 79th slot.

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Blue Moon Coffee owner Julia Fowler won the Chamber of Commerces Small Business of the Year Award in March. I was able to easily integrate into the community, she says, and there is definitely a sense of community here among the business owners.

Thriving in Lake Oswego

Just over 30 percent of the businesses in Lake Oswego are owned by women, who bring a wide array of life experiences to their ventures. That includes Suzanne Buxton and her sister, Deborah Ulrich, who own On a Whim Studios in the city’s downtown core.

Buxton cites a statistic, confirmed by Business Insider, that shows Americans over the age of 50 comprise the group engaging in the most entrepreneurial activity. For many, like Buxton and Ulrich, building something new for themselves was necessary for survival.

“(Women over 50) can’t get hired by anybody, no matter how many degrees we have,” Buxton says. “I’m a retired art teacher, and my sister is a retired middle school algebra teacher.”

But despite Buxton’s decision to return to school and get certified in AutoCAD GIS mapping software to begin what she expected to be her second career as a designer, she and Ulrich found their experience was more of a liability.

“I still think in this day and age, age is a huge component of how people perceive you as a potential worker,” Ulrich says. For those over 40 or 50, “even though they have a huge skill set, they’re not at the front of the hiring line.”

Not content with seasonal retail work, the sisters got creative.

“We kept saying, ‘We would hire us in a minute,’” Ulrich says. “As soon as we started saying that enough, I thought, ‘Why don’t we hire ourselves? We know what we’re capable of doing.’”

On a Whim Studios was born, a hybrid cooking school, art studio, cafe and retail space at 467 Third Street. When they opened their doors, the Lake Oswego natives found a welcoming community.

“We’ve been received really positively, and people have supported us from the first day we opened up,” Ulrich says. “It has been a positive experience. We’re in downtown, which is a community all in itself.

“We’ve found there’s a lot of over-40 women within walking distant of the downtown area that make a conscious effort to support local,” she adds, “and we’ve found that to be vitally important to the quick growth of our business.”

Julia Fowler, who owns Blue Moon Coffee in Lake Grove, similarly found a warm reception when she took over her business in 2011. With 21 years of IT experience under her belt, she had the urge to try entrepreneurship for the first time.

“I would say that my experience with coming into the business community in Lake Oswego was a fairly easy one, given the openness of the other business owners and business community in the city,” Fowler says. “I was able to easily integrate into the community, and there is definitely a sense of community here among the business owners. A lot of that, I think, is reflected in what a great Chamber of Commerce this city has. The citizens involved in that have been absolutely fantastic.

“And I think the residents of Lake Oswego are also really passionate about supporting locally owned businesses,” she adds. “I have my business on Boones Ferry Road, where there are more than half a dozen Starbucks shops within a two-mile stretch. Having our customers be so dedicated to come into an independent coffee shop makes it a little easier.”

Fowler, who won the Chamber of Commerce’s Denton Small Business of the Year Award in March, names two other fellow entrepreneurs as mentors: Carol Winston of Accessories from the Heart and Kyra Bussanich of Kyra’s Bake Shop.

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Carol Winston, who owns Accessories from the Heart on A Avenue and serves as president of the Lake Oswego Business Alliance, says she tries to make sure the city welcomes new entrepreneurs. We work so much better when we work together, she says.

Not always easy

For her part, Winston says Lake Oswego hasn’t always been the easiest place for women to break into business.

When she started looking for a storefront in 1997, she says, “I had difficulty getting a lease, because we were an unknown entity. ...The owner of my previous location wouldn’t give me the time of day to begin with. Then his agent met with me and said, ‘No, I think she’s the real deal.’ But it was difficult getting that first lease.”

At that point, she took any networking opportunity she could get, and found her participation with the Chamber of Commerce was especially fruitful. She now serves as president of the Lake Oswego Business Alliance, which represents businesses in the city’s downtown core.

“I came into Lake Oswego as a complete unknown, because my husband and I lived in West Linn and I’d spent all of my previous time in the wholesale side of commerce,” Winston says. “I knew almost no one when I opened the store on McVey. Four years later, I was president of the Chamber.

“I’ll never forget the opportunity I had to give a speech,” she adds. “I said, ‘Four years ago, I came into this community knowing no one, and here I am, I’ve got 250 friends (sitting here) in the Oswego Lake Country Club that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.’ I have been very grateful to the community for the support I’ve had, and the confidence in my leadership, quite frankly.”

Winston, whose popular shop now sits at the corner of Second Street and A Avenue, has tried to make sure that the city welcomes new entrepreneurs.

“I personally tried to make it a point to meet new people when they came into town,” she says. “I’m a goodwill ambassador, because I think it’s really important. We work so much better when we work together than when we’re concerned about competition. The more retail we have in this community, the better it is for all of us.”

Fowler advises any burgeoning female entrepreneurs in the city to reach out to other, more-established business owners. “People will offer you coaching and mentoring if you ask for it,” she says, “and those kinds of relationships are just invaluable.”

Mary Lou Burton, the owner of Bravo! Wedding & Events, agrees.

“I find that there’s a lot of networking support in Lake Oswego from other women-owned businesses,” she says.

Burton began her business 28 years ago, seeking to create the kind of position that would accommodate her schedule as she raised four children.

“I set it up in a way that would allow other women to work for us, to offer flexible schedules,” she says. “You can’t get a better worker than a mom who’s new, back in the workforce, because she’s already done the hardest job in the world.

“Honestly,” she adds, “I find that a mom working 9 to 3, and four days a week, is way more effective than someone who works so many long hours.”

Burton has found Lake Oswego particularly amenable to that kind of flexibility.

“Our biggest thing is, family comes first,” Burton says. “If things are happy at home, we’re all happier.”

In that vein, Burton is also a proponent of mentorship.

“I find that if I can bring on a girl or even a guy, I can teach them the benefits of being self-employed,” she says. “The cool part is that in Lake Oswego, I think we have a lot of incredible talent.”

That talent takes nurturing, she explains: “Unless you have experience, it’s nearly impossible” to find a good entry-level job. But it’s not just college students and recent graduates who benefit from Burton’s philosophy.

“The person who runs my company, my main person, was my son’s first- and second-grade teacher,” Burton says. “She came to work for me 12 years ago, came to work for the summer, just to have a summer job.”

The woman decided she didn’t want to leave and “literally runs my company now,” Burton says with a laugh.

REVIEW PHOTO: SAUNDRA SORENSON - Judith McGee started McGee Wealth Management, which has a large Lake Oswego client base, 40 years ago. Entrepreneur to me means someone who takes themselves up and builds something from nothing, she says. Its not just retail, it is the professions - the CPAs, attorneys, medical doctors.

Forging a path

Burton says another reason why women business owners have a better chance of flourishing in Lake Oswego is because of the groundwork laid by the women who came before them.

“I guess the bottom line in this city is that there are so many women executives and owners, and if you have enough people doing it, it’s more acceptable,” Burton says.

That’s a sentiment echoed by City Manager Scott Lazenby, who told GoodCall that he wasn’t surprised by Lake Oswego’s ranking in the study.

“Many of the top leaders in our community, in both the public and private sectors, are women,” he says. “Many of our best local businesses — retail, real estate, design, marketing, personal services, you name it — have been started by women. I don’t know what the secret is, but having so many positive role models has to make a difference.”

Interestingly, many of West Linn’s successful, woman-owned businesses depend far less on local support.

Teresa Reed owns Core Components, a wood products manufacturer specializing in scaffold planking and concrete forming used in freeways, bridges, schools and other construction. When Reed started the business 16 years ago, she chose West Linn as a home base because, well, it was her home base. But her customers are all over the country and also in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

“I have a (Woman Business Enterprise certification) nationally, and also through the state of Oregon. We use the national more than anything,” she says, because contractors for government jobs are often required to buy WBE-certified products.

Reed has flourished in West Linn, as have other women-owned businesses that provide one-of-a-kind services for the region — companies like Portland Shrink Wrap, which specializes in large-scale packing, and Pacific Business Systems, which provides record-storage solutions to a variety of clients throughout the Northwest.

A different culture

McGee, who celebrated her business’s 40th anniversary on July 28, is able to take an even longer view of the business climate for women in Lake Oswego. She describes coming up in a culture where “as a woman, you typed your way to success” — that is, women often entered secretarial jobs straight out of high school. McGee was no exception, providing administrative support in engineering, insurance and financial services offices.

“I was fortunate, as I was doing the job search, to be interviewed and hired by a financial planning organization with six members, and they didn’t have anybody running their office in Corvallis. I was able to go there and be mentored, and became a partner of one of the guys, and was entrepreneurial after eight years,” McGee says.

It was a highly unusual move for a woman at the time. McGee became the first-ever female certified financial planner in the region.

“It’s really a helping, caring profession,” she explains. “Ultimately, it’s a giving and helping profession. It’s interpersonal skills and counseling, but it’s also wisdom.”

Asked about the climate for female entrepreneurs in Lake Oswego, McGee says, “You don’t have to be a member of the country club.”

“It really is truly a community, not just a bedroom community,” she explains. “I think that’s the difference. Lake Oswego is in itself a stand-alone. It has its own ambiance, its own culture. I do think that draws people here.”

Contact Saundra Sorenson at 503-636-1281 ext. 107 or