A few years ago, national news outlets published a story that created quite a buzz among local business owners, politicians and media alike: Santa Fe was named by Forbes and other publications as the best city for woman-owned businesses in the country.
The stories were based on a study by personal finance site NerdWallet, which ranked Santa Fe above many larger cities that are known to be business hubs; Boulder, Colorado, came in second, Washington, DC, came in seventh, and San Francisco was ranked ninth.
NerdWallet looked at data from 289 metro areas with at least 10,000 businesses, and rankings were based on factors including the total number of independently owned businesses per capita, the percentage of companies owned by women, the average revenue of woman-owned businesses and how many of those businesses had employees beyond the founder. The study, made public in 2015, also considered quality of life, including factors such as the number of women with a bachelor's degree, unemployment levels and cost of living.
According to the study, Santa Fe has more independent businesses per capita than most cities on the list, and a third of those businesses are owned by women; the study also indicated there is a greater proportion of woman-owned businesses here than other cities it considered.
The ranking illustrates Santa Fe as a small city where many women own small businesses, work for themselves, and can successfully support themselves doing their own thing.
But four years after the study, how's it looking? What makes Santa Fe special, and what are the greatest challenges for female business owners?
"When you look at women-owned businesses in Santa Fe, or any businesses in Santa Fe for that matter, many are focused in the arts, services, retail and tourism," says Marie Longserre, president and CEO of the Santa Fe Business Incubator, an organization that offers key support services such as coaching and outreach to local startups.
Longserre explains that these kinds of local establishments are sometimes easier to start than businesses in tech or manufacturing, which require an initial investment of capital for creating prototypes and products. Building a business that is scalable—that could one day become a company with a national reach—is even harder, especially in a city where seed money is often hard to come by. "In general, though, I think Santa Fe is a very supportive community for women business owners, and you can't discount the value of that support," she says.
According to the Census Survey of Business Owners, in 2012, 42% of all firms in Santa Fe County were owned by women—even more than NerdWallet found. Data from the 2017 survey will likely be released later next year.
Yet, current data from the Santa Fe Small Business Development Center confirms that about 68% of woman-owned businesses in Santa Fe have fewer than five employees, which is right on target with the national average, according to 2012 economic census data (the most recent and in-depth body of data available).
Also of note is that, according to the NerdWallet study, the average annual revenue of woman-owned businesses ($107,209.58) was significantly lower than many other cities. Interestingly, most of the smaller cities on the list raked in higher average revenue for woman-owned businesses than large cities such as DC and San Francisco, but average revenue for Santa Fe was at least five times lower than other cities of a similar size such as Racine, Wisconsin.
Many of the people who spoke to SFR say insufficient start-up funding is an obstacle, but this is not an issue unique to Santa Fe.
Nationally, woman-owned businesses, including franchise locations, now account for 39% of all firms in the US. Over the last two decades, women have started new businesses at more than twice the rate of all businesses on average, according to the 2017 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report commissioned by American Express.
But in 2017, female founders only received 2.2% of venture capital invested. Most startup funding goes to California and a few other states, leaving only a sliver of the pie for women everywhere else, including New Mexico. Further, women who are not white get even less money, statistically.
When it comes to the success of small local businesses, says Santa Fe Small Business Development Center Director Brian DuBoff, the most important factor is having a solid business plan and savings to work with.
It's possible that the scarcity of successful corporate enterprises in Santa Fe could even have a role to play in why we have a higher percentage of female business owners than most cities, he says.
"Santa Fe is such an appealing city; people want to be here. They will figure out how to make it work, and if that means starting their own business, then that's what they will do," says DuBoff. If you can't find a job that will pay you what you are worth, create your own.
That's not to say local entrepreneurs don't have many organizations that offer support, loans and small amounts of capital for Santa Fe businesses. This includes WESST, a statewide small business development and training organization that works primarily with low-income women, the Santa Fe Small Business Development Loan Fund and the Small Business Administration.
Another factor, DuBoff speculates, could be our older-than-average population. It's much easier to start a business when you already have experience under your belt and money in the bank, and many people move to Santa Fe after pursuing successful careers elsewhere.
But Santa Fe also has some key advantages for younger people just starting out.
Kate Noble, founder of MIX Santa Fe networking organization, says marketing, proof of concept and finding talent are sometimes greater challenges than funding for the participants of Santa Fe's popular startup accelerator program BizMIX, which hosts a yearly pitch contest, a business development program and small financial awards for people with creative business ideas. She says having such a strong community of people who think outside the box is one of Santa Fe's advantages for women.
"This is a place where an independent spirit is valued, where we have a culture that embraces a freelance, see-what-happens attitude, and we have hundreds of badass women who have discovered that they can make it work and who support each other and encourage each other," says Noble. "That kind of support is such a key asset. … I think entrepreneurship is in this town's DNA."
Again and again, members of the Santa Fe business community came back to one thing that makes Santa Fe a great place for women in business—each other. Access to networks of personal and professional support from other female founders is not an insignificant advantage. As Forbes reported last year, female founders who are members of business communities are "twice as likely to forecast growth, compared to those who are not."
The Santa Fe female entrepreneurs featured here have one thing in common: They measure their success by their ability to give back as much as by getting ahead.
Alterations and More
Cactus Centro, 2864 Cerrillos Road,
Ste. 115, 424-9216
Last year, Laura Hermosillo won the Woman-Owned Business of the Year award from the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce. It was the 10th anniversary of her business, Alterations and More.
"When she said my name, my God, I can't believe it, it was a really big surprise," she tells SFR in her shop that is packed with carefully hung garments. In the back room, three employees work on repairs next to a large industrial embroidery machine. "One day I was homeless; to be woman-owned business of the year not too many years later—it's a little crazy!"
Hermosillo started her business in 2008 while she was living at the St. Elizabeth's shelter with her three kids. She had been working for a dry-cleaning service in town for several years, but still hardly spoke a word of English. Far from deterring her, she says the hard times gave her motivation to do whatever she had to do to make it. This attitude has pervaded every aspect of how she has grown her business. "I always try to find the positive things in the bad things," she says, her English much improved.
Hermosillo is originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, where she owned a shop working as a seamstress.
"When I first was coming here, I was working cleaning houses, and then at the dry cleaner—but that was not my job that I wanted. I have different skills and I wanted to make a business where I can use them," she says.
Hermosillo started her business with three months of expenses in the bank, but that was it—she never took out any loans or participated in any development programs. She says all of her support has come from her family, her community and her clients. Her former boss, for instance, was her first client and is still among her most loyal customers.
Over the last 11 years, her shop has grown slowly but steadily. The business started with one room, then two, now she has four rooms in the strip mall on Cerrillos where the shop is located. She now employs four other women.
Being a single mom and overcoming the language barrier are the two greatest challenges she has faced in achieving her success, says Hermosillo.
She says that she does not believe there are enough resources for the Spanish-speaking community, and that many of the existing resources don't do enough outreach to women like her. After she won the award, for example, she participated in a Spanish-language information session put on by SCORE and the City of Santa Fe Department of Economic Development to advise others on how to start their own businesses. Many support organizations, loan funds and business advocates were there to give advice to attendees, but only one person showed up in the audience.
Hermosillo attributes this to lack of outreach. For the next event, she took a personal approach to inform as many people as possible, and at least 12 people showed up for the most recent info session. But still, she thinks Santa Fe could do more, especially in helping Spanish-speakers overcome the language barrier. She says she tried to get involved with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, but it was unresponsive.
That group's president, though, tells SFR it conducts monthly bilingual meetups. Other organizations, such as the conventional Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, Santa Fe Professional Business Women and the Santa Fe Business Incubator say they do not put on events or workshops specifically geared towards the Spanish-speaking community, but do hire translators for regularly scheduled events.
"To be a woman in a man's world is difficult," Hermosillo says, "and if you add to that immigrant, not full English speaker, has kids … For Hispanic people, it's hard, because we don't know first the language and we don't know the rules." Yet she always found individuals who wanted to help her succeed. Now, she wants to extend the network of community support to others.
"I want to give classes to ladies at the Esperanza Shelter. I want to contribute. First, how to learn to sew, and then to take the next step for themselves. I lived in Esperanza shelter for one month when I just started my business, so this is the reason that I want to help the ladies; to give back the help that I received in the moment."
Carolyn Parrs and Alexandra Merlino
Mind Over Markets and You Are My Sunshine
Carolyn Parrs began with a successful marketing career in New York. But when she moved to Santa Fe over 20 years ago, she says she wanted to start her own business doing something that mattered more. So, she and her then-husband started Mind Over Markets, a marketing firm that helps sustainable brands increase their market share.
"We decided to market products and services that we believe in and love, and that was when my values were connected to the work I did, and I really got motivated. I was good at this marketing stuff, and now I just wanted to do it for the things that I felt were good for the planet and the people living on it," she says. Before Parrs came to Santa Fe, she launched a pet fashion company in New York that she sold just a few years later. This experience made it easier to begin Mind Over Markets.
Parrs found her niche in sustainability at a time when the field was more of a fledgling. She started out doing branding for local cosmetics companies, but quickly took on clients all over the country because she was one of the few firms with expertise in the area. She now has an office in Seattle and speaks at conferences around the country.
She says she is grateful to live in a place where so many women are empowered to run their own local establishments, but the city could be doing a lot more to support women who want to start businesses with a wider scope and national audience.
"Do I think Santa Fe can do a better job for women in business? Yes!" she says. "I do not think we have a lot of resources for women in business. If you are passionate and hungry, you can make it happen—because I made my business happen while raising two kids. So, I'm not saying it can't be done in Santa Fe, but you have to really connect the dots, build your relationships."
On the other hand, says Parrs, the advantage of living in Santa Fe is that people are willing to give beginners a chance, and the individuals who have the resources and connections that a small business needs in order to succeed are all within reach. Her experience of bigger cities has been that small enterprises have a lot more competition, and support can be harder to find.
Her advice for other women is based in her marketing experience. "You have to know your skill, know your brand identity and put yourself together in a professional way. Your brand is your first impression out there."
Now, Parrs is in the process of launching her third business with partner Alexandra Merlino making reef-safe sunscreen in bottles made out of recycled ocean plastic, and the sunscreen itself is produced in Taos. The company, called You Are My Sunshine, is "totally New Mexico-centric," she says.
Merlino is also a serial entrepreneur with experience starting businesses in New York as well as Albuquerque. She tells SFR, "I focus on creating solution-based companies." Her last business, Teres Kids, manufactured clothing for children with tactile sensitivities.
"That's just crazy!" she says dubiously when SFR asks whether she would consider Santa Fe the best place for women in business. "I do however know a lot of women who are service providers, massage therapists, artists, we have all these really small businesses and lots of crafters here, and that's great, but it depends on how you define 'small business.' … I think there is a great community here of women supporting each other, but I think a lot of women go into business not because they want to but because they don't have a choice in Santa Fe."
But she also says that for many people she knows who could likely find better-paying jobs elsewhere, the community, the landscape and the culture make the struggle worthwhile. If there is one thing the city could do better, she says, it would be to provide a more robust mentorship network for women just starting out.
Merlino approached Parrs a year ago with the idea for You Are My Sunshine because, she says, they had values and experiences that were complimentary.
In the decade that they had known each other, Parrs had also started Women of Green, an online forum for women with interests in sustainability.
In the process of starting Mind Over Markets, Parrs says, she met so many women with amazing and inspiring ideas, and she wanted to share her professional experience to help other women get their companies off the ground. She began coaching women in sustainable business practice, and in 2017 she held the first Women of Green conference in Santa Fe.
"I used to feel like I existed in two separate worlds. One was the life I was born into—I was brought up very traditionally, speaking Diné with my grandparents and tending to the animals on their farm," says Samantha Platero. "The other was the life that I chose in the world of international fashion that was very cosmopolitan. It used to feel impossible for me to exist in both worlds, both identities, at the same time. It was painful to feel I had to choose one or the other. And now, here I am—I've found a way to bring those two worlds together, and I've done it through jewelry, which is such an important part of my heritage."
Platero means silversmith in Spanish. She says the craft has been carried on by both sides of her family for generations, and her grandparents were well known for their craftsmanship by Native American jewelry collectors such as Lucille Ball.
Platero was born in Gallup, New Mexico, and grew up on the Navajo Nation near Prewitt along the I-40 corridor. But she had dreams that extended far beyond the boundaries of the reservation. At 18, she moved to Europe to study art and photography in Rome, then to London to pursue a degree in international journalism and media studies. It was there that by fate or by chance, a part-time job with a jewelry designer sparked a career that eventually led back to New Mexico.
In the eight years Platero spent working for fine jewelry designers in Paris, London and Los Angeles, she noticed Native motifs were being exploited by non-Native designers. "I knew there as a market for an international Native American fine jewelry brand because these items were very popular," says Platero.
Growing up, she watched her grandparents get taken advantage of by non-Native people who bought jewelry for a fraction of what it was worth and then made a huge profit reselling it at marked-up prices. Going back as an adult, she learned the craft was quickly being lost because few young people saw it as an opportunity, and older Diné silversmiths were struggling to compete with inauthentic, cheaply made pieces flooding the market.
She decided to create a brand employing master craftsmen practicing traditional techniques to create pieces with an aesthetic that felt contemporary and innovative. "Native American jewelry traditions weren't being respected, but I realized I could do something to change that," she says.
Platero approached Navajo Nation council delegates and the CEO of Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise, a manufacturing initiative owned by the Navajo Nation, to ask for funding. She partnered with NACE to access manufacturing space and craftsmen in Window Rock and in Santa Fe. She says NACE plans to start classes and apprenticeship programs on traditional silversmithing for youth.
"The delegates were very excited to support my vision of Native American jewelry, which could be really interesting to younger artisans who might be intrigued by having different opportunities, like traveling with an international brand and the possibility to incorporate modern design into the traditional techniques," says Platero.
In the two years since Platero moved to Santa Fe to start her company, Dineh Jewelry, in 2017, she has been remarkably successful. Her collections are represented by international showroom Touba London, sell in major stores including Barneys Japan, EDITION and Matchesfashion, and have shown at Fashion Week in Paris and London. This summer she will take part in international men's trade show Pitti Uomo in Florence, Italy.
But with success comes growing pains. Platero is at the stage now where she could make it or break it. She is doing as much she can with the resources she has, but to keep up with the volume of orders from buyers and to compete with the multimillion-dollar brands in the industry, her business must expand.
Investors and buyers are always surprised to see her, she says. They are expecting someone older, more established—and above all, it seems to her, they are expecting a man.
"I've had investors tell me they would feel more comfortable if I had a business partner, by which they made it pretty obvious they meant a male business partner," she says. "And I've had men say they are concerned I would spend too much money focused on my 'lifestyle.' Honestly, it's probably because they don't know how to deal with a smart, ambitious, beautiful young woman who wants to be their equal," she laughs, then becomes serious as she discusses the very real gender biases in start-up funding.
She says she's grateful she got the chance to participate in a Native Entrepreneur in Residence program with New Mexico Community Capital last year that helped her develop a long-term business plan, "build my confidence in my business and learn the tools and the vernacular to be a successful entrepreneur. If I hadn't done that program, this phase would have been so much harder."
Eventually, Platero envisions growing her brand to include other traditional Diné art forms such as weaving, and creating a market for contemporary items that simultaneously preserve tradition and build economic opportunity for Diné youth.
"I am proud of where I come from, I know my roots, I am very centered in that. So yeah, you might look at me and say. 'Oh, she looks so cosmopolitan.' And at times I do get judged by other Native people, because my lifestyle and my aesthetic is so modern. But at the same time, I can go and butcher a sheep or be part of our ceremonies and speak Diné with the craftsmen I work with. This business allows me to embrace all aspects of myself. And as a young Native woman, this is crucial."
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misspelled Alexandra Merlino's first name in a subheading.