Women owned small businesses, operating on a ‘purse-string’

JEFFREY MACMILLAN FOR WASHINGTON POST - ASHBURN, VA- SEPT. 20, 2012: Kathy Minchew, founder of Purse Strings Network, in her home office in Ashburn, VA. 9/20/12.( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan )

Sharon Payne, an independent development business consultant in the D.C. area, was facing a business challenge and looking for advice. She was having trouble ensuring a client would pay her for her consulting services.

So she reached out to a group of other go-getters recently at a gathering in the bottom floor of Teaism, a Penn Quarter eatery.

Several women at the table piped up with advice. She could request payment up front, one suggested. She could also adjust her rate based on the amount of time spent with the client, said another.

Such brainstorming is why Kathy Minchew started the Purse Strings Network, a fledging organization of women who own small businesses. At monthly chapter meetings, members are expected to share a business challenge for others to chew on.

At the Penn Quarter meetup, no two members worked for the same company. They were from a variety of industries, ranging from information technology to marketing. Some had just started new ventures, and others were industry veterans.

Most of them had only two elements in common: their gender, and their involvement in business.

“The people in this are from all different walks,” Minchew said, but “the meetings are all about generic business” issues.

The group is limited to women, she said, because “women understand helping each other. It’s a natural thing.”

Purse Strings has established three chapters so far — in Tysons Corner, Rockville, and Washington. Over the past few years, membership has grown to more than 40 active members. While Minchew and the chapter leaders often recruit their friends and contacts to attend meetings informally, Minchew said she caps each meeting to about 35 members to ensure the gatherings are productive.

Minchew has instituted certain requirements for membership: Participants must be the female owner of a business with fewer than 25 employees. They must have at least 5-to-10 years of experience in their industry. Members must also agree to learn and share experiences with others, with a positive attitude and entrepreneurial spirit.

In Minchew’s experience, “a lot of women feel they don’t have the power men have in the business world today” but they “tend to be better networkers” — so the group is meant to meant for them to discuss challenges and connect.

For some members, the benefits are psychological — “to put what I’m struggling with as a small business owner into perspective, and to know I’m on the right track,” said Barbara Faculjak, founder of D.C.-based Minerva Marketing.

But for Becky Roberts, president of Waterford, Va.-based business management firm Catoctin Consulting, the discussions tend toward challenges facing younger businesses — and since she’s owned her business for 15 years, it’s not as helpful. The most valuable part of the meetings, she said, is the networking. She has been able to add value to her own professional projects by connecting her clients with other Purse Strings members with specific expertise.

Even though few of the discussions center on issues specific to women, Roberts said she thinks “women are much more comfortable talking about some of the real issues. [In a mixed group], there would be a little less candor.”

Minchew founded the network in 2007, shortly after she started her own Ashburn-based consulting firm, Federal Insights. Despite her 30 years of industry experience, Minchew was struggling to build contacts and secure contracts. Within a year, she found herself mentoring other female consultants about the challenges she’d overcome. She decided to multiply the one-on-one connections she had made into a larger network. News of the network spread by word of mouth.

Though the Purse Strings network is often flexible about meeting times to accommodate members’ busy schedules, Minchew absolutely refuses to budge on the group’s name, which is modeled after the “Bootstrap Network,” an organization of entrepreneurs founded in Austin, Texas. Since “bootstrap” is a “guy thing”, Minchew chose “purse-strings” as a feminine counterpart.

“I’m willing to change many things, but I like the name. ‘Managing your business on a ‘purse string’,” she said. 

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