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D.C.’s female entrepreneurs spotlight the local woman-owned businesses they love

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Just how vital are women to D.C.’s economy? Enough to put the District on the map: A 2018 study conducted for American Express touts the area as one of the top 10 U.S. cities for employment growth from woman-owned businesses. Hank’s Oyster Bar, Ice Cream Jubilee, DC Improv and more local spots have swelled in size and popularity within the past few years, providing the city more diversity and vitality. Ahead of International Women’s Day on Friday, local female business owners share the love by highlighting their favorite neighborhood haunts — and the fearless women behind them.

Jamie Leeds, Hank’s Oyster Bar

Over the past 14 years, Jamie Leeds has built a restaurant empire with six Hank’s locations — and she’s nowhere close to done. By next year, Hank’s will have its own events space in Old Town Alexandria, in the same building as Hank’s Pasta Bar. The expansion was a long time coming — for Leeds, running Hank’s was always about more than just oysters. “I view [Hank’s] as a people business more so than a food business,” she says. She makes a point to support other businesses that share her community-first mindset, one of them being Pizzeria Paradiso. “[Owner Ruth Gresser] cares about her people, and we both share the same ethos. We’re neighborhood-driven, we care about the communities that we live in and we also give back.”

Shun Pittman, Corps d’Elite

“Surprisingly in D.C., and all across the U.S., most hair salons are still segregated,” says Shun Pittman, owner of Corps d’Elite, a U Street salon intended to make hair and makeup services accessible to everyone — regardless of skin color or hair texture. One of the salon’s hallmarks is its late-night beauty bar, open until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and stocked with makeup developed by the entrepreneur herself. After working late hours on her 4-year-old business, Pittman finds solace in the outdoors. “Jessica Tunon runs Netwalking, and it’s genius,” Pittman says of the networking meetup. “It’s health-conscious and it gets people walking around our beautiful city. You’re not using your digital devices — you’re having quality time bonding with people.”

Kathleen Donahue, Labyrinth Games & Puzzles

How has Capitol Hill board game store Labyrinth Games & Puzzles managed to thrive for nine years in an era when online retailers are king? “Our community is what makes us special,” says owner Kathleen Donahue. Labyrinth boasts roughly 3,000 games “geared toward all ages, from 1 to 100,” and regularly hosts events. One of Donahue’s favorite woman-owned businesses is just a few blocks away: cookware store Hill’s Kitchen. “[Owner] Leah Daniels has done a fantastic job of building a community in a day and age where it’s hard to run an independent retail store,” Donahue says, noting that Hill’s Kitchen is a treasure trove full of unique items. “I can always find really awesome gifts there — she carries beautiful D.C.-themed coasters!”

Pia Carusone, Republic Restoratives

Pia Carusone and Rachel Gardner made history in 2016 by opening D.C.’s first woman-owned distillery, Republic Restoratives. Carusone’s current role might sound drastically different from her previous position as chief of staff to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, but the jobs have more in common than you’d think. “[As chief of staff], you’re steadying your own ship in the sea of chaos,” she says, noting that her project management skills have been essential to running her business. Within the local food scene, Gordy’s Pickle Jar is a highlight for Carusone. “Sarah Gordon and her wife, Sheila [Fain], have built a great brand, and their product is obviously delicious,” Carusone says. “They’ve grown nationally while also staying true to their roots.”

Victoria Lai, Ice Cream Jubilee

Victoria Lai was a high-powered lawyer leading a double life. After she’d get home from her job at the Department of Homeland Security, Lai would spend her nights whipping up imaginative ice cream flavors in her kitchen. In 2014, she took the plunge and opened her own shop, Ice Cream Jubilee, in Navy Yard. Two local restaurateurs Lai looks up to are Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon of Chaia Tacos, which serves vegan tacos. “Chaia in Georgetown started as a passion project that initially began at a farmers market,” Lai says. “They’re focused on local, healthy, fun-to-eat foods — like tacos and cocktails — and they’re just so keyed in to what customers want. They have a beautiful sense of flavors and styles.”

Julianne Brenza, Capital Fringe

If an idea seems too offbeat for any of D.C.’s biggest venues, it most likely has a home at Capital Fringe. The 14-year-old organization began as an annual theater festival spotlighting experimental productions, and has blossomed into a bustling arts space in Northeast that will soon boast three performance stages, a full-service bar and a gallery. With a festival to plan and building renovations to manage, Capital Fringe co-founder Julianne Brenza escapes from the hustle and bustle with a short trip down the street. “Bluebird Sky Yoga in Brookland — and owner Jennie Light — has made a huge impact on my life,” Brenza says. “They welcome everyone as if you were a friend, not just a client. The schedule is very robust and the teachers are really gracious.”

Allyson Jaffe, DC Improv

Being a co-owner of a comedy club isn’t all funny business for Allyson Jaffe. Her role at DC Improv requires her to be a dexterous publicist, talent booker and event planner, on top of managing the club’s comedy school. “There are also a lot of little things, too — if you call the club and get a message telling you who’s performing, it’s me,” Jaffe says. DC Improv regularly hosts national headliners in addition to local acts such as CSz DC’s ComedySportz, which puts on family-friendly improv competitions. “[CSz DC owner] Liz Demery is a talented performer, teacher and coach,” Jaffe says. “It’s all short-form improv, similar to what you would see on ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ No show is the same and the performers are pros.”

Rachel Snider, Nuboxx

You don’t need Floyd Mayweather’s fighting skills to duke it out at NoMa boxing studio Nuboxx. You just need the right attitude. Oh, and a good pair of boxing gloves helps, too. “I want Nuboxx to be welcoming for everyone, and all intimidation left at the door,” says owner Rachel Snider, who opened the boutique gym in 2017. After getting a nice workout at Nuboxx, Snider refreshes her skin using products from Take Care, a Georgetown beauty store owned by Becky Waddell. “When I see [Becky], we talk as if we’re good friends rather than me being treated as just a customer,” she says. “Although we’re in different industries, at the end of the day we’re both entrepreneurs. It’s just nice to know that you’re not alone in all of this.”

Kimberly Smith & Amaya Smith, Brown Beauty Co-Op

Running a retail store is a full-time job on its own. But Kimberly Smith and Amaya Smith (unrelated longtime friends) run Dupont Circle store Brown Beauty Co-Op while also holding down day jobs. “We felt that our own personal wants and needs weren’t reflected in a lot of mainstream beauty stores,” says Amaya, above left. Among the store’s selection of skin, hair and makeup products is foot care line Naturally London. “The owner [Chris Cabrera] is an Air Force veteran who started her business from her home,” Kimberly says. “I personally feel connected to businesses that started from scratch and ended up growing beyond their friends and family.”

Beth Helle & Julie Drews, The Brew Shop

Beth Helle and Julie Drews were co-workers at a consulting firm who had more in common than just their jobs. The two also brewed their own beer, which led them to open their Arlington store in 2016. The Brew Shop features a draft line where customers can fill their growlers with special releases from local breweries, a variety of homebrewing essentials and even a wine club. “It’s a chance for our regulars to gather, share some wine and get two really cool bottles each month,” says Helle, above left. When not at work, both women attend classes at Blue Nectar Yoga in Falls Church. “[Owner] Jane Bahneman is opening a second spot in Crystal City, and it’s inspiring to see someone who started something for themselves grow [a business] like that,” Drews says.

Rebecca Lee Funk, The Outrage

Rebecca Lee Funk encourages you to be outraged when you walk into her store. The Outrage opened in 2017 as an Adams Morgan pop-up shop selling feminist apparel in partnership with the Women’s March. The brand (which also has a location in Philadelphia) donates a portion of each sale to “progressive organizations fighting for social change.” In 2018, The Outrage moved into its current 14th Street location, which will soon house a community space. “We’ve gotten support from a ton of businesses in our neighborhood, including Amanda McClements of Little Leaf,” Funk says of the plant shop. “Amanda is also the owner of Salt & Sundry — her businesses all have the most stunning items, and she’s just brilliant at merchandising.”

Julie Egermayer, Violet

Julie Egermayer’s Violet is a breath of fresh air for shoppers who loathe pricey designer stores that feel haughty and inaccessible. Everything inside the Shaw boutique — which offers affordable apparel for women — is under $100. “Oftentimes, I’d go into a boutique and I’d feel like I wasn’t acknowledged or my business didn’t matter,” Egermayer says about why she started Violet in 2011. “[Friendly customer service] is important, especially in how women enjoy shopping.” She cites Virginia Arrisueño, the owner of Navy Yard retail incubator Steadfast Supply, as a force in D.C.’s creative community. “I’m just in awe of her vision,” Egermayer says. “[Her store is] not just a great place to shop for local items, but it’s also to take a creative workshop or class.”