Beyond a Startup: Vermont Womenpreneurs Celebrates Five Years of Connecting Local Business Owners | Paid Post | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published June 5, 2023 at 10:56 a.m.

The 2022 Vermont Womenpreneurs Summit at Hula in Burlington - ISORA LITHGOW CREATIONS
  • Isora Lithgow Creations
  • The 2022 Vermont Womenpreneurs Summit at Hula in Burlington

Janina McCue had been dreaming about starting her own custom cake business since she was 14 years old. After graduating from Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., with a degree in business administration, she moved to Vermont and started working four jobs to make her dream come true.

In between caring for kids as a nanny and practicing her craft as a baker at the former New Moon Café in Burlington, she began building connections in the community. The Burlington area is home to several different business networking groups, and McCue is involved with a quite a few of them, but she says there is something truly special about Vermont Womenpreneurs.

Founded in 2018 by Mieko Ozeki and Bethany Andrews-Nichols, Vermont Womenpreneurs exists to help entrepreneurs like McCue start and run their businesses. It hosts meetups — both in-person and virtual. Classes, too. It also convenes an annual summit that celebrates entrepreneurs from a variety of industries who gather to share their stories. This year's event was on June 7 at the Ponds at Bolton Valley; tickets sold out in three days.

Janina McCue of Red Poppy Cakery - ANDREW CATE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Andrew Cate Photography
  • Janina McCue of Red Poppy Cakery

What makes Vermont Womenpreneurs events so popular, McCue said, is that they’re different from what she found at other networking groups. At the Biz Buzz monthly coffee meetups, there are no name tags or awkward handshakes. No rules constraining the conversations. Women can show up in leggings or sweats — and with their kids. No one judges a late arrival or an early goodbye; everybody gets it. And members genuinely care about each other’s success.

McCue attended her first Biz Buzz in November 2018. “I just felt so motivated by the group and kept coming back,” she said. Within six months, she had officially started her business, Red Poppy Cakery, in the space above what used to be New Moon on Cherry Street.

The business owners she met through Vermont Womenpreneurs didn’t just help McCue get started; they’ve encouraged her to get creative and pursue new ideas, too.

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When everything shut down during the early days of the pandemic, McCue launched baking classes over Zoom as a way to connect with people. The sessions attracted students from all over the country. In 2022, she moved Red Poppy to a brick-and-mortar storefront in Waterbury — one with space for events.

But how could she transition her online success into an in-person reality? McCue shared the question with the Vermont Womenpreneurs community at a meetup. There she connected with Becca Brown, founder and CEO of marketing agency Uppercase Industries, and made a coffee date. When the two met to brainstorm, Brown suggested that McCue start partnering with more local brands and businesses. Said McCue, it was “the best advice ever.”

Just as important as advice, though, is the support she gets, McCue said. It’s especially important to her as a woman running a business on her own.

“All business owners have their struggles, but there’s a different flavor for women in business,” she said, noting that at Vermont Womenpreneurs meetings, people aren’t afraid to talk about their challenges. “It makes me feel less alone.”

Finding the right collaborator

Bethany Andrews-Nichols and Mieko Ozeki, founders of Vermont Womenpreneurs - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Bethany Andrews-Nichols and Mieko Ozeki, founders of Vermont Womenpreneurs

Vermont Womenpreneurs has played a similar role in the lives of its cofounders. Ozeki and Andrews-Nichols met six years ago at what’s now Kestrel Coffee Roasters on Maple Street in Burlington, at a meetup for a group called Ladies Get Paid. Ozeki had just left her job as the program & marketing director at Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield; Andrews-Nichols, an art director for a local beverage company, had been laid off the day before.

“I was going through a lot, and I just let go and bore it all to her,” Andrews-Nichols said, laughing. “And she told me she was going through the same thing and suggested we do it together.”

The two sat down at a table at the coffee shop and talked about their aspirations — what they both wanted out of being in business for themselves. By the time Ozeki met Andrews-Nichols, she'd had a side hustle as a personal brand consultant for five years with her business, Radiance Studios, and was contemplating making that her full-time gig. She had taken time between jobs to go on a Better Selves Fellowship retreat at Knoll Farm in Fayston to examine her strengths. A few months later, Ozeki took a workshop at the nonprofit Center for Women & Enterprise, where the instructor suggested that the solopreneurs in the workshop could convene to keep one another accountable. It inspired her to start organizing meetups at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington for women-owned small businesses starting in January 2018. She invited Andrews-Nichols to attend.

“I often joke that I was creating her support group,” Ozeki said. “But it was really this journey between the two of us.”

Six months later, Ozeki proposed spinning the group off into its own organization and invited Andrews-Nichols to be her cofounder. They designed the new entity around six guiding principles: Vermont Womenpreneurs would convene, connect, collaborate, create, celebrate and care. Those principles are embedded in the organization’s DNA.

In their partnership, Ozeki does the content creation and event planning, and Andrews-Nichols articulates their ideas through graphic designs. Ozeki says they both bring different strengths and skills that contribute to participants’ experience of this community and network.

The first Vermont Womenpreneurs Showcase in 2018 - LAUREN MAZZOTTA PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Lauren Mazzotta Photography
  • The first Vermont Womenpreneurs Showcase in 2018

For instance, Andrews-Nichols came up with the idea to hold the gathering that turned into the first Womenpreneurs Showcase. She and Ozeki were talking after a meetup about the awkwardness of networking events and how exhausting it is to pitch yourself over and over to a room in conversations that feel very transactional. "Wouldn't it be great if there was something like a science fair for small businesses?" Andrews-Nichols asked. Ozeki loved this concept and set out to make it a reality.

That first showcase sold out quickly, with about 90 attendees. Twenty womenpreneurs got a chance to take the stage and tell their business stories.

Andrews-Nichols described the vibe that day: "Once I was at a networking event, and the person I was chatting with immediately ended the conversation once they realized what I did wasn't relevant to them," she said. "That feeling was so different compared to being on stage at the first showcase and being surrounded by people who had my back. I started crying when I told my story, and other people were crying, too. It's a pretty special community."

Afterward, it was clear that Ozeki and Andrews-Nichols had struck a chord that resonated with their audience. Pre-showcase, the Biz Buzz meetups had about five to 10 people attending; the first one following the gathering drew 40 small business owners.

Marie Teme of Green Vision Cleansing at the 2022 Vermont Womenpreneurs Summit - ISORA LITHGOW CREATIONS
  • Isora Lithgow Creations
  • Marie Teme of Green Vision Cleansing at the 2022 Vermont Womenpreneurs Summit

Marie Teme, who runs the cleaning business Green Vision Cleansing, spoke at the 2022 summit. She explained the Vermont Womenpreneurs' return on investment.

“Other groups are paid and require you to make a kind of commitment to see the results you want or get referrals. It takes time and money,” Teme said. “But this group is more casual, and it doesn’t take as much to get something out of it. The connections I made at the summit last June will last forever.”

The success of the group has helped its founders, too. Vermont Womenpreneurs has helped Ozeki find clients for Radiance Studios, her marketing and branding agency. That’s also true for Andrews-Nichols, who runs Beenanza Design. She sourced her Burlington office space at the Soda Plant through the womenpreneur network.

Andrews-Nichols is about to launch a new product called Coverall, which allows users to block print on walls, clothing or any printable surface they desire to create on. Like all Vermont Womenpreneurs members, she’ll get exposure through the group’s word-of-mouth and social media network — Vermont Womenpreneurs has nearly 2,000 Facebook followers and 11,200-plus followers on Instagram.

Growing the network

Kaela Coble of KPC Bookkeeping - STINA BOOTH PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Stina Booth Photography
  • Kaela Coble of KPC Bookkeeping

The next challenge for Ozeki and Andrews-Nichols? Helping Vermonters outside Chittenden County benefit from these types of connections.

The virtual gatherings have been useful for entrepreneurs like Kaela Coble, who lives in St. Albans. After an injury forced her to quit her day job, Coble started looking for a way to work from home with a flexible schedule. Starting her own business seemed like the best option. After taking a few online courses, she found her niche: bookkeeping.

Connecting with Vermont Womenpreneurs helped her zero in on her mission. "After speaking with them, I figured out I was passionate about working with women-owned small businesses, so I narrowed my focus," she explained. She started KPC Bookkeeping in 2022. "It's been so motivating to work with businesses I'm passionate about helping."

Coble says working with clients that are women makes her feel like she’s making a difference, too. One of the biggest problems she sees when bookkeeping for small women-owned businesses is that the owners don’t charge enough and don’t pay themselves. She tries to help clients address that.

Coble attends Vermont Womenpreneurs Zoom meetups and has hosted bookkeeping webinars for the group. Even virtually, she said, she feels like she’s developed a sense of community with the other members. More than 50 percent of her clients have come from her Vermont Womenpreneurs connections.

Becca and Dani Titterton of Your Yuckies! - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Becca and Dani Titterton of Your Yuckies!

Dani and Becca Titterton of Killington have had a similar experience. The mother-daughter duo runs Your Yuckies!, which produces plant-based hygiene bags for hikers to bring along on the trail. They started the company during the pandemic and attended a Biz Buzz last November. They’ve participated in virtual meetups since, but they’re eager to access a group that’s closer to home.

"I'm a face-to-face person," Dani said. "Some people we met at that Biz Buzz became our biggest cheerleaders, even if we had nothing to do with each other's industry. It was very organic and genuine."

Ozeki said the group is trying to come up with more ways for members of the group across the state to meet and interact.

"We've had an ambassador program in the works, and I'm hoping to create chapters," she said. This year's summit will also launch a membership program, which will include a group directory and early access to events across the state.

A May 2023 Biz Buzz meetup at Kestrel Coffee Roasters in Burlington - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • A May 2023 Biz Buzz meetup at Kestrel Coffee Roasters in Burlington
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Ozeki is proud of the progress Vermont Womenpreneurs has made at the five-year mark and expects more growth to come. She said she can remember a time where no one would know who she was in a room. Now she’s often invited in and assigned a seat at the table in places such as the offices of U.S. Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and U.S. Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.). Her success is good for Vermont.

“If we can create a network for women in business where they feel encouraged and supported, more will come and root their businesses in our communities,” Ozeki said. “That’s more effective than any incentive to attract big companies to the state.”

This article was commissioned and paid for by Vermont Womenpreneurs.