By: Tanya Brothen
Small businesses are booming across Cayuga County. All you have to do is visit various Main Streets in the region to see that local bakeries, restaurants, yoga studios, gift shops, and other storefronts are bustling with locals and tourists alike. Look even closer, and you’ll notice that these businesses all have something in common: more and more, they are women-owned.
Despite the challenges many faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, women-owned businesses are thriving in the area. And if you ask them what their secret to business success has been, many of them will tell you the same thing: women supporting women.
Take Little Yard Farm, for example, founded and owned by Chef and Farmer Laura Hahn. In 2017, she purchased 25 acres in Sempronius, NY, with the idea of expanding her business of raising chickens into a culinary destination. As she grew the business, she collaborated with other women entrepreneurs in the area.
“I started making soups and selling them through Farm Girl Greens,” Laura recalls. “The apples that grew in our orchard, I trade those to Gail, at Kelloggsville Farm Cidery. Eventually, we started catering parties in the area, and since I couldn’t offer dessert items to my customers, I partnered with Michelle Meyers who owns Little Cow Ice Cream and Confections. We grew together.”
Michelle shares Laura’s sentiment that collaboration with other women-owned businesses is a key to entrepreneurial success in the region. After a few post-college years in New York City, she eventually moved back to her hometown of Union Springs, NY and began making ice cream for her mother. That venture turned into a business, and Michelle credits the support of other women entrepreneurs for the success she’s seen.
“It’s more of a collaboration than competition with women in the business,” she said. “We want to help others grow. We’ll tell the customers who to go to if they request something we can’t provide.” She added, “there’s enough business to go around for all of us.”
Over in Auburn, NY, a yoga studio and a farm-direct matcha company have discovered the many benefits of partnering with other women entrepreneurs. Erin Schillace founded the Zen Den yoga studio four years ago, with a location right in the heart of the historic downtown. When she learned that Luciana Torous, the Founder and Owner of 3 Leaf Tea down the street was looking for a bigger space for her café, she asked Luciana if she’d like to move into the café space adjacent to her yoga studio. Luciana agreed, and they’ve been growing their businesses symbiotically for the past two years.
“We saw the benefits immediately,” said Erin. “Not only is it practical to share the cost of rent, as a business owner, being able to collaborate with someone who has similar ideas and values is incredibly motivating and helpful.” “We were just down the street from each other,” she added, “why not team up?”
Luciana notes that working together can help grow a client base. “We were able to introduce clients to each other’s business, who might otherwise not have found us,” she said. “We’re promoting each other.”
Both women remarked on how downtown Auburn was growing, and that women-owned businesses were the ones leading the way. And they count the support they see women entrepreneurs giving one another among the main reasons so many have found success. “If any woman is hesitant about opening a business they should go for it - they will have a lot of support,” said Luciana.
A common feature of women-owned businesses in Cayuga County is how much they spread that support not just to other businesses, but throughout the entire community. Ashley McLeod, Director of In Our Words Apparel, knows all about giving back. The company is a division of Gwen, Inc., a company devoted to supporting mid-level to executive level leaders as they navigate their careers.
With In Our Words Apparel, Ashley said she wanted to inspire women to show up as themselves, unapologetically. The company sells clothing with empowering statements, including “#BeLikeHarriet,” and “#WeArentGoingAnywhere.”
“Every product I create is made with the intention of helping women be who they truly are, and to stop making themselves small, as I used to do,” she says. “I want women to have a vision for their lives, and to do things intentionally.”
In addition to selling online, In Our Words Apparel’s products, which have expanded to include more than just clothing, are carried by The Life @ Salt City Market in Syracuse, NY. “I believe in community,” said Ashley, “which is why we share the proceeds we receive from sales at the market with the Good Life Foundation. They provide local youth with career mentors, an entrepreneurial education, and life skills, through the use of hip hop culture.” “This collaboration helps build the community,” she emphasized.
Ashley also remarks on how she and other women entrepreneurs are supporting each other. “We pride ourselves on working with women,” she said, noting that women-owned businesses manage her web design, product development, and other aspects of In Our Words Apparel. “I’m forever grateful to these women who have helped me bring my vision to life, and as women, we have to continue to work together to help other women-owned businesses - it propels all of us forward.”
Propelling an entire community forward is exactly what happened in Fair Haven, NY when the simple act of women going for a walk together led to the development of a thriving arts community. At the heart of it all is the Fair Haven Community Arts Center, founded and owned by Susan Lemon and Pat Hanford. As Susan, who also owns the Hardware Cafe and General Store, tells it: “One day, I joined a group of 10 women for a writing workshop, we took a walk along Lake Ontario, and we all just clicked. That’s where I met Pat. She and I decided to buy a building and start an artist center. We didn’t even know each other that well, we took a risk, but we thought it was a good thing to have in the community and we wanted to do something meaningful in our retirement years.”
Today, their risk has paid off. Their organization is the center of a thriving arts community in Fair Haven. Hosted in a lovingly renovated 1864 home, the center hosts a busy schedule of year-round art classes and art shows. “We are open to everybody,” noted Susan. “We have one big show in the spring, several in the summer, and one in the fall, and we’ve also renovated the barn behind the building where we host performances - and we want to do more!”
“To think this all started when several women decided to take the chance and come together one fall afternoon for a walk on the beach,” she remarked.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the women of Cayuga County are teaming up to revitalize historic downtowns, support and grow each other’s businesses, and give back to the community. After all, the county has a rich history of women taking the lead.
From an emancipated Harriet Tubman establishing her home - and her incredible life’s work - in Auburn, NY, to the nearby Seneca Falls Convention which launched the women’s suffrage movement in 1848, to the modern women who are following in the footsteps of their community-leading foremothers, in and around Cayuga County, women supporting women is a long tradition. And for those looking to explore that tradition, Brave Women FLX, a division of the Finger Lakes Regional Tourism Council, provides itineraries and recommendations to help you plan your ideal visit.
Today, women entrepreneurs across the region are demonstrating how collaboration can be a boon, not only for profits, but also for a stronger, healthier community. This Women’s History Month, be sure to check out a woman-owned business during your visit upstate. One shouldn’t be hard to find - thanks to the power of women, business in Cayuga County is booming.