Women at the Helm
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Women at the Helm

In April 2002, Missy Sutton was convinced by her cousin to attend a party. Thinking nothing of it, Sutton went. What she found there changed her life completely.

Sutton's cousin had brought her to a slumber party, where a group of women get together at one women's house and a party host brings a full range of romance enhancement items for the women to purchase. Sutton had so much fun that night; she could not get the idea of the party out of her head. That September Sutton joined the Slumber Parties company, and started Slumber Parties by Missy.

What started almost four years ago as a part-time venture for extra money, has turned into a full-time, one-woman business for Sutton. When she began her party business, Sutton was working at a publishing company in Washington, D.C., and later became a contractor at AOL. Last year, Sutton, 32, of Ashburn, realized she wanted to do her parties full time, so she quit her job. In 2005, her business sold $70,000 in merchandise.

"I thank my cousin all the time for dragging me to that party," Sutton said.

Sutton is just one of the many women who are stepping into the business world and beginning their own company. In the 2002 census conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 157,100 businesses run by women in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Statistics from the Small Business Association show that in 2003 the number of self-employed women in Virginia increased by 22.3 percent, from 70,234 in 2002 to 85,917 in 2003. Women made up 41.2 percent of self-employed people in the state.

Women also make up a large percentage of small business owners in Loudoun County. The Loudoun County Small Business Development Center said that 54 percent of the people who come in for business counseling are women and that women make up half of the people that attend its business seminars.

SHIVA ETESSAM OPENED her business, Abbey Carpet, on Sterling Boulevard in 1988 and opened a second location in Leesburg in 2003. Last Saturday, she opened her newest design center in Sterling's Price Cascades Plaza. Etessam started the company with her husband two years after they emigrated from Iran.

"We had some money that we wanted to invest in a business," Etessam said. "My husband's family had a background in flooring, so that's what we did."

When she and her husband, Ali, started Abbey Carpet almost 20 years ago, Etessam was only 24 years old and the mother of two young children. She knew nothing about how to run a business, she said, and had to learn everything as she went.

"A lot of [my knowledge] came by doing," Etessam, who has 15 sales people and "countless" installers working for her company, she said. "I learned everything in the real world and I think it was the best thing. Once you experience something it will become more valuable to you."

New to business, Etessam had to rely on more than just her husband's experience and worked to create a family environment in her stores in order to be successful.

"This is not a business where people come in and take something off the shelves," she said. "This business is all about customer service. Every dollar that comes through the door is someone picking you to give their money to."

Although, Etessam has always been president, she saw her husband as the heart of her business and since his death more than a year ago, has worked hard to keep his spirit and his beliefs a part of their business.

"I believe when you have a business it is not about you at all anymore," she said. "It is about the people who work here and come here. That's the same legacy my husband established."

WHILE SOME WOMEN begin businesses with their husbands and some work in a female-driven industry, there are others who are venturing outside of the expected industries for women.

A little more than a year ago, Amy Stowell, 28, started her own temporary mobile storage company called BoxCart with her father. At the time she was looking to start her company, she was living in Dallas, Texas, and working as an accountant for Price Waterhouse Coopers. She was sick of the corporate atmosphere and was ready for a change.

"We knew we wanted to start a business," she said, "but we had to ask ourselves the questions, what do we want to do and where do we want to locate it?"

Having lived for many years in Alexandria, Stowell knew that Northern Virginia was growing quickly and might be the perfect place to come back to. She and her father decided to get into the temporary mobile storage business because they could get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning industry.

"It is so exciting to see an industry that's new and see how it is going to progress," Stowell said. "We're going to be able to help shape the industry as it grows."

BoxCart opened Feb. 1, 2005, in the Loudoun County portion of Chantilly, and in its first year has had 250 customers and has just begun a major radio advertising campaign. Starting her own business has held plenty of surprises for Stowell, from having to create her own advertising campaigns to figuring out what to do when a customer wants his boxes moved and she is only one on the premises.

Working around forklifts, trucks and warehouses is not where a woman might be expected to be comfortable, but for Stowell it has come naturally.

"My background in business has been the biggest help," she said. "I know how to look at the numbers. I know how to look at loans."

WOMEN IN BUSINESS often must face the lower expectations of their male coworkers or, as in Sutton's case, the opinion that what they do is not a real business.

"I've worked in large companies," said Sutton, who is a member of the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce, "and I do the same thing now that I did then. But with this business, until I prove myself, there is a cloud of skepticism over it."

Although she works out of her home, Sutton's days are the same of any other business owner, filled with budgets, inventory, marketing and shipping. Although she is in the business of sexuality, she said, she is proud of the service she provides women.

"One of the biggest problems in a marriage is sex," she said. "Even if a girl comes home with one of our books and giggles about it with her partner, at least they are making a connection. At least they are sharing that moment together."

Whether in the business of sex, storage or flooring, each woman said that the most important thing for women going into business to remember is that they have every right to do what they do and that they are just as capable as the men that surround them.

"There have been vendors that were surprised that there is a woman at a high level in this industry," Stowell said, "but you just have to learn not to question yourself and know that you belong here."

"It's tough work, yes, but women are capable of it," Etessam said. "Men's tolerance for things is not as high. We'll get sad, cry, but then we'll pull it together and keep going."