History is sprinkled with women who saw a need and took action. These early entrepreneurs including Lydia Pinkham, Madam C.J. Walker, Elizabeth Arden, and Coco Chanel, who coincidentally got their starts around the same time as Retail Merchants, paved the way for women-owned businesses today.

Since Retail Merchants was founded in 1906, women-owned businesses have grown not only in Richmond, but nationwide. Today, the number of new women-owned businesses has increased at a rate 4x that of businesses founded by men in the last 20 years. Indeed, 18% of all start-ups have at least one female founder and there are more than 12.3 million women-owned businesses nationwide.

While these businesses are responsible for more than $1.8 billion in revenue annually as well as 9.2 million jobs, the path to successful business ownership for many women is still challenging – oftentimes more so than the already difficult path their male counter-parts traverse. While women are slightly more likely to start a business than men these days, they are less likely to seek traditional financing through a bank loan, and when they do, women founders typically receive approximately 45% less money than men.

In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, some of the Richmond women who have solved a problem, followed their passion, and worked really hard, often balancing home and work, have offered up tips for the next generation of women-owned businesses, as well as a look back on what led them to becoming a small business owners.


My partner and I purchased the children’s book shop Narnia. The owner was going to close if she didn’t have a buyer in the next 10 days. We couldn’t bear to live in a town without a children’s book shop. – Jill Stefanovich, bbgb books, 8 years

I worked in banking and IT for many years which gave me a good business background. When the only art center with studios in Richmond moved to Petersburg, I knew that there was a still a market for a place for artists to rent art studios, show their artwork and have exhibits. It was a matter of finding a building and obtaining financing with a local bank (First Market Bank at the time) and then a lot of hard work and long hours. It is a beautiful place in a now thriving area of town, Manchester. – Glenda Kotchish, Art Works, Inc., 15 years

After 7 years in federal law enforcement, I decided to follow my passion for cooking!  That led me to NYC and the International Culinary Center.  I knew I wanted to work for myself in a creative field.  After culinary school, I was a private chef in NYC, worked in the Test Kitchen at Saveur Magazine and stared in my PBS show The Story of Cooking.  Upon moving back to VA with my family, I decided to purchase three kitchen shops! – Sarah Nicholas, Ladles & Linens Kitchen Shoppe, 3 years

I started in 1984 as a cosmetic store and then branched out to be a lingerie and accessory shop specializing in bra fitting. – Ruth McMahon, Kiss and Makeup, 35 years

I entered this industry in the late 80’s as a customer service rep for a company based in Baltimore. Through a long series of mergers and acquisitions over a few years it because clear it would be best for us to venture out on our own. – Melissa Ball, Ball Office Products, 19 years

I was the sales and marketing director with The Jefferson Hotel and worked in NY and LA and while I was there I started going to fashion shows on weekends and decided I would open a business in the fashion industry. – Lisa McSherry, Lex’s of Carytown, 23 years

My business partner and myself saw a gap in the rentals industry that was no providing specialty, vintage, or custom built furniture rentals for special events. We both worked in catering sales and management so had experience working with rental companies in the area. We came up with a business plan and funding and got starting with curating a collection that is still growing and taking on a showroom in Scott’s Addition for warehouse. – Perkins Morgan, Paisley & Jade Specialty Rentals, 7 years


The best advice I would give to a young woman starting a career in the technology business would be to ask questions.  Technology is a tool for business, not just bits and bytes.  Understanding how these tools are useful to businesses and applying technology to solve customer problems is the real career track. – Dorothye Brodersen, Infotel Systems, Inc.

Surround yourselves with people who push you, are honest with you, and aren’t afraid to tell you the hard things you don’t want to hear.  Sometimes they are right.  If your gut tells you they aren’t though – ignore them and keep on chugging along!   Don’t ever be scare to make the jump.  The worst that can happen is you get back up and begin again.  – Kim Moody, trend.

Have good mentors and confidence. – Janice Clifton, The Virginia Cliffe Inn

Connect with other businesses that can support you. Work on your business plan. A business plan is not just a document and words but your guide to making decisions about what kind of brick and mortar you might need and forecast of operating expenses and income projections that you will use to measure your performance every month. – Glenda Kotchish, Art Works, Inc.

Location, location, location! Mold with the customers’ needs and requests; your business model may completely change from what your original idea was. – Lisa McSherry, Lex’s of Carytown

Owning your own business isn’t for the faint of heart for sure, but is truly rewarding!  My advice is always the same no matter what venture you are embarking on.  I always ask myself what I would do if I KNEW I couldn’t fail and then go for it!  Have a solid plan and mission of course, but do it with passion and determination and make it happen! Always seek out mentors to help you along the way and never be afraid to ask questions! – Sarah Nicholas, Ladles & Linens Kitchen Shoppe

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I could get back lots of hours of time wasted trying to solve problems on my own if I hadn’t been so stubborn. Now I have no problem shooting an email or picking up the phone to get advice! – Sarah Paxton, LaDIFF

You need to work several years in the industry and really know how to size women!!! – Ruth McMahon, Kiss and Makeup

Do the business plan and make sure you have enough money to live on for 2 years at least before you open. Surround yourself with good help. Remember you are dealing with artists – take a deep breath and a minute before you respond. – Jenni Kirby, Crossroads Art Center


Not asking for enough! I think women feel intimidated asking for what they need. You have to ask for support, ask for funding, ask to be put in front of the people you want to connect with! Have the confidence to know you and your business are worthy of what there is to be offered out there. – Perkins Morgan, Paisley & Jade Specialty Rentals

Backing – securing the money and being taken seriously. – Jenni Kirby, Crossroads Art Center

It’s consuming and requires you to give up so much of your personal time and other things you want to be committed to.  It really is your new baby. – Janice Clifton, The Virginia Cliffe Inn

The biggest challenge facing women starting out a business (and really anyone), is having to be an expert in so many things.  You can’t just be an expert in what you do, you need to navigate the legal aspects, the marketing piece, the accounting and financial reporting, HR, an a host of unexpected emergencies that take you away from the actual DOING of your business. – Dorothye Brodersen, Infotel Systems, Inc.

My biggest challenge was balancing work, home, children, husband, me. I think this is one of the greatest challenges for most women. Making the trade-offs and not feeling guilty is tough. – Jill Stefanovich, bbgb books

Unfortunately, the biggest hurdle is still work/life balance – but it is getting better! My husband and business partner is also very participatory at home. That’s critical. – Sarah Paxton, LaDIFF

My clients, customers, and employees get the very best of me each day while my children always get what is left.  I try really hard to be present with them every moment I can.  The balance with little ones is very tough, I just try to do my very best each day.  The struggle doesn’t really get easier, but the needs change, and I change as I learn how to give everyone the best that I can.  I’m so much more intentional about my time and efforts these days. – Kim Moody, trend.

Access to capital and good financial planning is very important and sometimes a big challenge when starting a business. Develop good relationships with banks, accountants and other advisors look to them as part of your strategic team. – Melissa Ball, Ball Office Products