Bless Your Heart, Honey, I AM the Boss—Part 2
More than half of American working-age women are in the workforce. Our presence is felt not only in so-called pink-collar jobs (which are some of the fastest growing in the country, by the way), but increasingly in male-dominated fields. Yes, there is still a long way to go to achieve employment equality, but even in the Deep South, where boys’ clubs rule and social change is slow, women are shaking off the gender bias and getting down to business. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these successful entrepreneurs had to create their own opportunities as business owners instead of waiting to be offered access to the upper echelons of their professions.
We talked to seven of these role models in the South, from a bounty hunter to the founders of a woman-friendly auto service shop. In fact, we heard so many inspiring stories that we decided to release the interviews in two parts. (Read part one here.) Below is the second installment of conversations with women making strides today that will help girls land their dream jobs tomorrow.
The auto shop owners
Robin Mainer, based in Lewisville, Texas, credits a higher power for her success. When she and her best friend, Kimera Shepler, were looking to get out of the health care industry, Mainer prayed for a solution. “My conversation with God was, ‘I know I'm hardheaded,’ but I wanted [the solution] to be real obvious,” said Mainer.
So, when Shepler proposed an idea suggested by her financial adviser Mainer wasn’t immediately convinced. “I was talking with my financial adviser one day, and he said, ‘Why don't you open a female-friendly oil change place?’” said Shepler.
At first, the two ladies weren’t exactly enthusiastic. “Auto repair was not something I or Kimera would have even thought of becoming involved in, and honestly it was a little intimidating,” says Mainer. But Mainer was ready for a new career and willing to considered the opportunity. In a bid to see what they were getting into, Mainer decided get her car serviced at a local auto shop. She approached the counter and asked for an oil change.
“Fine. Sign here. Go sit down,” barked the guy behind the counter.
She did what she was told, joining two other women in the waiting room. And then things went even further downhill. The women watched in silence as the maintenance man greeted a male customer who came in right after. He was asked what kind of oil he needed, and whether he needed a tire rotation. The difference in treatment was striking.
After confirming neither of the other female customers had such courteous service, Mainer approached the counter and explained that every woman in the waiting room had witnessed the difference in customer service. Mainer wanted to know why none of the women had been asked about a tire rotation. Why were they not given a choice of oil?
“Lady, I don’t want to have to explain it to you,” was the curt reply.
“Oh no he didn’t!” gasped one of the other women.
The sales associate clearly didn’t know who he was up against.
“Let’s just say by the time all three of us ladies left we all had free oil changes and free tire rotations,” said Mainer.
Later, when her younger brother called with a franchise opportunity for an auto service shop, Mainer believed that God had given her all the signs she needed.
Armed with a business plan that included building the facility from the ground up, Mainer and Shepler faced their first, and toughest, hurdle: financing. According to a 2013 report from the National Women’s Business Council, women entrepreneurs are starting businesses at unprecedented rates, yet often lack the needed capital. Among successful businesses, men typically start with six times as much capital as women entrepreneurs, according to the council. Mainer and Shepler experienced this firsthand.
“The banks were having a hard time giving two women money to open an auto repair place,” said Mainer. “We were sitting in front of the banker, and he said to my face, ‘Well you know, Robin, boys work with their dads in the garage and girls don’t.’ And I said, ‘Are you not going to loan me the money because I am a woman?’ And he said, ‘You know I can’t say that out loud.’”
When they weren’t dealing with sexist bankers, Mainer and Shepler had to contend with rogue staff members and patronizing construction companies.
“You would be surprised,” said Mainer. “You are about ready to hand someone nearly $2 million to build a building. They can’t keep calling you little lady.”
“It’s very condescending,” added Shepler.
Despite their challenges, both women feel it’s been a worthwhile experience. They launched Honest-1 Auto Care at the start of 2017 and are woman-friendly down to the smallest details. The waiting area features a play area for children, cozy decor, gourmet coffee, and even a fireplace.
“We have customers who come in and ask, ‘What do you do here?’ ‘Auto Repair.’ ‘No really, what do you do?’ Most of our reviews [and walk-ins] mention how clean it is here,” said Mainer. “I absolutely love what I do.”
Oh, and remember that rude banker? “He asked Kimera if we would consider using them for our second loan,” Mainer said, laughing. “At first, I wanted to say no, but then my inside voice said, ‘Well, let’s look at that interest rate!’”
Business, she said, always comes first.
The fly fishing pro
Kelly McCoy is proof that fishing is not your father’s sport anymore. McCoy, a fisheries biologist, is owner of RiverGirl Fishing Company, a full-service fishing and rental shop located in the sleepy town of Todd in northwestern North Carolina.
Loyal customers make the trek to the shop to take in the Blue Ridge Mountains views, brush up on their fly fishing techniques, tube up and down the river’s pristine waters, or visit with Pepper, the shop’s pet pig.
McCoy caters to newbies while teaching old-school fishermen a thing or two about what a fishing expert looks like. “A lot of people are coming to the shop fascinated that a girl is teaching fly fishing,” she said.
The Alabama native founded her company more than a decade ago after falling deeply in love with the nearby mountains. She hastily packed up and moved in the hopes that her passion would lead to a new position in her field, but nothing materialized. So, she settled in and eventually decided to put down business roots.
“It’s a really tiny town,” said McCoy. “We have a general store, a bakery, two churches, and a post office.”
“I first opened RiverGirl in the bakery. [The owner] had a tiny [room] upstairs, and I rented it for 50 bucks a month. All I had was a 200-gallon fish tank with fish in it, a table, and a little desk,” she said. McCoy sold a couple of fishing rods, but mostly passed the time shooting the breeze with local fishermen.
When a nearby train depot became available, her new friends urged her to jump on the opportunity and move her business in. She reluctantly agreed. Eleven years later, business is booming.
McCoy’s staff now includes 17 employees, and she has expanded her services to include guided fishing tours, fishing licenses, and fly fishing lessons, in addition to kayak, canoe, inner tube, and bicycle rentals. She has noticed some of her clients have even signed up specifically because she is female.
“A lot of guys bring their wives and girlfriends so they can learn from another woman,” said McCoy. “Guys can be overbearing. Women tend to have more patience. And sometimes the girls will pick up a lesson faster than the guys.”
Shreveport-based president and CEO of Ilios Resources Laura Fitzgerald is no stranger to rough terrain and dirty jobs.
Fitzgerald is a certified professional landman with 34 years of oil and gas transactions under her belt. She offers deals to landowners for the rights to black gold or precious minerals found on their property.
Sound tricky? It is. “It’s very complex,” she said. “[Starting in this field]was a lot of risk, but it was the discovery process that intrigued me,” she said of the methods used to find oil. And while there are few women involved in her line of work—in 2012, only 24 percent of landmen were female, according to the American Association of Professional Landmen—that didn’t deter her from delving deeper into her field, even when she faced opposition because of her gender.
“In the South, we are a lot more conservative when it comes to gender roles,” she said. “The initial reaction is that a woman’s place is in the home.”
“There are those that don't give you credit because of your knowledge,” she added. “They think your success is because you are an attractive woman,” she said. “You really have to be self-motivated to be in a place that is mostly men.”
Because of those prevailing viewpoints, Fitzgerald said she tries to meet her male colleagues where they are, making a point of never “getting emotional” in the workplace.
Despite the gender stereotypes, Fitzgerald says there are aspects of the landman industry that are especially well-suited for women. “Women are much more detail-oriented. We have the ability to multitask,” she explained.
These skills come in handy when navigating the complexities of a complicated, high-stakes business. “Our work involves legal matters and covers real property rights,” Fitzgerald said. “Not only are we concerned with determining the right owner information to secure the agreement, lease, or pipeline, but we must also draw up the right agreement to cover the issues we are to handle.”
At home, Fitzgerald has faced no resistance to her professional ambitions. “My husband was very supportive. We helped each other out,” Fitzgerald said. “And my daughter has learned that there are no doors that a woman cannot enter.”
The waste manager
One woman’s trash is another woman's treasure. Just ask Kelly Buffalino, president of Pink-Trash, a Wilmington, North Carolina-based recycling and trash collection service.
Buffalino knows what it’s like to beat the odds. After recovering from breast cancer, she waged a battle to launch Pink-Trash, a company she founded after moving into her neighborhood and nursing a sneaking suspicion that with each trash day she was throwing her money away.
A background in accounting helped her crunch the numbers and confirm her thoughts: She and her neighbors—and even her husband’s business—were being overcharged and underserved by the local waste management firm that serviced her area. So, she decided to start a waste management company providing trash and recycling services to both commercial and residential properties—all with better customer service in mind.
She announced a flat-rate, no-fee business model and dispatched a fleet of bubblegum-pink garbage trucks into Wilmington. She chose pink not only because it’s her favorite color, but to symbolize her breast cancer survivor status.
The tenacity she used to stare down her illness served her well in the early days of Pink-Trash; starting the company was far from easy. Naysayers ranged from skeptical financial lenders to potential customers who just didn’t think she could make it.
“We weren’t taken seriously,” said Buffalino. “We got plenty of rejection letters. We were basically rejected from all major lending institutions.” Buffalino finally resorted to a loan with a regional bank and another with a private financial company. Since these lenders are often the last resort for business owners, the interest is high.
But the tides have turned. Today her business is booming throughout the county, and she has plans to expand recycling service to apartments, condominiums, and other multifamily properties.
She continues to remain passionate about fighting breast cancer and earmarks 1 percent of all revenue for donation to the Pretty in Pink Foundation, which provides financial assistance to underinsured North Carolinians with breast cancer. In 2014, Pink-Trash contributions paid for more than $502,000 in medical procedures, according to the company’s website.
After all her hard work, Buffalino is thankful she didn’t give up. In 2013, Pink-Trash won an entrepreneur of the year award from the Wilmington Business Journal. “That was just the icing on the cake,” she said.
“Now that we’ve been around a while the banks are coming to us,” said Buffalino. “They said that we’d be out of business within six months. We are now going on our fifth year.”