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Meet the Women Business Owners Who Make the Midwest Magic

Women entrepreneurs for International Women's Month

At the beginning of March, aka International Women’s Month, we had this great idea:

Why don’t we do a big round-up interview of all the women business owners we work with and admire? Wouldn’t that be fun? 

Well, we were wrong. It was a lot more than fun. It was enlightening, relatable, shocking, comforting, educational, and above all, inspiring.

Being a woman-owned business (one of the only woman-owned coffee roasting companies in Michigan, thankyouverymuch!) is something we are super proud of. Even so, it can be easy to focus on all the challenges we face and all the areas where we want to grow, instead of looking at all that we’ve accomplished for ourselves, our team, and our community. One thing we learned from this interview series is that women business owners often have a hard time giving themselves a pat on the back. Which is ironic, considering all the superpowers women bring to the entrepreneurship game!

As we pulled together these interviews, several patterns emerged in how women business owners think about, operate, manage, and expand their businesses. Here are just a few:

  • Women measure their own success by helping others succeed.

Nearly every business owner we spoke with said that one of their biggest goals for their business is to pay their employees well and offer what they need to thrive. Several also mentioned that making a difference in the world for health, safety, and social justice was just as important to them as the bottom line.  
  • Women build businesses around their customers’ experience.

Of all the women entrepreneurs we interviewed, not one said that they just sell a product. From breathing new life into history, to supporting mental and physical health, to providing space for having fun and making memories, women create products and services that make people feel something. And they’re willing to go the extra mile (usually several) to make that experience truly special.

  • Women are community builders.

It was very telling that every interview ended with the woman business owner giving all the credit to someone else. Her employees, her family, her friends, her professional network. What these women may or may not realize is that they themselves created this support network by being so supportive to others! A great team, a loving family, or a reliable squad don’t just magically show up—they are cultivated through years of intentional, loving care. When you nurture others to live well and follow their dreams, you can bet that they will be there for you when it’s your moment to shine.

We can’t wait for you to dive into these stories from our community of kickass women business owners. But don’t just read--share! Keep the love going by passing this post along to your friends, your colleagues, your daughters and moms, anyone who could benefit from the example of these powerful, visionary entrepreneurs. And make sure to support these amazing brands when you’re in the Keweenaw. They’re the secret sauce that makes this place magical.

Women entrepreneurs in Michigan

What are some of the things that make it rewarding to run your own business?

I think it’s pretty unique that we are the only coffee roasting company in the US that is located in a National Park.  I also think that there is a deep sense of pride by our residents to see our little peninsula thrive. There are really great groups working to keep the area clean, focused on its outdoor wonders, and preserve its resources. All this has really shaped our business strategy, as well as how our products look and feel.—Valerie Baciak, Keweenaw Coffee Works

The “wow” factor of the guests is really great. For whatever reason, people really undervalue the experience they’re going to have here. They come up expecting an ultra-rustic, time-machine experience—it’s almost like they expect no running water or something! But there are lots of really progressive people and businesses doing cool things here. It’s fun and exciting to see people’s eyes open when they realize what kind of experiences are here.—Jen Julien, The Vault Hotel

The people we’ve met through hosting are incredible. They come from all over the country, even the world, looking for some kind of escape, and they’ve found it in Lake Superior and the Keweenaw. That’s why we took the leap from just one cabin, to a series of cabins that we’re now reconstructing. Another is the community—there’s an upward spiral of energy coming from a lot of local businesses. Even more so since COVID—people really dug deep and found ways to move forward, offer unique things, change how they did their product and delivery in order to keep going. —Lynn Makela, Fresh Coast Cabins

I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl, and always wanted to live here full time. I’ve owned a house up here since the early 90s—now I’m literally living my dream. The best part of it is when people come up and say, “Ahh, this is just what I needed.” That feels really good—that we create space for people to share this environment and it gives them the rest, relaxation and special point of view that only this place can create for someone. —Jan Cole, Crowheart LLC Design

The Keweenaw is a wonderful and welcoming place where your customers and staff know each other. It’s just plain awesome to live and work in a place where you’re so happy to be a part of the community. —Trisia Narhi, Roy’s Pasties

Being a part of a community, knowing the names and faces of the people who frequent our store, is a wonderful thing. We have watched families form and grow, we see children move into adulthood, and we celebrate the many milestones of life with each other. As a tourist destination, we often build relationships with many of the people who return year after year. Whether they stay for a week, a season or a few days, it is fun to be a part of their vacation tradition. —Staci Gibson, Gas Lite General Store

There’s always a risk of doing what you love, as opposed to taking the safe route. To this day, I’m always so grateful for the support I’ve gotten from the people in the community. —Lorri Smith, Peace Pies

With my personality, I tend to get bored easily—I’m not the kind of person who likes to do the same thing every day. I feel like I get to do 5 different jobs, which is sometimes overwhelming, but at the same time, I get to go in to work and have a really interesting, fun day. Also, I get to choose whom I work with! We make sure that we get people on board who are focused on the same sorts of issues that we are. —Katherine Duncan, Katherine Anne Confections

As BITCHSTIX’s platform has grown, it has been rewarding to have people share their story with us. These moments can happen at an event, through an email, or in a conversation with a customer. Our tag line is Be Courageous. Speak Up, and I hope to continue to encourage people to use their voice, seek help if needed, help others, and raise awareness.  —Emily Kennerk, BITCHSTIX

Women entrepreneurs in Michigan

What is one business-related milestone that you’re very proud of achieving?

There’s a few that come to mind, but the simplest one that brings me joy, is being known for my designs in the “wild.” Having someone recognize a specific arrangement or bouquet is yours, simply by the design style, is exactly what any artist or creative strives for.  —Bobbi Bicigo, Protea Floral Design

I was sitting on a plane and the person next to me was putting on BITCHSTIX lip balm! She then began to tell me how great the stuff was and that it gave back to survivors of domestic violence. I smiled politely and said, “That’s awesome!” But inside, I was jumping for joy! —Emily Kennerk

A milestone we are so proud of achieving is opening a physical storefront in the midst of the 2020 pandemic! Being new at this, we are so proud of how much we have accomplished in such a short time, and at such a weird time in the world. Grace + Gather has changed our lives, and we feel so passionate about watching it grow. —Bryana Palosaari and Kendra Hulkonen, Harbor + Pine

The construction of our new building on the lakeshore in Houghton. It expanded our capacity in every way, and let us offer seating options to our customers with a great view. It turned us into a destination!  —Trisia Narhi

I’m super excited about being at the point of looking for our own space. I started out of my home, and for the past three years I’ve been employed by Iron Bay restaurant in Marquette. Even though the desserts bring in the smallest amount of revenue for the restaurant, we had the most growth over the past three years, and now we need room to grow. —Lorri Smith

We pay well above minimum wage, have health insurance and paid time off. I feel like we’re just starting to reach the pay and benefit package that makes this a real career, not a gig. We’re getting to the point where someone could consider supporting a family with this job. —Katherine Duncan

Implementing a company-sponsored 401K and profit-sharing plan a few years ago was huge for us. This year, we will reach a significant milestone in donating $100,000 of our profits. —Maria Uspenski, The Tea Spot

Getting through all this COVID stuff and still achieving growth as a business. The last year has been incredibly difficult for small business owners. Even though we have had plenty of ups and downs, at the end of the day, our little eight-year-old business is still breathing new life into the UP coffee industry.  —Valerie Baciak

This year in April, we’ll celebrate five years. I’m going to do a five-year anniversary and it looks like we’ll be able to open up a little bit more…I may be able to even have a party, pour some wine and have some fun! —Holly Jo Smith, Michigan Made

Surviving COVID! The pandemic heralded our second year in business, and it was one hell of a hurdle to cross. We did our best to protect our employees, customers and our community by implementing safety measures very early on. We worked together as a team through a very difficult trial and came out the other side of it intact. We are immensely grateful that we were able to stay open and for all the people who supported our efforts. —Staci Gibson

Bringing the Eagle River lighthouse, the German hotel and the little bar next to it, back to their inner beauty. It’s part of the business, but it’s an emotional, personal milestone for me. The intention of these buildings is what they’re now being used for: a place for people to gather, laugh together, and make memories. —Jan Cole

Women entrepreneurs in Michigan

What are some of the unique challenges of running your business?

We are a tourist economy, so it’s important to learn the natural ebb-and-flow of the seasons, and what that means for managing staffing and cash flow. Starting small and building up little by little has always worked well for us. Also, learning to partner with other businesses has helped us expand our reach outside of the Keweenaw. —Valerie Baciak

I’ve definitely struggled with management style. I was very direct when we first started the company, and I think that turned a lot of people off…especially because I was in my early twenties, younger than most of my team! It’s tough to find that perfect balance that people expect from a woman. —Katherine Duncan

Starting a business from scratch is scary, exciting and thrilling, and you’re exhausted. Then you start running the business and realize all the things you don’t know…and it’s really scary, exciting and thrilling, and you’re really exhausted. But I also think that is what I love about being an entrepreneur—it keeps me going!  —Emily Kennerk

One unique challenge we faced was the lack of people in our area who do something similar, whom we could learn from or be mentored by. —Bryana Palosaari and Kendra Hulkonen

Letting go of doing everything, as I started hiring. I knew how I wanted to see it done, but over time, I’ve learned I can teach others, to the point now where they’re like, “Lorri, go walk your dog, have some tea, we’ve got this.” —Lorri Smith

The location is the reason a lot of people come, but it also creates challenges around finding the things we want to incorporate into the cabin experience. Being far away makes it extra 'interesting'...like when you have to drive 11 hours to get a mid-century propane stove, for example.  —Lynn Makela

Catering to the needs and demands of visitors throughout the year is continually evolving, and we try to keep things fresh and interesting. We often hear people say how surprised they are with the selection we offer, considering the size of our store. It’s a long way to the next supply stop, so we try our best to accommodate a variety of palates and dietary needs. Not to mention the fun extra stuff we tuck in here and there. We get pretty creative, so be sure to look in the nooks and crannies around here! —Staci Gibson

Women entrepreneurs in Michigan

What do you wish people knew about what you do?

For me personally, I do a lot more than manage this hotel. I also work onsite with our construction team all day long, even while managing employees, new projects, and everything else. With a civil engineering background, I personally design every single detail in the process. Another thing people don’t always recognize: a hotel is open 24-7, whi ch means we never take a day off. With reservations sometimes booked a year in advance, there’s always an employee in that building, and somebody offsite managing things from afar. —Jen Julien

So many people see our brick-and-mortar business and assume we’re “just a coffee shop.” In actuality, we are a food manufacturer and wholesaler at the heart of our business. We distribute coffee across the UP, and have a wonderful group of team members that can support new coffee shops with equipment sourcing, staff training, and so much more. —Valerie Baciak

How we work with our staff. I’m always so reticent about humble-bragging, but I really feel lucky that we can give people two weeks of paid time off. But once people realize that, the fact that our prices are what they are makes a little more sense. Also, all 7,000 pounds of chocolate we use per year is Fair Trade. And no joke, we have 15 to 20 different vendors we get ingredients from, for making just five products. —Katherine Duncan

Sometimes I wish people knew that we do everything from scratch. You can make 100 pies per day if you’re thawing a frozen crust and opening a can of filling. I don’t want to make pie that way. Each pie crust is lovingly hand-rolled by myself or one of my staff. —Lorri Smith

How much legwork goes into ordering, researching, and staying on top of new design styles and inspirations. Even though it’s something I love to do, it still takes work on the back end to maintain. —Bobbi Bicigo

Being at the end of the road greatly limits suppliers willing to travel to us. It can be a challenge to satisfy a variety of tastes affordably, and offer the diversity that we are always working towards. —Staci Gibson

My favorite thing to do is to build a special gift basket for someone. For birthdays, anniversaries, retirement, all joyful celebrations. We make custom gift baskets made to order with local products. We get to share their happiness—it’s such a gift to be a part of. Also, it’s putting nice Michigan products in people’s hands that they’d never have heard of. That is really important to me, and it sustains what I do. —Holly Jo Smith

We love when people tell us how the BITCHSTIX brand is so fun/funny, and how they love giving them as gifts to see the “reaction.” We are fun and funny, and we are also very serious about our mission and vision to help survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. —Emily Kennerk

All the careful planning based on how people are going to use things. How do you renovate a space so that it’s useful and comfortable? That keeps me up at night. Especially a building that was built in 1850—how do you hold onto the feeling of the past, but still make it incredibly useful for today? I'm always appreciative when some one says, “You thought of everything!” But thinking of everything takes a lot of effort and time. —Jan Cole

We are in the beginning stages of adding interior design services to our business model, and could not be more thrilled! —Bryana Palosaari and Kendra Hulkonen

What’s most important to you for your business to accomplish?

After George Floyd’s murder last year, I felt absolutely helpless and couldn’t figure out what to do. Sharing articles on Facebook feels good, but it doesn’t really change the world at all. Our goal now is to hire at least half our seasonal staff from organizations that promote workforce development. Last year, we hired folks from New Moms, Inc., which does job training for mothers who are 18 to 25 years of age. Obviously, we have to make money to stay in business, but how can we change the world in our own capacity? —Katherine Duncan

To not only be successful, but to also give back to the community. —Bobbi Bicigo

To make a positive change in people’s lives through tea. —Maria Uspenski

We don’t really think about it as a business. We felt it was more of a service, providing a place for people to play, connect, and create memories in the Keweenaw. —Lynn Makela

Being able to deliver five-star service. With an engineering background, I can say that human beings are the most complex beings to walk the earth, and delivering five-star service to them is the most complex job ever. I have this “pep talk” with my employees a lot: this is the hardest job you’ll have. To always give that kind of service is a lot of effort, but it’s important to us. —Jen Julien

I love working with local purveyors. The local food movement is growing, and we’re using their beautiful produce, maple syrup, locally milled flour. It’s fun to see Peace Pie grow along with these other businesses. —Lorri Smith

It’s really important to me that the lion’s share of our stuff be made in Michigan. I get to meet all these small-batch producers from all over the state, and we all stick together, because we have to! —Holly Jo Smith

It is very important to me that our staff feel valued and appreciated. I want them to feel a part of the process, because they truly are. We cultivate a fun, family-like atmosphere, and work together to shape The Genny into a fun, lighthearted, and happy place. I hope that no matter where they eventually move on to, they look back at their time here and smile. —Staci Gibson

Remaining a stable and significant part of the Keweenaw. We employ 24 fabulous people who make our products with a great deal of love and care. Maintaining our quality, our staff, and our ability to be a productive partner in our community is paramount to our business. —Trisia Narhi

Who are some women that you look to for advice and inspiration?

I love following Melinda Gates, and just listened to her book Moment of Lift. It speaks to those special advantages that women bring to business and community. I also just listened to a fabulous book How Remarkable Women Lead by Joana Barsh and Susie Cranston. And the wisdom I’ve gleamed from re-reading works of African-American authors Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Alice Walker is profound. —Maria Uspenski

Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. She started out with $5,000 and an idea, and built a $1 billion company from the ground up. Marie Forleo, B-School founder and creator of the “Everything is Figureoutable” philosophy. And, of course, all the women featured in this blog post (and the writer!)."—Valerie Baciak

Madame C.J. Walker located her headquarters in Indianapolis IN, also the home of BITCHSTIX. Growing up, I saw and learned from the incredible impact she had on our city.  —Emily Kennerk

There are so many aspirational people that we follow and speak with, from experiential branding folks like Camp Wandawega, to people who are just out there designing, planning, and chasing their dreams. We also found a lot of inspiration from our families. We came to them with this crazy idea of restoring these cabins and said, “Is this nuts?” They said, “Get after it.” And they proceeded to show up every weekend to help us make it happen. —Lynn Makela

Locally, there are a lot of other women business owners that really help. Val from KCW, Holly from Michigan Made, Bobbi from Protea—we have a group text where we talk about issues and how to solve them. It resonates a lot to know your challenges are similar, and you may be experiencing similar things at the same time.  —Jen Julien

For sure my mom. She taught me to never give up, that there are many ways around or through a problem. Those lessons have made a tremendous impact over the years. On a local level, Copper Harbor has a number of businesses owned and operated by women—in many respects it is a very matriarchal town. These ladies are the living definition of sisu, and I consider it a privilege to be counted among them. —Staci Gibson

Bobbi Bicigo of Protea for her endless creativity—her work always warms my heart. Julie Waara for her tireless desire to make our area a more beautiful place. My mom for teaching me simple elegance. My two best friends Liz Levine and Jill Chitra, who are always there, through good times and bad. —Jan Cole

An example of women we look up to as inspiration in our field are Joanna Gaines, Shea McGee, and Julia Marcum. They are all successful women who own design-based businesses and do it with so much grace. —Bryana Palosaari and Kendra Hulkonen

Valerie at KCW comes to mind! She has been supportive since Day One. I also follow this gal in Detroit who has a shop called Sister Pie. We have very similar missions—she’s employing women in her community, and working with local purveyors. Seeing other women throughout the country succeeding in their ventures helps a lot. It lets me know that what I’m doing is possible, and it’s possible to succeed. It also affirms how much people love pie! —Lorri Smith

Val Baciak, Jen Julien, and Alison Ruska are freakin’ badasses, every one of them. It’s a real privilege to me to be able to bounce ideas off them and watch them excel. In Marquette I have another strong group of women that I look up to, talk to and trust. We’re in this together, and we help each other when the going gets tough.  —Holly Jo Smith

Globally, I really enjoy following this company in Europe called Ramble on Wild. The way she runs her business is amazing. As for the advice, Jen from the Vault and Val from KCW have really been huge supports to help me and Protea get through this last year. These ladies have my back and are always there to offer advice and support plus inspiration! —Bobbi Bicigo

Besides coffee, what is one thing you rely on to get it done?

Undistracted time with my family, and making sure I work out. This past summer, when COVID hit, I got back into running for the first time in ten years, and took up cross-country skiing last winter. It was something I needed for my brain to reset from the stress of opening our new hotel. —Jen Julien

Eating chocolate every day! I’m very into the tangible reward of the job—starting the day with chocolate and cream, and ending the day with thousands of truffles. —Katherine Duncan

That would be a very nice bottle of wine, often Pinot Noir from Oregon or a dark rosé. —Lynn Makela

Sleep is huge for me. A lack of sleep is definitely my Kryptonite! —Staci Gibson

My day planner. I’m very much a visual person and I absolutely need to have things written down on a big old-fashioned to-do list, which also includes scheduling self-care time. —Valerie Baciak

I survive by functioning with lists. Also, the candy dish on my desk helps. Not to mention that I’m in an environment every day where baked goods are readily available. It always smells wonderful in here! —Trisia Narhi

Note pads! I usually have three to four working at any one time. Everything is on a list, and nothing feels better than a pen crossing something off. —Jan Cole

My employees. I have a staff of young, passionate women that work hard, share my vision, and show up for me. They’ve already surpassed me in their skills, and they know me pretty well—when I’m stressed out, they can say, “Lorri, go sit and have some coffee, we’ve got this.” I just couldn’t do it without them. —Lorri Smith

My team! Gosh, I’ve got a great team, I really do. 15 amazing women who support us across three stores. —Holly Jo Smith

Besides my partner Zach, a crew of other business women I’ve had the pleasure of gaining as a support network. —Bobbi Bicigo

Love and support from my family, my pets, exercise, nature, and and sleep. —Maria Uspenski

Big, big thanks to all the women entrepreneurs who took the time to speak with us for this feature. Support their companies and spread the word!
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