‘I’m Just Me’: Women Owners of Promotional Product Businesses Share Their Stories

‘I’m Just Me’: Women Owners of Promotional Product Businesses Share Their Stories

In honor of Women’s History Month, leaders of small companies in promo discuss the challenges they’ve faced and the need to promote each other’s achievements.

Nenette Gray’s professional brand is so synonymous with cheery citrus fruit that she’s often the first person who comes to mind when people in her network spot it. “I receive little gifts with lemon prints all the time,” says the “chief lemonade maker” at Baton Rouge-based Lemonade Creative Marketing (asi/466802), from her office aptly painted in a bright yellow hue.

Nenette Gray in the brightly colored offices of Lemonade Creative Marketing in Baton Rouge. She founded the company in 2010 after being laid off from her pharma job – making lemonade out of lemons.

Today, Gray’s company is certified with the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), a certified Woman Owned Small Business with the Small Business Association (SBA) and a National Minority Supplier. But the whimsical company name and optimistic environment stems from a not-so-fun time in Gray’s life nearly 15 years ago, when the entire specialty division at the pharma firm where she worked in sales was dissolved and about 1,400 people – including Gray – lost their jobs.

After nearly 20 years in corporate America, it was the world Gray knew. But she also knew promotional products, having served clients part-time for years.

So she had a choice to make: find another job in corporate, or go full-time in a fun industry. She chose the latter, and made “lemonade” out of the lemons she’d been handed. Today, she has six full-time employees, as well as 10 contract staff members for fulfillment needs, and will soon be relocating to a bigger office in Baton Rouge. And yes, the in-house lemonade stand that Gray built for post-meeting drinks is coming with them.

Gray is part of a growing cohort of women who own and operate their own companies. Careers site Zippia says there’s been a 114% increase in the number of female entrepreneurs over the last 20 years. In the U.S., 42% of small businesses are owned by women, and women-owned businesses of all sizes collectively generate an average of $1.8 trillion a year.

Those stats are promising, but there’s still progress to be made toward gender equity among company owners. According to digital loan marketplace Lendio, 40% of women who apply for business loans don’t succeed in obtaining essential funds. And a recent study from financial database PitchBook found that startups with all-women teams received just 1.9%, or $4.5 billion, of all venture capital funding (nearly $240 billion) in 2022, down from 2.4% in 2021. Moreover, PitchBook discovered that more money tended to be invested in those firms that identify the executive team as having “at least one woman founder” instead of “all-women.”

Meanwhile, female employees continue to contend with gender bias. The Women in the Workplace 2022 report from McKinsey found, for example, that 36% have had their judgment questioned in the area of their expertise, compared to 27% of men, and 31% of women report feeling compelled to provide more evidence of their capabilities than others do, compared to just 16% of men.

In addition, one in five women also report that they’re often the only or one of the only females in the room. More than 80% of these “Onlys” (as McKinsey terms them) experience microaggressions, like having their abilities challenged or being subjected to unprofessional or condescending remarks.

To be a woman in business requires tenacity, ambition and grit, particularly when it comes to balancing personal responsibilities with professional objectives, contending with persistent biases and simply differentiating themselves in a crowded, competitive industry. To continue to make strides, the owners that ASI Media spoke to agree – it’s up to women in promo and all of business to lift each other up and give each other much-deserved exposure.

Traditional gender roles have long stipulated that household management belongs to women. That’s largely stayed the same over the decades, even when she’s a business owner. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 60% of women do more household chores than their male spouse or partner, and almost three-quarters say they do more managing of their kids’ schedules and activities.

When Gray went full-time with Lemonade Creative Marketing, she had young children to care for. That made building a business particularly challenging, especially when she felt she’s often had to prove herself to a greater extent than do her male counterparts. Fortunately, she says, women are adept at managing many responsibilities at once.

“In general, women have more balls to juggle in order to balance our personal and professional lives, and we have to prove ourselves more,” she says. “There are higher expectations on us.”

What makes women well suited to management and sales? We asked industry company owners for their opinion. Although business, and particularly sales, has long been male-dominated, women say they’re in fact ideally suited for it. “We want to take care of the people and world around us,” says Mo Calderon of Mo’s Bundt Cakes (asi/71843). “We value relationships, connecting and engaging, and that’s important to customers and the people we do business with.” Lauri Felson, president of Symphony Seed Papers/Okina (asi/74930) in Santa Fe, says having a woman-owned business has given her a competitive advantage during the almost 30 years she’s been in the industry. “We’re sensitive to clients’ needs, we’re friendly and engaged, and we’re incredibly talented in art and design,” she says of her 12-woman group. “My female crew gets along so well and continues to come up with unique products. I fought really hard to win trust and confidence in a male-dominated industry full of golf balls, hats and pens.” Women tend to have a maternal, empathetic instinct that helps strengthen relationships, says Stephanie Quiambao-Flores of Creative Tantrum (asi/171122/525942). “We have a sense about things,” she adds. “We want promo to evoke emotion in recipients. We have a grasp on that, and we take different perspectives into account. And we’re very successful when we get facetime and clients see results.” Nenette Gray of Lemonade Creative Marketing (asi/466802) says women “have a keen eye for detail in a nuanced industry.” They’re adept at building deep connections, she adds, which can mean the difference between acquiring a new client and losing them to someone else. “I learned the importance of networking while in pharma sales,” says Gray. “You have to differentiate yourself from other reps. People buy from those they know, like and trust, and women are easy to trust.” Michelle Chen of Fossa Apparel (asi/55141) says that vulnerability, while it’s not usually lauded as powerful, can be an opportunity to build lasting relationships with clients. “Being open and honest with others is an opportunity to bond with others, while men think it’s a weakness,” she says. “We also have fashion sense – we pay attention to the fine details.” For Michelle Chen and her family, who own Fremont, CA-based Fossa Apparel (asi/55141), business challenges took a slightly different form. Chen, the sales director at Fossa, says that when they established their business in 2007, they took a less-than-traditional route – in an industry full of men’s styles and women “companion” pieces, they made a name for themselves by starting with women’s styles as the basis of their apparel line. “That wasn’t common when we started,” says Chen. “It’s the collection we think the market needed. We want distributors to overcome ‘unisex’ complacency with their customers. More women are now in corporate positions and making buying decisions, so the garments are changing.” Donna Bridgeforth is certainly familiar with important product detail. Now the owner of Bridgeforth Wolf & Associates (BWA, asi/145800) in Chicago, she cut her teeth in the 1980s working alongside just 10 other ambitious women in the corporate gift division at Tiffany & Co. in the Windy City. “I loved working hard with beautiful merchandise,” says Bridgeforth. “That was the one job I missed and wanted to recreate. So I established BWA in 1987.” She started with little more than the Yellow Pages on her kitchen table, building her book of sales by making calls and wining-and-dining prospects a few nights a week for the first two years. “I just pushed hard to get to a real starting point,” she says. “In the beginning, you have nothing to benchmark.” Still, it’s been difficult to shake persistent – and often unfair – notions of women in business. “Both men and women tend to look at us as weaker,” she says. “I do think COVID changed the game a bit, since we couldn’t meet in person. It felt like there was less gender stereotyping on Zoom and clients focused more on bottom-line results.” “I’ve found it’s harder to get facetime as a woman, and to be taken seriously. I also don’t look like a typical business owner. I’m just me.” Stephanie Quiambao-Flores says gender bias is tricky since it’s intangible but unmistakable when you’ve experienced it. After 14 years doing graphic design on the side for promo clients, she opened her own full-time distributorship, Creative Tantrum (asi/171122/525942) in 2019 in El Paso, TX. To this day, she single-handedly offers design, print and promo services, mostly to clients in Texas and a few in Arizona. It’s been rewarding, but Texas has a reputation of being larger-than-life and “male-dominated,” she says, full of strutting cowboys. Indeed, there are a number of lucrative industries in the Lone Star State, like oil & gas and construction, that are still predominantly male-controlled. “Most of my clients are men, in fact,” says Quiambao-Flores. “Many are from a networking group I’m in, so we’ve built trust and rapport. But I’ve found it’s harder to get facetime as a woman, and to be taken seriously. I also don’t look like a typical business owner. I’m just me. When we have more women in executive roles, we’ll see more change and more facetime, in any industry.” To encourage doing business with their companies and thereby bolster female presence in the industry, women can’t wait for others to notice them; they have to take matters into their own hands and give each other – and themselves – the exposure they deserve. “We have to praise great ideas and decisions made by other women,” says Mariolga “Mo” Calderon, founder of Mo’s Bundt Cakes (asi/71843) in Miami, a company she established in 2021 during the pandemic. “Support them openly and publicly, and make sure they’re credited and their hard work is noted.”  Gray says it can be as simple as posting on social media about good work done by a woman-owned company. “I sing the praises of other businesses – I’ll tag them and thank them for a job well done,” she says. “If there’s an occasion to elevate someone else, always take it. And as a woman business owner, take opportunities to speak in front of others when asked and share tips and advice.” “We have to praise great ideas and decisions made by other women. Support them openly and publicly, and make sure they’re credited and their hard work is noted.” Meanwhile, everyone at a women-owned company should take advantage of opportunities to remind the industry of their status, says Quiambao-Flores. She recently happened upon a supplier’s women-owned certification logo on their website, so she was eager to work with them, but she’d like to see certifications made more obvious. “It should be easier to find women-owned businesses,” she says. “We need to know who’s out there.” (ASI’s ESP database includes filters for identifying these firms – see box at bottom). Chen says one of the most important mentoring tips she received came from Susan Rye, director of strategic sales at Top 40 supplier SanMar (asi/84863). “She told me the first thing out of my mouth, no matter who I’m in front of, should be that we’re women- and minority-owned,” says Chen. “Let’s grow the sisterhood, support each other by referring each other and promote a change in buying patterns. We can be ambassadors of a diverse supply chain.” In honor of Women’s History Month, promo business owners reflect on those they strive to emulate. “Susan Rye at SanMar is warm, she draws people to her, and she’s compassionate – you don’t feel intimidated by her. She’s also balancing business and her family. She has a big heart and it’s a blessing to have her to look up to. I’m lucky to call her my friend.” Michelle Chen, Fossa Apparel “My grandmother, Olevia Landry, had no formal education, and grew up in a sharecropping family on a Louisiana sugar plantation. She taught me the value of hard work, resilience, a can-do spirit and faith. She sacrificed so much for me. If I become half the woman she was, I’ll be doing great.” Nenette Gray, Lemonade Creative Marketing “Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for women in the workplace, the civil rights of minorities, and the rights of Holocaust refugees. She’s a real inspiration. One of my all-time favorite quotes is, ‘The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.’ Only by dreaming will you build your future.” Mariolga “Mo” Calderon, Mo’s Bundt Cakes “Georgia O’Keeffe was an American artist who forged the way with her own style in a male-dominated field. She didn’t copy a man, and she had a significant impact on modernism.”  Stephanie Quiambao-Flores, Creative Tantrum “Coco Chanel changed fashion for women and men, and her style became timeless. She advocated for a more relaxed style and instituted beauty concepts that have lasted decades.”  Donna Bridgeforth, Bridgeforth Wolf & Associates “Oprah Winfrey is one of the most powerful black woman entrepreneurs in history, and I’m inspired by all that she’s done.” Lauri Felson, Symphony Seed Papers/Okina Distributors can use the “minority-owned” filter in ASI’s ESP Web and ESP+ product databases to identify diverse vendors for upcoming promo campaigns. Visit asicentral.com for more information.

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