By Kristin Burgess
AJ & Friends Small Business Night Out (SBNO) recently hosted its second annual Women in Business Brunch on Saturday, April 9. Over 130 Hartford area women (and a few men) business owners, professionals and college students came to the Pond House Cafe to network, learn and dine in the company of successful executives and entrepreneurs. The event honored five Hartford women in business and keynote Miko Branch, co-founder and CEO of Miss Jessie’s LLC.
When deciding who to feature as keynote speaker, Taniqua Huguley, SBNO’s Event Coordinator, noted that the SBNO team knew that “lots of women in Hartford do hair in their house and have similar stories.” Ms. Branch and her late sister, Titi Branch, started their business, originally a salon specializing in natural hair-care, out of their Brooklyn brownstone nearly 20 years ago.
Ms. Branch’s story touched on a number of issues that hit close to home with women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color such as the juggling act of managing family, motherhood, personal tragedy and business. During the keynote interview, conducted by AJ Walker (not to be confused with SBNO founder AJ Johnson), Ms. Branch became tearful as she reflected on her sister, Titi, who died by suicide in 2014. That was just one reason why attendees said that they found Ms. Branch to be an accessible, vulnerable and relatable keynote.
A common theme among each of the six honorees, Ana Alfaro, Ms. Branch, Cheryl McDonald, Joelle Murchison, Marsha Murray and Kendra Quinn-Ward, was the mix of difficulty faced and determination required at start up. Each shared tales of their life in business and how they have pursued their professional and personal dreams. Pursuing personal and professional growth was a common refrain. “Never view[s] things that don’t turn out right as failures,” said Ms. Murchison. “They are opportunities for introspection.” She always asks herself, “what could I have done differently? What was beyond my control?”
When Ms. Branch and her sister Titi Branch first started their business their biggest obstacle was that they didn’t have money. Worse still she stated, “we didn’t really know how to get a loan, but we built our business up slowly, but surely” from a hidden gem to a multimillion dollar powerhouse with products available in national U.S. retailers.
In support of honoree Marsha Murray, many attendees donned tea outfits complete with hats, gloves and fascinators, a nod to Ms. Murray’s company’s annual Ladies Hat Brunch. Ms. Murray encouraged attendees who have professional ambitions to go for it. “Do it or don’t. There is no try,” she urged, referencing Yoda from Star Wars.
Small businesses (officially defined as firms with 500 or fewer employees) are a critical part of the Connecticut economy and employ half of Connecticut’s workforce. Connecticut’s 2014 Small Business Profile reported that the state boasts over 331,000 small businesses. Just over two-thirds of these businesses have no employees. They are solo-preneurs or micro-enterprises – a particularly popular option for minorities. The number of black-owned businesses in the U.S. is growing faster than average. According to census data, the majority of black-owned businesses have no employees other than the owner.
Currently, 64% of Connecticut’s small businesses are owned by men even though women slightly outnumber men in the state. A strikingly small percentage of small businesses are owned by minorities in Connecticut – 17.5% compared with 25% nationwide – perhaps due to the state having a lower percentage of minority residents than the nation as a whole.
When asked what she would have done differently when starting her businesses, honoree Ms. Quinn-Ward stated, “I wish I would have started 15 years ago. … If you have a passion, when you hear that small voice, you have to do it.” Events like SBNO’s brunch and happy hours encourage women and minorities to think about pursuing entrepreneurship.
SBNO was established by AJ Johnson, Tyron Harris and Kennard Ray to bring together Hartford area women and men who are interested in small business. They host monthly happy hours that aim to bring professionals and entrepreneurs across the threshold of the city’s most economically and culturally diverse businesses. SNBO’s first happy hour, held in the spring of 2013, was attended by 70 Hartford locals despite a mere 10 days of promotion.
Interestingly, nearly half of all small businesses in Hartford are women-owned and more than half are minority-owned. Compare this to the state: one-third are women-owned and less than one-fifth are minority owned. Although there is no official membership roster, Ms. Huguley estimates that about 70% of the attendees at SBNO events are women. SBNO plans to host workshops in the future to permit SBNO attendees to engage more with the honorees. They plan to host the brunch again next year to “continue the tradition of honoring women here in Hartford.”
Kristin is a professional writer and attorney. She writes about politics, law, social justice, personal finance and mental health. She’s an obsessive Yelper, loves a Law & Order marathon, is a brilliant mystery and would never turn down a soft-baked cookie.