A few years ago, Melissa Barker left her marketing job with The Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta and moved her family to Charleston. Having grown up in Florida, Barker said Charleston was a nice middle ground – still in the South and close to the ocean. It would be a great place to raise her young son.
Having worked at one of the world’s leading brands, Barker suspected she’d have no trouble finding another marketing job either with an agency or doing in-house marketing for a local company. After six months of job hunting, Barker was met with a harsh reality: any job she took came with a $30,000 pay cut.
“I just couldn’t stomach that,” she said while sipping an iced coffee. “I’d worked so hard to get to where I was that I wasn’t willing to do that.”
Barker shifted her focus from job hunting to job creation. She’d been in marketing for more than a decade so why not start her own business. In 2015, she paid $110 to form an LLC and, like many entrepreneurs, set up shop at her kitchen table.
The clients came quickly, and Barker’s marketing business, Show and Tell, was taking off. But less than a year after starting, Barker wasn’t sure she could continue. The business was consuming her life. She was working all night, and when she was with her son, she was checking her phone. Her already-struggling marriage was getting worse.
“The money wasn’t worth what I was putting into it,” she recalled.
The breaking point came when her then-husband looked at her and said, “Don’t you think it’s time to get a job?”
But she had a job, Barker said. She’d built a business and it was – at least from the outside looking in – a success. Barker wondered, what exactly would it take to run a business that didn’t end up running her life?
Learning how to run a business
Like so many entrepreneurs, Barker was good at her chosen craft. She was good at marketing. But she struggled with the business – managing a team, setting prices, figuring out taxes. Barker decided she didn’t need to read another marketing blog, and instead she picked up business books, watched webinars and tried to figure out how to be a better business owner.
Yet schooling herself on the ins and outs of running a company was time consuming. “I thought, ‘There has to be a better way [to get this knowledge] without reading a hundred business books and watching a hundred webinars,’” Barker said.
From there, Barker began to craft the idea for Women Entrepreneurs Inc, an organization in which women would barter their knowledge to help each other grow their respective businesses. It would be a community in which the members would function as each other’s unpaid consultants, Barker explained. A woman needing financial advice might barter her know-how with a woman in need of legal assistance.
The purpose was simple: Busy women who owned businesses would get the skills they needed as quickly as possible.
Women Entrepreneurs Inc is born
Women Entrepreneurs Inc launched in April 2017 with monthly gatherings and virtual workshops. A membership database makes it easy for members to search out another member who can offer guidance or expertise.
The young organization is growing, and Barker is still working on the best structure and format. But her ultimate goal is that a member could attribute at least a small part of her business success to what she learned at WE INC.
About 160 members have come through the organization and as Barker meets each business owner it has reaffirmed what she knew to be true: Women aren’t lacking in motivation and perseverance. Their challenges are in creating budgets, understanding tax deductions and managing teams. “That’s the gap we’re trying to fill,” Barker said.
Why women only?
Barker is often asked why she launched an organization dedicated solely to women entrepreneurs. Don’t men experience some of the same dilemmas? Of course, Barker agreed, but she also knows that women face unique challenges.
When she looked around the Charleston market, she saw plenty of co-ed groups, an abundance of networking organizations or gatherings offering inspiration and motivation. All those are important, but there was a gap when it came to equipping women with the skills and knowledge they needed to be successful.
Women are starting businesses at twice the rate of men, Barker noted. Women often create businesses because they desire more freedom and flexibility, but then – and she knows this personally – the business becomes “an all-consuming fire, rather than a source of freedom.”
Plus, women are the only ones bearing children, which brings with it a set of challenges that men simply don’t experience: missed time in the workforce or getting passed over for promotions. To compensate, women are drawn to entrepreneurship largely for the lifestyle it affords, Barker explained.
Men often focus on growing large companies and attracting investment money, while many women prefer to create a business that fits their lifestyle. Those businesses, Barker said, shouldn’t be ignored just because they aren’t scaling up to multimillion-dollar companies.
“Who will service these businesses that aren’t scalable?” she said. “Inspiration and motivation are not where women are lacking. But no amount of inspiration will save your business if you don’t have the know-how.”
There’s one other issue that specifically impacts women, and it’s one Barker has been vocal about: the wage gap. She may not have the power to solve the fact that women make about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes, but she can control her own prices.
Women start their own businesses and have control over their earnings, but then don’t pay themselves fairly, they undercut their pricing and, ultimately, contribute to that wage gap cycle, Barker said.
“You have to understand the market and prices should be based on the market, not on feelings,” she said. “Emotions have nothing to do with it.”
A better balance
Talking with Barker, you see she’s not just standing on a soapbox. She is very much implementing the exact advice she shares with other female entrepreneurs – from pricing products fairly to implementing balance at home to improving her delegation skills.
She has a team of five, and better systems in place that allow her to function more as a CEO rather than a technician. In 2016-2017 her business grew 50 percent. This year will be her best one yet.
“I have much more balance. I don’t often work after five and I take most Fridays off,” Barker said. She has more time for her 4-year-old son, taking him to the beach and boating.
“This is a lifestyle business for me,” she said. “I only want to grow so much as to support my version of success, not anyone else’s.”