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Finding a niche is key in starting business

Robin Davos, owner of Cookin Up A Storm in Jackson, took out an SBA loan six years ago to start her business.

Robin Davos, owner of Cookin Up A Storm in Jackson, took out an SBA loan six years ago to start her business.

By BECKY GILLETTE

Women-owned businesses continue to increase in Mississippi, keeping pace with a national trend that now shows that 38 percent of all U.S. businesses are owned by women.

“Women-owned businesses in Mississippi continue to be a force to be reckoned with,” says Janita R. Stewart, SBA District Director in Mississippi.  “They are right there alongside their male counterparts as innovators and job creators operating in a variety of business industries, helping to strengthen and expand the economy.”

Stewart said these business owners, as well as women who are thinking about starting their own business, need to keep in mind that, in addition to SBA, there are other resources out there to assist. SBA-funded resource partners that provide management, technical assistance, counseling and training, free and confidential, including SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executive), the Small Business Development Center network, the Veterans Business Outreach Center and the new Mississippi Women Business Center.

Nationwide loans to women-owned businesses were up 22 percent this past year. In many cases, a woman starting a business to provide a job for herself also ends up creating jobs for many others. A case in point is Mary Jennifer Russell, owner of Sugaree’s Bakery, New Albany. Russell got a degree in biology and worked after college in pharmaceutical sales. But after finding employment there unstable, and working other jobs to make ends meet, she decided to open a bakery. Currently she has 30 people working for her.

“Baking was something I loved, and something I was good at,” Russell said. “With a $200 investment, I went to Sam’s Club for some supplies and baked up some samples that I took to local businesses with break rooms. When I got back into pharmaceutical jobs, I was working part time, and I had time to do the baking from home. I was driving around north Mississippi a lot, and would give baked goods to all the doctors I called on. I was able to gift cakes to doctors and the pharmaceutical company would allow me to pay for them out of my expense account.”

Russell started baking in 1997. She had a “lightbulb moment” when she realized the value of selling her goods wholesale. At that point, she had people selling for her, which helped build the business. The last year she was baking from home she saved all the money, $10,000 in profits, and also got a loan for equipment.

“We moved into a downtown space in 2001,” Russell said. “I was working 80-hour weeks around the holidays at that time, servicing several wholesale accounts. I had a distributor specialty food company that I worked with. That distributor had four or five sales reps out on the road, and one in particular worked really hard for me traveling to Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.”

Initially she was about 90 percent wholesale, but now has a healthy mix of about 50 percent wholesale, with retail and mail order making up the other 50 percent.

All but two of her workforce of 30 are women.

“We have a great culture of positive, uplifting women who support each other,” Russell said. “That makes it nice to come to work even though it is hard physical manual labor. My key to success is to have a great staff and treat everybody with respect.”

Her advice to other women considering opening a business is simple: Go for it! And find a niche market.

“I never thought cakes would be a niche market, but there is for our small batch, homemade cakes,” Russell said. “We also do really nice homemade pies with the homemade butter\lard crust you can’t find many places. And we have cupcakes and all kinds of sweets in our retail store.”

Another woman who has found success in a food business is Robin Davos, owner of Cookin Up A Storm at 1491 Canton Mart Road in Jackson. Davos decided to “jump off a cliff” to take out a SBA loan six years ago to start her business specializing in fresh and frozen takeaway meals.

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