Financial assistance being awarded to women redefining their businesses
Across the nation, many women pivoted their business operations to creatively serve their customers while keeping employees on the job and safe.
Meanwhile, a nationally recognized author and motivational speaker who created “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” and founded “Make Mine a Million $ Business” is joining other advocates for female-owned businesses to provide additional financial help to those owners.
Nell Merlino recently reactivated her Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence charitable organization, using it to provide $250,000 to be distributed later this month to entrepreneurial women engaged in redefining what their businesses do.
Merlino plans to do more, and Oklahoma City-area women entrepreneurs applaud her efforts.
They are working hard to adapt, but just as importantly, they remain focused on future opportunities, regardless of what may still come.
Allison Watkins-Conti, the founder of Watkins-Conti Products Inc., began brainstorming ideas for her company to continue operating when the pandemic temporarily shut down clinical trials of its Yōni.Fit, an incontinence product for active women.
The pause gave her an opportunity to expand those clinical trials to a second university, she said.
Watkins-Conti also worked since mid-March to push another product, the company’s My CupCase, to market.
While My CupCase originally was designed to be a sanitary way for women to transport Yōni.Fit, she said it works just as well as a way to carry menstrual cups.
She said My CupCase is sold through the mycupcase.com and is about to be added to Amazon’s site as well.
Meanwhile, Watkins-Conti filed patents on additional conceptual products her company is developing for women that could be used to help them diagnose and treat reproductive health conditions.
Her goal remains for Watkins-Conti Products to develop innovative, affordable products for young women.
“We are capitalizing on our existing assets that apply to personal care and women’s health,” Watkins-Conti said.
Plenty Mercantile, founded by the mother-daughter team of Traci Walton and Brittney Matlock, opened its retail shop in an Automobile Alley space in Oklahoma City nearly eight years ago and has been growing its business ever since.
Almost three years ago, Plenty Mercantile opened a second store in Edmond, and opened a third, smaller operation at Chisholm Creek in north Oklahoma City in early March.
Matlock said she and Walton decided to close the sales floors of Plenty, which offer customers home goods and gifts, days before local and state officials declared public health emergencies that would have required them to take that step anyway.
The decision was difficult, especially because wedding season was in high gear, with its Automobile Alley events center location fully booked for the coming few months, Matlock said.
Since then, the business’ dozen employees pivoted to an online operation offering customers products via shipping services and curbside delivery.
The store’s site, plentymercantile.com, only had about 700 of the thousands of items it sells online when the pandemic took hold. This month, customers can order about 4,000 products it offers.
“We had a great website, but we really hadn’t had time to fully dedicate efforts to improve it,” Matlock said. “We wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to shop.”
While Matlock and the staff went into the pandemic not knowing what they could expect, she said the website improvements have helped the business' outlook.
“Whatever the new version of normal looks like, we are certainly in a better position with our online presence and the ability to fill orders than we ever have been,” she said.
What can you do if you decide to close your business before you even open it?
That’s what founders of The Study, a wine bar established in the Paramount Building on Film Row, decided to do in March.
Co-owners Megan Allen, Elaine Hamm and their husbands, John Allen and Ian Bennett (also The Study’s general manager and certified sommelier), then had to get creative to get the business up and running.
Hamm said the operation took advantage of its retail liquor license to sell wines through a curbside service.
“And we had all of these other programs in our business plan we had intended to introduce during the coming year,” Hamm said. “Because of COVID-19, we moved all of those up.”
The owners created a wine club where participating members are introduced to six types of wines monthly.
It also launched a virtual tastings program at thestudyokc.com, where Bennett introduces online customers to the wines carried by the bar.
“We were able to implement those relatively quickly because we already had thought of them,” said Hamm.
Both Hamm and Allen said they have created a firm future for the business, despite the fact it didn’t open to on-site customers until the end of May.
“I think we are reaching a lot of customers we might not otherwise have found by having these different alternatives,” Hamm said. “When all this is over, they can continue to partake in what we are offering now, or they can come in and enjoy our bar in person.”
Oklahoman Leah Mayo co-founded Austin-based FOUND Experience, a digital concierge service for operators and owners of vacation rental sites and boutique hotels, in 2018.
Earlier this year, after working with StitchCrew and the Thunder Launchpad, FOUND was about to sign two significant contracts until COVID-19 derailed those opportunities.
The business originally planned to sell its technology to clients, who in turn could use it to provide them with detailed information about their guests.
Those clients could use the information to guide customers toward where to eat, drink, shop and more.
FOUND was geared toward helping everyone on the staff of a boutique hotel or other rental property become a concierge who could provide their guests with personalized services.
In order to survive the pandemic world, Mayo said FOUND pivoted to providing free virtual vacations of key tourist destinations like New Orleans, Louisiana and New York City in the U.S. and London and Paris overseas through its website.
Then, it partnered with local restaurants and bars in Austin and Houston to provide tour-related products and services to help its virtual visitors enjoy more-realistic experiences.
A local business in one of those communities, for example, offers customers a traditional tea service a traveler could expect to enjoy in London while he or she was there, she said.
She said the company currently is working to add other local businesses in Oklahoma City and elsewhere to pair with its tour offerings.
“That gives you a more complete feeling of what a vacation in that destination might feel like,” Mayo said.
Count Me In
Merlino said she decided to reactivate Count Me In because she recognized all business owners are facing unique challenges.
She began thinking about taking that step after visiting two women who won past Count Me In competitions.
Then, movie maker Ava DuVernay held a competition in April for young women filmmakers “who clearly aren’t getting any funding,” Merlino said, while Sara Blakely, creator of Spanx and the founder of the Spanx by Sara Blakely Foundation, joined with GlobalGiving to create a Red Backpack Fund that is making at least 1,000 grants of $5,000 each to female entrepreneurs in the U.S. to help alleviate the pandemic crisis’ impact.
Merlino said she decided to move on with her plan after visiting with Ariela Weiss Esquenazi, founder of Smart & Sexy lingerie, who stepped forward with an offer of $250,000 to back the Count Me In initiative.
It launched its current funding effort through countmeinrevival.org earlier this month, receiving 460 applications (including eight from women entrepreneurs in Oklahoma) during an opening round of solicitations that closed last week.
Applicants included single moms, other women with families, doctors and various other professionals who are proposing innovative ways to serve their customers, Merlino remarked.
A panel of five leading business experts including women business entrepreneurs and academic professionals are sifting through those now.
Funding recommendations on 40 finalists will be made soon to a panel of three judges, who will select 19 grant recipients before the end of July.
Four $25,000 grants will be awarded to the four best projects, while 15 others will get $10,000 grants.
Each of the women entrepreneurs who took part in this story are overwhelmingly supportive of Merlino’s efforts.
“Especially with retail, you have to have the funds now to be able to order for Christmas, and 75% to 80% of our sales are during the last three months of the year,” Matlock said. “A decrease in income right now is going to impact stores for a long time. If you don’t have it, you can’t sell it, and if you can’t buy it, you can’t have it.”
Merlino’s support is “incredibly important,” Mayo agreed. “Right now, our traditional methodology to sell our software (to owners of boutique hotels and rental properties) doesn’t feel right.”
Hamm, a scientist who created Ascend Bioventures in 2018 to develop new drugs and therapeutics, said she has been an entrepreneur for most of her career.
While she observed that while women entrepreneurs in Oklahoma City are doing a good job of banding together and sharing information with hopes that all can succeed, Hamm added that more assistance is always welcome.
“It is challenging to raise money during this time, especially from the angel investment community,” she said.
For her part, Merlino said she hopes to find additional dollars soon to provide more women with a chance to achieve their dreams during an uncertain time.
“People need community in ways they haven’t before,” Merlino said. “There needs to be something that keeps hope alive, focuses attention on innovation and the community around those things so that everyone can encourage and inspire each other in a moment when there is very little of that going on.
“One of the biggest challenges for everyone right now is, how do you plan anything? Some answers to that question that some of our women entrepreneurs have come up with are very interesting to me, and something I want to encourage,” she said.