Entrepreneurs point to networking as key to more women-owned businesses in Iowa

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Over the last five years, the number of female-owned businesses in the U.S. has grown at double the rate of businesses overall, according to the 2019 Women-Owned Businesses Report.

Attendees talk during a conference for female entrepreneurs in Cedar Rapids on Oct. 9, 2019. (Mary Green/KCRG)

The report, which was commissioned by American Express, said Iowa is the seventh-highest-ranking state in the nation for a metric called employment vitality, which measures the employment growth rate of women-owned businesses, along with the average number of employees in these businesses.

While the number of these businesses is increasing, creating more jobs across the state, entrepreneurs in eastern Iowa added there’s always more room to grow.

Among them are Kendra Aarhus, the founder of YOU Conferences.

“It’s kind of a dog-eat-dog world out there, and women were needing the community and the support to help grow their businesses,” Aarhus said.

Aarhus started YOU Conferences in Spring 2018 to target that problem. She holds two conferences a year for women, with a mission of empowering them to succeed in business and in life.

Aarhus’ fourth conference, “Courageously You,” is Thursday at the Cedar Rapids Marriott, and she expected about 100 women to attend and learn from several local female entrepreneurs.

“The big gap is that they don’t know what resources are available to them,” Aarhus said. “They don’t know how to get funding. They don’t know how to start getting the basic bones of their business, the financial flow, so we’re kind of incorporating a lot of that tomorrow.”

Even more importantly, Aarhus said it’s a chance to connect with other female entrepreneurs and business owners.

“Women are trying to do it all, and without that tribe or that community or that support, it makes it really, really hard,” Aarhus said. “It feels very, very lonely.”

That networking is critical, according to Cedar Rapids entrepreneur Anna Hobart.

“It’s hard to take that step and start to go out and network, but that’s where you start to build those relationships that will help bring you up,” she said.

Hobart is part of a group that is currently developing the Olympic South Side Theater, an event venue in the NewBo District they hope to open by spring 2020.

She said in her experience, connecting with other people is the first step to opening doors.

“Those resources are there. It’s just sometimes a little bit harder to find when you don’t know what you’re looking for,” Hobart said.

After that, she said it’s important for entrepreneurs to get out of their comfort zone.

“There are people within our community that are there to help us and stand by us,” Hobart said.