Inauguration day is here, and for the first time in American history the vice president is a woman – Kamala Harris. Women have been increasingly breaking the glass ceiling in a lot of places. Five Ulster County women businesspersons – Cheryl Bowers, Lagusta Yarwood, Joan Lonergan, Tamara Ehlin and Karianna Haasch – were asked how they got their businesses off the ground and running, who their supports were, and what challenges they faced along the way.
Role models are only part of the story. Ulster County boasts a number of resources helpful to women in business. We introduce three of them: Hudson Valley Women in Business, SUNY Ulster’s New Start for Women program, and the Women’s Enterprise Development Center. Each of these organizations has its own perspective, its own history, its own style, and its own goals. They have in common the focus of being of help to local businesswomen.
Rondout Savings Bank
Bowers is Rondout Savings Bank’s first woman president and CEO. She is the fourteenth president of the 150-year-old local banking institution. Born and raised in Kingston, she worked part time at a bank during her high-school and SUNY Ulster years.
“I kept taking on different roles at this bank, and it was very exciting to me then — and still is, even with so many years that have gone by,” said Bowers. “I wanted to throw my hat in the arena of doing business banking.”
Cheryl Bowers from Rondout Savings Bank. (Photo by Carl Cox)
At the start of her career, she did feel as though certain jobs were only for men, including within business banking. However, the barriers faded. She said she “didn’t use it as an obstacle.”
She began to look at herself as a resource – someone that anyone could go to who needed banking help, with no gender-specific role or position per se. She felt there was no such thing as “gender-created wisdom.”
In 2001, she joined Rondout Savings Bank and after seven years became the chief operating officer. When the president at the time retired in 2018, she made history by becoming the president and CEO.
“It was an evolution of learning and doing different things,” said Bowers. “I didn’t stop doing what I loved. I got sucked into the helping of the customers, especially business customers.’
She also “got this bug to volunteer and help the community.” She wanted all sectors, all genders and all populations to have opportunity, said Bowers. “It’s not just lip service, it’s really who I am.”
Rondout Savings Bank has a “Dividends to the Community” program, where employees get a paid eight hours to do volunteer work, and the bank also donates ten percent of its annual earnings to the communities it serves.
“As much as I’m welcomed in every circle, when I look around on the boards I’m on, it is predominately male,” said Bowers. She sees the need of everyone working together for advocacy.
“The roles have blended together, where 20 or 30 years ago wasn’t the case,” observed Bowers. “I feel there is still a barrier of salary today. It’s not because the industry is unwilling to pay, it’s because women tend to hunker down in a role because oftentimes they have family obligations as well – they can’t just roll the dice continually,” said Bowers. “When you stay in one role for a really long time, the escalation of salary is less of an opportunity.”
She advocates being in a room where everyone is smarter than you. You make an acquaintance or friend, and learn what you can.
“Once you’re friendly with folks, it doesn’t really matter what your gender is, because there is a trust you build,” said Bowers. “Going in without having your own preconceived barriers is such an important lesson for young professional women.”
“And don’t say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” said Bowers. “We do it all the time.”
Left to right: Erika Olver, C. Gaspar, Shelly Karan, and Kate Larson of Lagusta’s Luscious.(Photo by Ericka Wadleigh)
Yearwood may have not planned to launch what is now a collection of three different establishments, but she spearheaded the path in that direction for herself. She is the owner of New Paltz’s Lagusta’s Luscious and Commissary and co-owner of New York City’s Confectionary. “I didn’t really set out to have three different businesses,” said Yearwood. “It grew organically over time.”
Starting out, she knew she wanted to cook and work for herself. She graduated from culinary school in 2000 and began her career as a private chef in the New York City area. “I moved upstate to New Paltz because there were good farms there,” said Yearwood. “I continued cooking for clients, but started a little line of chocolate on the side. It was growing and growing.”
In 2010, she decided to turn her focus solely to chocolates, confections and vegan sweets. Lagusta’s Luscious was built in 2011, which means its ten-year anniversary is coming up this year. Commissary, the café, opened in 2016.
“I’m lucky to live in this very feminist world where I feel like a lot of people supported me as a woman business owner,” said Yearwood. “There’s always things like men talking down to you, but in general it’s been okay.”
While she did face challenges being a young woman who moved to New Paltz and started a business, she feels as though she was able to become more established. Now she’s well-known to other members of the community. “People are happy to see a woman-owned business making it,” said Yearwood.
Last year, she applied to become a New York State certified women business owner.
“I knew I wanted to never have kids,” said Yearwood about one challenge some women business owners face. “I couldn’t imagine ten years ago when I was starting to grow the business from scratch also having babies or tiny kids. I don’t think it would have been sustainable unless I had a stay-at-home partner.”
For young women considering starting a business of their own, Yearwood advised to “keep at it” despite the challenges they might meet along the way. “People want to keep quiet about how hard it is to own your own business,” said Yearwood. “I think the more open and honest you are about it, it shows people in your world the realities of it.”
Coldwell Banker Village Green Realty
Joan Lonergan grew up in Ulster County and went to college in New York City, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in ceramics and painting. With a decade-long career in graphic design, she was ready to move back upstate – which for her, meant an opportunity to rethink her career choice.
In 1986, she and her family moved to Woodstock, where she decided to get a real-estate broker’s license just two years later. “I fell in love with it,” said Lonergan. “I don’t know what other way to put it.”
Village Green Real Estate’s Joan Lonergan at the beginning of her career.
She worked with a broker for a year before she decided to pave her own way and open her own business. She stepped up to the challenge to help people find or sell their homes. She had never thought of herself as a salesperson, rather as someone who was helping another person.
“I started in Kingston, and people started following me – I can’t exactly say how that happened,” said Lonergan. “I think people were drawn to my business principles that I quickly put together.”
Her four mantras that lead and guide her work include always telling the truth, doing what you promise, not pretending to know something you don’t, but instead promising to find out. and keeping your moral and ethical compass straight. It’s never about you, it’s about your client.
In 2000, Coldwell Banker asked her to take on a franchise. While Lonergan was wary about a corporate model at first, she felt Coldwell Banker had the same philosophies as she did. The help that she could receive from its resources was considerable, She accepted the challenge’.
“I went from a two-person office to 15 people in 2001, and I have grown the company to 130 agents from six different locations in three counties,” said Lonergan.
She said she attributes her success to a couple of different things, including how “women do business differently on the management side.” Lonergan described herself as “open and able to hear as a leader” rather than dogmatic.
“People worked with me, not for me,” said Lonergan. “I always took the suggestions of the people who worked with me. More brains are better than one.”
When she started her business, she set out to make sure that women were always comfortable and never felt discriminated against by anyone. “Being a woman [business owner] it is always more challenging because you’re just not taken seriously,” said Lonergan. “I just never gave it any credit. As soon as you give credit that you could be discriminated against or not taken seriously, you focus on that. For me, I blew past it and said I wasn’t going to pay attention to it.”
She said people have asked her whether she thinks she would have gotten further if she was a man. To that, she says she doesn’t know.
“Maybe I would’ve,” answered Lonergan. “Probably, but I am going to assume that I did as well as I did because of what I did, not who I was.”
Lonergan suggested young women considering being business owner find a mentor. “Find those people who can help you. and always remember to pay it forward to someone who is going to be coming behind you,” said Lonergan.
The Forsyth B&B
Ehlin’s path may not have been linear, but she has been able to utilize her prior experience in the hospitality, nonprofit, culinary and marketing industries to find her way to owning The Forsyth B&B in Kingston.
Ehlin moved from New York City to the area. “My youngest went to college, and it felt like I was liberated to not be there,” said Ehlin. “My sister moved to High Falls. and I discovered Kingston. I hadn’t been familiar with it but I loved it.”
The idea of her own hospitality business began to crystalize with her move to Ulster County in 2015. A bed-and-breakfast was the operation that made the most sense for Ehlin. It brought together many of her talents. She started to look at different properties, when she found the former private residence at 85 Abeel Street that she turned into the bed-and-breakfast.
“I learned as I went along,” said Ehlin. “It has pulled all of my skills together in a way that has been extremely enjoyable for me.” Her “creative energy and passion” for food and entertaining served her well.
“As being a woman proprietor in the inn-keeping industry, I didn’t face challenges for being a woman,” said Ehlin. “It’s harder for men in this industry, because many people expect women to be an innkeeper.”
At the same time, she had to put her foot down when it came to the construction management end of things. “I had to assert myself as the person in charge,” said Ehlin.
Ehlin is glad to see a lot of women entrepreneurs in the area, It’s no longer a surprise when women decide to start something for themselves.
Local Artisan Bakery’s Karianna Haash. (Photo by Veronica Fassbender)
Local Artisan Bakery
Have a solid network, make your budget higher than you think, be confident in doing things your own way, and don’t compare yourself to others. These are Karianna Haasch’s pieces of advice for young women business owners. She says she reminds herself to continue to apply these precepts to her own business.
Haasch earned her master’s degree in international business management and headed into the corporate world. While she didn’t consider being an entrepreneur right away, she decided to make it a side gig after friends and family encouraged her. What had started as a side gig led her to starting a pop-up bakery at 448 Broadway in Kingston in 2018, and turning it into its own retail store a year later.
Haasch leaned on those around her, was accepted by a business accelerator program, and overcame financial challenges to keep the store running.
“I’ll definitely get customers who come in occasionally that I feel like are a little disrespectful because I’m a woman, and specifically because I am a young woman,” said Haasch. “Some of the comments people have made to me before are indicators of them not knowing I was the boss and not one of the counter people. That’s always kind of amusing to be honest to be able to say, Actually, I’m the CEO.”
While some people may have given her a hard time, she continued to rise to the challenge, even during a crazy year with a pandemic. “If you’re going into business for yourself, that means you’re doing it because you have something to offer that no one else can offer,” said Haasch. “It’s important to lean into that.”
Haasch is glad to keep providing treats made with locally sourced ingredients. “I started the business because I wanted to bring a greater awareness around sourcing locally,” she explained. “As a food-service provider we source as many local ingredients as possible. All of the products we carry in our store are made locally. To be able to put that money back into the local economy is really important.”
Participants of Lauree Ostrofsky’s Hudson Valley Women in Business event.
Resources for women in business
1. Women’s Enterprise Development Center
“Men and women do business differently,” said Cynthia Marsh-Croll from the mid Hudson sector of the Women’s Enterprise Development Center.
The center is a nonprofit that was established in 1997, with its home base in White Plains. In 2013, it expanded with an office in Poughkeepsie. Its mission is to “help women business owners start, strengthen and succeed.” It offers a number of no-cost or low-cost workshops and webinars.
“There’s always been a discrepancy in terms of access to capital and opportunities for women and minorities,” said Marsh-Croll. “Women and minorities historically don’t have the same access that other people might have had in the past and still have today.”
Some of the programming includes a 60-hour entrepreneurial training program, “Revise to Thrive” and “Building Marketing Resilience During the Extended Pandemic.”
Programming in Spanish is available. “We help with the minority and women business certification for those who qualify,” said Marsh-Croll. “We also help with loan packaging and access to funding.”
New York State launched the Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise initiative, which aids minority and women business owners with funding, resources and allows for “equal opportunity in state contracting,” ten years ago During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Women’s Enterprise Development Center has stepped up to help women and minority owned businesses stay afloat and pivot to an online setting.
The center assists everyone from startup businesses to those who have been in business longer but need help sustaining it or are making a change.
Marsh-Croll had her own consulting firm for a dozen years before joining the Women’s Enterprise Development Center, which gave her a first-hand look at what it’s like to be a woman in industry.
“Being a woman and anything associated with acting like a woman was looked down upon and not looked at as a strength,” said Marsh-Croll. “We’re seeing a shift of what women can bring to the table. We look at things differently, we problem solve differently, we collaborate differently, we do business differently. We have a lot to add to the entrepreneurial community.”
There’ a lot that women-owned and minority business owners can add to the business world, but a gap still there, in Marsh-Croll’s opinion. She sees the Women’s Enterprise Development Center as an important tool in assisting women and minority communities. “We want to give them the opportunities and support they need to be successful,” she said.
2. Hudson Valley Women in Business
Hudson Valley author and life coach Lauree Ostrofsky is owner of Simply Leap. In 2014, she founded Hudson Valley Women in Business, a hub connecting more than 3000 women business owners in the area.
“I feel like Hudson Valley is a microcosm of what’s happening across the country as well,” said Ostrofsky. “We need to take more control of our lives, and business ownership and entrepreneurship is a way to do that.”
Ostrofsky founded Hudson Valley Women in Business in hopes of creating “a welcoming space for seasoned and aspiring business owners, all women, and people of gender minorities inclusive of rare, class and ability, and to lean on and learn from one another.” Relocating back to the Hudson Valley after a number of years and working by herself, Ostrofsky was looking to build a greater sense of camaraderie among business owners. She wanted to find professional connections.
She met four other women business owners at a co-working space in Beacon. Quickly, the five women understood how powerful the connection can be.
“Business owners have a certain way of thinking about things,” said Ostrofsky. “When women business owners get to be around one another, there is more honesty than you would have in a normal networking event.”
Hudson Valley Women in Business seeks to create a community of like-minded individuals able to ask each other for advice, swap contacts and more.
“It gets really lonely coming up with things in your own head,” explained Ostrofsky. “Even though we have friends and family members who believe in us, if you don’t own a business yourself and can’t understand the pressure that can be on you, then you can only be so supportive.”
Before the pandemic, the group met monthly for special networking events. Now, they have established an online platform with a different speaker each month. The sessions highlight a variety of different aspects of the business world, including social media, marketing, finances, legal questions and time management.
“A good number of women in our community are moms, too,” said Ostrofsky. “And with Covid, there are multiple roles happening in homes right now, including running my business and helping kids with online learning.”
Any women business owner is welcome to join. There are two different membership levels. The first is free and includes a connection to the Hudson Valley Women in Business Facebook group and attendance at the monthly meetings. The second adds a member site that includes a presence on a public business directory, involvement with suggesting topics and speakers, and utilization of a media list, among other things. The membership fee for these services is $25 a month.
If you’re interested in learning more about Hudson Valley Women in Business, visit hvwib.com.
3. New Start for Women at SUNY Ulster
SUNY Ulster is a champion of supporting women and minority business owners in the Hudson Valley. The school has partnered with a number of community organizations and nonprofits to offer services at no cost to help support students in overcoming barriers to success through a special program called New Start for Women.
The program offers different resources for those accepted as candidates for a one-year SUNY Ulster business certificate. It was funded for three years by a $1.5-million grant from the NoVo Foundation. Each annual cohort has had around 15 students, give or take.
Resources offered include a summer orientation program, an introduction to the technology needed for success, childcare help, tutoring, personal skills to support self-awareness, assertiveness training and time management, There are a variety of networking events – mentoring, resume-building and interview workshops — along with weekly support and study groups.
Mindy Kole, an associate professor in SUNY Ulster’s Business and Professional Studies Department who is the academic advisor for the students, said Darlene Pfeiffer, who sits on SUNY Ulster’s foundation board and is “a fan and benefactor of SUNY Ulster,” donated a substantial amount for the New Start for Women program. Pfieffer was also the first woman to own a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.
“She said she wanted to do something to help underserved women in the community,” said Kole. “When Darlene speaks, we all listen.”
Key educators and others across the campus and community, brainstormed how SUNY Ulster could help. “There are a lot of people in Ulster County who live below the poverty line,” explained Kole. “Many of them are women and many are single moms. They’re in this incredibly difficult position trying to work, trying to take care of the kids, trying to do the best they can. It’s an ongoing difficult situation that is hard to get out of.”
SUNY Ulster identified barriers of success in getting a college degree: childcare, transportation, financial, mental and physical health, support, for self-esteem, and Internet barriers, among other things.
Instead of creating a program for an associate’s degree, the school figured the one-year business certificate would be more “readily achievable.”
“It’s all business classes, so it’s building skills, and if they want, it fits into our associate of applied science degree, so it would be a seamless transfer into that associate program at the end of the certificate,” said Kole.
One of SUNY Ulster’s partners in the program is Family of Woodstock, which provides a case manager and helps students navigate things like Social Security, housing, food insecurity and more. Additionally, New Start for Women works with local childcare facilities to assist those who are mothers.
The program also provides an opportunity for the participants to build relationships with each other. Recently, New Start for Women provided this year’s cohort the opportunity to stay connected over the winter break with a weekly Zoom book club.
Although the classes are online this year, it hasn’t been a difficult adjustment. These students were already using Zoom pre-pandemic, receiving training for the platform last year. When students had to stay at home to provide childcare, teachers were able to set up a Zoom call for those learning from home. New Start for Women extended its certificate to three terms for this cohort, hopefully to give them an opportunity for in-person collaboration and community-building next fall. This group will overlap with the beginning of the third cohort, starting at the same time.
Requirements for the New Start for Women program include income below the federal poverty level ($11,880 for a single adult and $24,300 for a family of four) or the household survival budget of $23,148 for a single adult and $68,808 for a family of four). Applicants need a high-school diploma or equivalent and need to complete the standard SUNY Ulster application. There are also interviews to ensure that the student is “poised for success.”
“The program has been, in my opinion, successful,” said Kole.
During the first year, New Start for Women had 16 students, with 13 of them graduating with the certificate.
Once students graduate, SUNY Ulster makes sure to stay in touch. Last year, some graduating students went on to do their associate’s degree. Others have gone on to a four-year school and received significant scholarships. Still others have started planning the business they want to create.
The school is looking for ways to be able to continue the New Start for Women past the three-year period.
“I believe in my heart of hearts that this intensive advisement, support, community-building and safety nets, are the keys to success,” said Kole. “We need to continue this.”
SUNY Ulster holds an annual entrepreneurial women’s conference called “Own It” every year. This year SUNY Ulster is planning the all-day conference for June 3, with guest speaker Carly-Ann Fergus, who will talk about her career journey in fashion and retail.