When Samantha Letscher and Isabel Benatar, the founders of Bossy Chicago, met and became friends a little more than a year ago, in an entrepreneurship course during their sophomore year at Northwestern, they decided that one day they wanted to start a business or organization that would combine their interests in feminism and social change. Over this past winter, they began working in the Garage, Northwestern’s student start-up space, and thinking more seriously about what kind of project they wanted to do.
“It was post-Trump,” Letscher recalls, “and everyone was talking about boycotting companies that supported Trump’s campaign and boycotting Uber. There was a lot of talk about ethical purchasing and how we shouldn’t support big, bad companies that support Trump. We started to wonder, what companies should we be supporting? We wanted to make positive energy instead of telling people what not to do.”
So why not, they reasoned, encourage people to start supporting woman-owned businesses by guiding them directly to those businesses? After all, people are going to go shopping or out to dinner anyway. And part of feminism is about women helping other women. So why not give another woman your money?
“Everyone says they want to support women in business,” Letscher says, “but a lot of resources are for executives. But bookstore owners or bakers, they are our neighbors. If we’re going to say we’re feminists and want to say we’re supporting businesses, we have to act upon it.”
Bossy launched earlier this year. Originally the website was conceived as a collection of interviews with female business owners in Chicago. Letscher and Benatar planned to use social media to direct visitors to the businesses they profiled. But soon after the project launched, it took a turn.
They were visiting Women & Children First bookstore in Andersonville and chatting with the current owner, Sarah Hollenbeck, when Linda Bubon, who’d cofounded the store back in 1979, joined in the discussion. Did they know, she asked, that in the 70s there was a physical directory of woman-owned businesses in Chicago?
“There was nothing like that now,” Benatar says. “We’d backtracked.”
Earlier this month, Bossy launched its own directory. They’d started with 55 businesses. Almost immediately, suggestions came rolling in. Within a couple of weeks, they had more than 80. They plan to keep adding, and they want to get to know woman business owners from all across the city, not just from the north-side neighborhoods that Northwestern students might be better acquainted with. They plan to continue the project after they graduate next June and eventually make it financially self-sustaining.
To qualify as woman-owned, Letscher and Benatar decided, a business would need to have a woman as the primary owner, operator, and decision maker. “Women face special economic challenges being the primary owners,” Letscher explains.
For instance, she says, women have a 51 percent share or greater in only 36 percent of all businesses, and since those businesses tend to be smaller, they only employ 15 percent of the workforce and make 12 percent of the total revenue. For every dollar a woman gets in funding or loans, a man gets $23.
In her Bossy interview Rebecca George, coowner of Volumes Bookcafe, told Letscher and Benatar that when she approached loan officers at banks with her business plan, they were patronizing toward her. “It was men in banks, saying, ‘that’s cute,’ not understanding the complexities of opening a bookstore,” Letscher reports. Many of the other business owners told them that customers were more likely to approach a male employee for help and that contractors and repair workers would come in and assume that a woman couldn’t possibly know anything about the mechanics of her work space.
Letscher and Benatar haven’t encountered such blatant sexism in their own work. They credit a male professor, Neal Sales-Griffin, for encouraging them to pursue their idea for Bossy, despite their lack of previous business experience or MBAs, and for telling them about Wildfire, the Garage’s summer accelerator program. Bossy was accepted, and now Letscher and Benatar have access to funding, work space, experienced mentors, and Silicon Valley-like perks, like a beanbag room and a cooler that dispenses flavored water.
But they’ve noticed more subtle differences in the way they’re treated as young women entering the business world. Letscher, who’s double majoring in engineering and global health studies, says she feels a shift when she moves between her female-dominated global health classes and her male-dominated engineering ones. “I notice how it affects me,” she says. “It’s a feeling of having to prove yourself. Being taken less seriously is a good way to sum it up. It’s hard to say what the actions are, but people expect less from you, and they’re less likely to take what you say as something intelligent.”
This feeling was the inspiration for Bossy’s name. “Girls are called bossy when they’re displaying leadership traits,” Benatar explains. “There’s no equivalent term for boys. The women we’re talking to are literally the boss, the bosses of their companies. We thought, let’s celebrate the leadership traits instead of seeing them as a negative thing that only boys and men are allowed to show.”
The women they’ve been talking to get it. At a mentor speed-dating event, they met with more than 40 potential mentors. “Women’s faces lit up [when they talked to us],” says Benatar. “Did you notice that? It was a spark of, ‘This is so cool.'”
If you know of a business Bossy should put on the map, let them know here.