Women on the move: Entrepreneurs move themselves and Michigan forward

These northern Michigan women are entrepreneurs who have built their own businesses from the ground up, and for all of them, it's been a labor of love. Here, they talk about why and how.
When Allison Beers returned to work after a 2008 leave for maternity, an upsetting discovery awaited--her position as a meeting planner was no more. She had a new baby, a gap in a loved career and seemingly, a ticket to the unemployment line.
But that wasn't to be--Beers took her knowledge of, and passion for, the industry to work for herself, leaped into business with both feet and today is the happy owner of seven-year-old Events North in Traverse City.
"It was 2008 in the middle of the downturn," she says. "I always knew that I wanted to start my own business, but I wasn't thinking about [doing] it at that point. I had already spent eight years planning meetings and events all over the world; I loved what I did, so there was no question on what the business would be."
Events North got off the ground with just one client--and Beers operating it from her house.  With a veteran planner at the helm, Events North simply took off.
"We built our foundation on running impeccable meetings and events," she says.  "Based on reputation and networking, my business has grown from a home-based office with just me [as its only employee] to, seven years later, an office in downtown Traverse City and three full time employees."  
Events North plans corporate, social and nonprofit meetings and events around Michigan. Beers describes her customers as a diverse roster of business that allows her and her team to handle all market sectors.  
"Our clients range from huge national companies to small mom and pop businesses," Beers says. "Our first and foremost priority is honesty and integrity. I know that everyone says that, but in my industry most planners mark up vendors' services. We pass all costs directly through to our client so we can have open, honest conversations about budget and goals of each meeting and event."
People notice, according to Beers--they take note of the pride with which the Events North staff conducts business, and she enjoys their appreciation.
"The comment we hear the most is that they don't know how they would have pulled it off without us.  We love hearing that."
Do what you love and the money will come--a tiresome cliché at best? Maybe for some. But Beers is an enthusiastic entrepreneur who lives and loves her career.
"The thing that I love the most about my job is that no matter how long the day or how busy the month or how insane the schedule, I have loved going to work for the last seven years every single day," Beers says.  
"I love what I do and I am blessed to get to do it in the state of Michigan."
Louise Hopson is another self-made woman whose passion is her livelihood, and has been for over three decades. An artist from a young age, Hopson, 59, knew she wanted to make her living creating beautiful things. Today she does so, not just in one art gallery, but two.
She splits her time between them--both named Art Cats--one in Petoskey and one in Muskegon. Hopson opened her Muskegon gallery in 1999 and the Petoskey store was born in 2012.  
Long before that, as a new NMU graduate, Hopson operated from a home studio and sold her pieces at art fairs.
"That was just the way to sell your work in the 80s and 90s. The market was booming and I had a couple of really good and successful mentors who sold at art fairs--so off I went to do the same," Hopson says.
Sales soared, but the venues eventually became too unpredictable for Hopson's liking.
"Art fairs were very good at that time but they are grueling and unpredictable. Anything can happen from a tornado to a huge drop in the stock market the day before," she says. "It is also a lot of travel and time away from home."
Life and art have evolved with the decades. Hopson has local ties to each of her galleries.
"The Muskegon gallery is a block from my home," she says. "That gallery is a destination with a large percentage of customers being local and very loyal customers."
It's different in Petoskey, according to Hopson. She and her husband own a home there that once belonged to her parents--a spot where they may retire.
"The Petoskey gallery is in the thick of the tourist area and we are still becoming known with the local and much smaller populace. It is much more seasonal."
Hopson currently sells 50 artists' work--about half of them Michigan-based. It's a compilation of jewelry, pottery, paintings, glass, metalwork and fiber.
The collection includes her own pieces.
"I like working with the three-dimensionality of clay," she says. "Painting the two surfaces of a bowl is different than painting a flat canvas. I make a lot of traditional pieces--bowls, plates, and teapots--in non-traditional ways. All of them are glazed or painted in my own style."

Darsi Lee decided to take the leap into business ownership in May. The former real estate agent opened the doors of The Lake House in Charlevoix right before the tourists arrived and flooded her boutique gift shop with a welcome crop of Charlevoix's visiting shoppers into her place.
She is a natural salesperson, it seems, as she and many other self-described "people persons," tend to be, working retail before she spent several years selling real estate.
"Once you have the retail bug, you have the retail bug," says Lee, 45. "Having a store like this has always been in the back of my mind."
After discussing the opportunity over with her husband, they agreed the time had arrived.
She now proudly operates one of those special boutiques that folks can't resist popping into to peek at the large array of gifts, trinkets, and nautical-themed items. Lots of whimsical signs, decorations, household items and, seriously, just way too many others to name.
"We have Polish pottery, a silver line and lots of other things that make this the perfect place to stop and buy a wedding gift."
Sure, the shop's eclectic beauty is a draw. So is its owner, who has lived in Charlevoix since childhood; most locals are small-town friends and neighbors she's known for most of her life.
But there's one atypical affectionate, and popular "'employee" who isn't even paid to work in the shop. She volunteers her time many a shopping day simply luring people in the door by her very presence. Her name is Ella and she is a golden-doodle.
Ella perches calmly in The Lake House entryway, gazing at potential shoppers who can't help but notice her and frequently stop for gentle nuzzles of furry affection.
"Everyone should have a store dog. She loves everybody; she has increased walk-in traffic by 10 percent since I started bringing her to work."
Lee smiles because she's teasing. Sort of.
"Ok, maybe not 10 percent," Lee says. "I don't know, because this is my first year in business."
"I think it was a pretty good year, but I have no measure. So we'll see. I'm so grateful for the support of the locals. This is the only gift shop in town and they really love that."
She has strong roots in Charlevoix.
 "Most of all, I love Charlevoix--I want everyone to see what a great place it is."
Kathy McFarren-Smith is a veteran business proprietor who launched her direct mailing/advertising service 15 years ago and has thrived ever since.
"I was stuffing a lot of envelopes, doing it [in-house] for an employer--over 1,000 pieces of mail every month--and the idea just came to me. Why don't I start doing this for myself?"
So the Kingsley native got the necessary permits and, after gathering sound advice from other female business owners--as well as some experts in the bulk-mailing department of the local postal service, Alpha Mail Inc. was born.
She has too many clients to begin to count off the top of her head--a good sign of success. One hires her to send out between 15,000 and 30,000 postcards weekly every quarter.
Others are sporadic, such as politicians with campaign mailings, and some are very regular--financial planners, automotive dealerships, insurance agencies, realtors and construction companies.
"I work with nonprofits, sending out notices for their fundraisers and I have special rates for them. I do lots of advertising and coupons, but also work for chambers of commerce and for townships, mailing out their tax bills."
Women like Darsi Lee and Kathy McFarren-Smith are knee-deep in business, as are so many women in the rest of the US.
The numbers are climbing, with some pretty eye-opening figures.
Most people don't know that one in five firms with a revenue of $1 million or more is woman-owned. Or that that 4.2 percent of those firms now have revenues of at least $1 million or more.
According to the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), women own 9.1 million U.S. companies--and they're making an astounding difference in the nation's economy.
They supply 7.9 million people with jobs, and have generated $1.4 trillion in sales so far this year.
Thought it couldn't get any better? Wait for it …
Remarkable things are happening for women of color who own their own companies--2.9 million U.S. firms are majority-owned by women of color in the U.S., NAWBO reports.
These businesses employ 1.4 million people and pump $226 billion into the country's annual revenue.
And that's something to be proud of--in Michigan and in the country.

Kelle Barr is a Portage-based freelance reporter who can be reached atKellebarr@gmail.com or on Twitter at @BarrKelle
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