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Economy & Business

Local entrepreneur hopes St. Louis is gateway to WEST for women business owners

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Jenny Dibble is hoping women will go WEST.

“We have the traditional entrepreneur but also female leaders within organizations,” said the 29-year-old Webster Groves resident. “We serve to help push women beyond the owner/operator role into the CEO role, get them out of the day-to-day and into the growth stage of their business.”

The way Dibble aims to do that is through Women Entrepreneurs of St. Louis (WEST), a group she created with a kickoff event last December at Lab 1500. Today, WEST has about 50 members, but she said it is growing quickly with the last two events of 75 people each selling out.

The idea arose from a similar gathering Dibble, a native of Sullivan, Mo., founded during a stint in the Pacific Northwest.

“When I moved back to St. Louis in 2011, I was attending networking events and there was a noticeable absence of women entrepreneurs,” she said. “I found a similar situation when I was living in Seattle (for) five years.”

The solution there was to put together a group aimed at young female entrepreneurs. By contrast, the St. Louis gathering isn’t focused on any particular age. However, it does cater to those whose ventures are a bit past the immediate startup level. WEST is seeking women who have already found at least some funding and established their business. Dibble hopes to help enterprises grow rather than get off the ground.

“Most of the startups that are involved have already raised one round of capital, whether that is through Arch Grants or Capital Innovators,” she said. “They have some sort of seed money (for which) someone has validated their business model.”

The group is now looking to expand into a two-tied model with a general membership and a “mastermind” level to provide additional benefits beyond the standard networking meetings.

Dibble, a marketing executive and mentor at ITEN, sees an increased interest in women-owned businesses.

“The female entrepreneur scene is one that a lot of organizations in St. Louis want to grow over the next couple of years,” she said. “They see it as a way that St. Louis can expand the number of jobs and the revenue base.”

Still, she believes, women may face problems different from their male colleagues.

“It isn’t so much that we’re trying to overcome things that men aren’t,” Dibble said. “But with men, there is kind of an old boys' club where they can access resources. Women typically haven’t been involved in those conversations.”

Kellee Sikes, 41, of Kirkwood thinks it is a great idea.

“As far as I know, being in business here 14 years, it’s the first time something's been focused on women and entrepreneurs at the same time,” said Sikes, who runs a marketing and social media company for social enterprises. “There’s a different flavor often in how you approach business and resolve problems, especially if you are a serial entrepreneur, than when you are a corporate executive and moving inside an existing organization that has already envisioned their mission and goals.”

Sikes said the concerns of women in business aren’t always the same as for men, noting that females are often encouraged by society to be more nurturing, forgiving and understanding. She says those are positive traits but they sometimes have to be balanced by other characteristics when dealing with business negotiations or employee issues.

“A lot of people think of small business owners and they think of men automatically,” said Sikes.

And those stereotypes can be damaging.

“When I was growing up, my kindergarten teacher asked what we wanted to do when we grew up and I said ‘a fireman.’ She said ‘Oh, honey, you can’t be a fireman,’” remembered Sikes. “I think some of those thoughts still hold true today, less so depending on which generation you are addressing, but how you are treated and talked to in the work environment may be different based on your gender or based on your age.”

The native St. Louisan thinks the area is primed for business development regardless of gender.

“But I think the fact that this is the first time we’ve had a women’s entrepreneur group tells you that we’re still finding our way as a community as to what women in business means,” Sikes said.

Debbie Monfort, owner of a commercial and residential cleaning business she founded in 1990, said she loves the concept.

“It’s just great sharing ideas,” said the 59-year-old Manchester resident during last week’s WEST event at an Old Webster  pub. “Most of us are business owners and the problems we are having and how we are solving them and helping each other out with answers on that – this is my first time and it has been phenomenal.”

She said it seemed different than other women’s networking efforts.

“This isn’t about pushing your business,” she said. “It’s about talking to people having the same problems you are and what  they are doing to solve those problems.”

Monfort said that she likes the social aspect.

“I’m in somewhat of a male-dominated industry so there are not a lot of people in my business that I would go talk to,” she said. “I really do believe that women intuitively like to help each other.”

Karen Weidert, a 42-year-old artist who manufactures items for gift shops and galleries, said the low-pressure climate appealed to her as well.

“I don’t want to spend my time worrying about ‘Do I bring customers to my co-club people?’” said the University City resident who founded her business in 2006. “It’s just more of a networking and learning opportunity than ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours,’ which is what I find with a lot of other entrepreneurial organizations.”

She liked to share stories, resources and strategies with other participants though she noted that she hasn’t seen a lot of problems for herself in trying to be a female entrepreneur. In any event, she wants to forge ahead.

“I just feel like rather than wait to be picked to be on a team, you just start your own team,” she said.

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