Making her way

Deborah Bowers decided five years ago to open her own pharmacy in York rather than continue working unhappily for a drug store chain.
Deborah Bowers decided five years ago to open her own pharmacy in York rather than continue working unhappily for a drug store chain.

Pharmacist Deborah Bowers was miserable in her previous job with a drug store chain. Problems weren't addressed, and she felt powerless to change them. "I didn't want to go to work, ever," she said.

She decided to take the plunge and open her own business, Yorkville Pharmacy on York's Liberty Street. "It was kind of like, what do I have to lose?" she said.

Now 30, and with a 13-month-old son, Bowers said it was "the best decision I ever made. Here, if we see a problem, we address it and we fix it. It doesn't continue to be a problem."

Going out on her own was scary at first, Bowers admits, and she now carries the added responsibility of making sure a pharmacist is there whenever she can't be.

But the desire for greater independence and job satisfaction, increased control over working conditions and more flexibility for both family and leisure time are driving women like Bowers to start their own businesses at about twice the rate of men, experts say.

The number of businesses owned primarily by women in South Carolina grew by 42 percent between 1997 and 2006, compared to a 23 percent growth rate for all businesses, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Women's Business Research.

The demand for greater flexibility and control has been a key factor driving that growth, said the research center's executive director, Sharon Hadary.

"It's not that they're working fewer hours -- it's that they can set their hours," Hadary said. "They have control over their own time and control over their own destiny."

Many female-owned businesses are sparked by an entrepreneurial idea. "They see a product or a service that they were looking for and can't find," Hadary said.

Perceived as caretakers

Bowers worked six days a week when she opened her pharmacy in October 2002, but now she works four, with two part-time pharmacists. Occasionally she brings her son to work.

"When you work for other people, you have to put up with a lot," Bowers said. "It makes your work environment horrible. If you spend 40 hours a week somewhere, you want it to be pleasant."

But some women say they do face unique challenges as business owners.

"People don't perceive us as business people, they perceive us as caretakers," said Diane Woods, owner of Professional Insurance Consulting in Fort Mill. "We have to prove we can manage a business before people will lend money or engage in business with you."

Woods is a member of the York County chapter of Women in Self Employment, which has about 25 members who support and encourage one another and share information.

"A lot of women don't know where to go," Woods said. "A lot have the ability to run a coffee shop or those kinds of things, but (they wonder), how do I run the mechanics of it?"

Many women are driven to start their own business because they want more control over their lives. LeeAnn Shattuck, president of Women's Automotive Solutions in Fort Mill, worked as a corporate management consultant for 13 years.

"I was working crazy hours, and working very, very hard to make money for someone else," said Shattuck, 35. "I figured that if I was going to work that hard, I might as well do it for myself."

Shattuck, who has two partners, started the business four years ago; they charge a flat fee of $300 to help women buy cars, just as real estate agents help someone buy a house. Despite the name of the business, she said, half of their clients are men.

She said the job has required her to develop new skills. In addition to doing research to find the right car for a customer, she does sales, marketing, human resources tasks and more.

"I have learned more, probably in the last 11 months, than I did the previous 13-odd years of my career," she said. "What I found to be so rewarding is the people that I've helped. I've made so many men and women customers so happy, and turned something that's a very negative situation into something positive."

Business owners like Shattuck often make some financial sacrifices to get their businesses off the ground. Shattuck isn't earning what she did in her old job, but she expects to eventually surpass that.

"The potential is really infinite," she said.

'It takes courage'

Health insurance and benefits are another issue. Shattuck is still buying health insurance from her previous employer, and she takes a more active role in her retirement planning.

"It takes courage every single day," said Shattuck, who lives with some uncertainty and a fear of failure. "You have to fight the fears every single day."

Woods agreed. "You do forfeit a lot when you start your own business," she said. "Sometimes, the first few years you don't make a salary. You've got to be prepared for that. If your spouse does not have medical benefits, they can be costly."

Said Melanie Sills, owner of The UPS Store in Fort Mill: "It's not for someone who is afraid of risk. Because it is risky, and not everyone is successful."

Sills, 35, worked for a national health insurance company for almost 12 years. Toward the end, her employer began laying off people in large numbers and she felt like the company "was indifferent to me. You don't feel like you can depend on them."

She was interested in buying into a franchise because she knew that it would offer a plan for doing business. She did a lot of research, considering her own strengths and what type of work she likes to do.

"I wanted to make sure I liked the work, because I knew I would be doing all the work in the beginning," she said. "I like making copies and working printers and things like that."

The franchise offered Sills the chance to learn the ins and outs of operating a business. Now she has three full-time employees to help her and she needs a fourth.

And she and her husband, David, 40, a manager with a manufacturing company, are launching a new venture -- they plan to open a wine shop, Grapevine, in Baxter Village this fall.

"The main thing was how to make profits," she said. "Not everyone is successful at it. I was scared. You hear about these people not doing well, that of course I didn't hear about before I opened. I felt like I was on a roller coaster."

She hasn't had much in the way of vacations, either, but she's not complaining. "It's one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it's also very rewarding," she said. "I can't imagine not being here."