Women Entrepreneurs Find Mentors in YBI Program

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Dr. Margee O’Donnell-Foust, founder of Bark Mobile Pet Vet LLC, still has customers who are surprised when a female veterinarian shows up for their pet’s appointment.

“When I first started answering the phone, people assumed I was the veterinarian’s wife,” she recalls.

O’Donnell-Foust, a veterinarian the past six years, was very comfortable in her occupation but wasn’t as confident nearly three years ago about starting her own business.

“Being a business owner was entirely new,” she says. “You name the challenge – I wondered about it.”

In weighing whether to go out on her own, O’Donnell-Foust attended meetings of the Mahoning Valley Young Professionals where she heard other women describe their experiences.

She also received guidance from her Aunt Barb.

That’s Barb Ewing, chief operating officer of the Youngstown Business incubator.

“In November of 2012, I mentioned I wanted to start a business and, thanks in large part to Barb, it took on a life of it own,” she says. “By January [2013] we were seeing our first house call.”

Earlier this year, Ewing and other female professionals at YBI launched the Women in Entrepreneurship program to encourage area women to start their own businesses.

“If we’re going to push the Valley’s economy forward and get churn going within the economy, getting women into the game and thinking about starting businesses is an important part of the formula,” Ewing says.

YBI often receives calls from people with ideas for startups, but in many cases can’t help because the focus of the incubator is technology-based companies, says Colleen Kelly, its director of development.

“We noticed is that a lot of women would call,” she says.

In addition, 18 months ago, Cris Young, vice president of Hudson Fasteners and an incubator tenant, asked why there were no female mentors and noted the absence of an entrepreneurship program for women.

Young and Brittany Housel, YBI client development coordinator, discussed the matter with Jim Cossler, CEO of the incubator. He suggested gauging interest in such a program.

A Facebook post generated an “outstanding response,” Kelly reports, with 80 respondents expressing interest. “It just kind of snowballed from there. There is definitely a need,” she adds.

Women in Entrepreneurship held its first program, a networking gathering, in June followed by two more later in the summer. “The Art of Business and Banking,” a three-session course, began Sept. 16.

“There are a lot of different challenges for women wanting to start a businesses,” Housel says, that range from lacking confidence to believing they can’t securing funding.

A major difference between men and women, Ewing has found, is “Women are much more likely to grow their businesses internally with the resources that the business makes [and operate] on a shoestring rather than take investors on. And that keeps them very small.”

Passion is no less fervent among female entrepreneurs, Housel adds. “They live, eat, breathe, die [with] their business,” she states.

“Because [women] are cognizant of their staff’s needs and the demands on them, they are able to attract people to work for them that become very committed because they are a very different type of employer than a traditional male-owned or male-led business,” Ewing says.

O’Donnell-Foust’s believes her sex often provides her with an advantage as a veterinarian. In cases where a pet exhibits fear, “I’ve had so many clients say, ‘I’m so glad you’re a woman. This is going to go a lot smoother.’” she says.

Last year, Melissa D’Apolito launched Lola Beans Boutique, an online vintage clothing store that also exhibits at the B&O Night Market in Youngstown.

As an entrepreneur at the first Women in Entrepreneurship networking session, she believes the program is valuable “because you see other women that are likeminded,” she says.

“A lot of women who are starting [as] entrepreneurs tend to have other jobs,” she continues. She appreciates “just being able to connect with people and learning from their experiences” as well as the topics the program offers.

O’Donnell-Foust wishes such a program had been in place when she launched her mobile pet service. “So many questions go through your head: Are you doing things the right way? Are you setting up things the right way? You learn so much from your mistakes and you just hope they aren’t expensive mistakes,” she says.

Founders of Women in Entrepreneurship plan more programs and opportunities to network and expect to mentor entrepreneurs.

Ewing would like to see a mini-loan or regular loan fund established. Toward that end, she relates, she and others have approached the Mahoning Valley Economic Development Corp.

“Where I see us having the greatest impact [is] getting people excited about entrepreneurship,” Ewing says.

“You’re getting them to think about taking the risk. You’re encouraging them to fill out the bank loan [application] and providing them with the resources to do that. In the long term, it’s going to be about creating some vibrancy around entrepreneurship.”

Pictured: Melissa D’Apolito, owner of Lola Beans Boutique, attended the first Women in Entrepreneurship session at the YBI.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.