Women’s Day Thoughts on Being a Woman-Owned Business


Today is International Women’s Day.  Your inbox is probably flooded with emails about inclusivity, pride, and solidarity (which is never a bad thing, right?).  I wanted to share something a little different—a more personal story of what today means to me personally as a woman business owner.

Our photo studio is certified nationally as a Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE), federally by the SBA as a Woman-Owned Small Business (WOSB), and with the State of Illinois as woman-owned in the Business Enterprise Program (BEP).  This means that we meet requirements for woman-owned vendor hiring for government contracts, and for private corporations with supplier diversity programs who are looking to or are required to hire a certain percentage of prime contractors and subcontractors with diversity ownership.  That was a mouthful.

Michelle Kaffko, World's Best Boss

In simpler terms: companies and governments have an unfortunate history of hiring businesses run by white men, simply because they are run by white men.  Supplier diversity and certification programs were made to attempt to level that playing field.  Why is that important?

I’m going to start a flashback now the way Sophia in The Golden Girls would… Picture it, Chicago, the mid-2000’s… I was a recent college graduate who moved to Chicago and got a job in marketing with a small computer security company.  I was the only female employee there, the lowest paid, and passed over for promotions.  My three breaking points, in order, were:

  1. The day a male intern was hired to assist me, was paid more than I, and played video games all day without getting fired.
  2. The day my boss asked me to pick up his shirts at Brooks Brothers because, “we all wear many hats here, Michelle, and this is a hat you need to wear today.”
  3. The day my boss copied my quarterly marketing plan and in an all-hands meeting presented it as his own. 

I left that job and got a Director level position at a new company.  The 50-something year old white male Vice President immediately started harassing me as too young for the job and said I shouldn’t be trusted to work from home like everyone else at the company, because I might “watch soap operas all day.” 

So I left that company after only 3 months, and decided that I could get so much more done if other people (read: mostly middle-aged white men) weren’t getting in my way.  Having a love for photography and a few years of experience in personal portrait projects under my belt, I started a photo studio specializing in headshots and corporate portraits.

Michelle Kaffko, a lifestyle photography portrait

I worked long hours, handled every aspect of my new business from sales and marketing, technical training, legal documents, bookkeeping, yadda yadda… but I finally felt alive.  I felt like I was making something, and finally DOING something for the first time.  I felt like I was in control of something.  Something that was important to me.  Something I had created out of nothing and was it growing and getting great feedback from people I looked up to. 

The WBDC can do a much better job than I of explaining the critical importance of WBE certification for the local and national economy.  I do know that 40% of U.S. businesses are women owned (yay!).  But woman-owned businesses contribute to only 8% of employment and 4.2% of revenues (boo).

So for me, certification is important for two reasons.  First, a sense of pride.  It gave me proof of my dignity and self-respect as a business owner who was pushed down as an employee for being female and can now use that same trait to boost myself upward.  And second: equity.  We all need to recognize that businesses owned by women, minorities, veterans, and the LGBTQ+ community have been at a disadvantage for far too long, and that disadvantage continues.  I’m not going to lie, my WBE certification comes with a little twinge of pain that it’s even still necessary today.

I look forward to a day when woman-owned businesses contribute to 50% of national revenues and not just 4.2%.  And for when all women across every industry gain equal pay for equal work, and when certification process and supplier diversity programs become outdated.  Because diverse-owned companies command the same respect that male-owned businesses have intrinsically held for far too long.

Shop woman-owned today, and this month.  But keeping shopping woman-owned and keep hiring woman-owned companies throughout the year; we can only level the playing field together.


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