Women-run Businesses Are on the Rise around Lake Minnetonka

Women-owned small businesses are on the rise, especially around Lake Minnetonka.
Mary Deschamps, Patti Berg Judalena and Mary Lauer

Theoretically, running your own business sounds like the ultimate gig. Pursuing your passions can mean setting your own schedule and maybe even working in your PJs every now and then. In practice, however, it is anything but easy, as the freedom of being your own boss comes with a long list of responsibilities. Life as a small-business owner is demanding, to say the least, and keeping up with the long hours and many different hats you have to wear can quickly prove exhausting. Although the women behind some of Lake Minnetonka’s best-loved shops and stores might make it all look easy, that’s simply a testament to how good they are at their jobs.

From clothing boutiques to salons to restaurants, the Excelsior and Wayzata areas have both seen a dramatic increase in the number of small businesses in recent years, and the vast majority of the new ones popping up are owned and run by women. Although the work is challenging, and the days are long, their businesses are booming. What’s the secret to their success? As with most things, it all comes down to big dreams and hard work.

For many women owners, opening up their own business has been a lifelong goal now coming to fruition. Patti Berg Judalena and her husband own Excelsior’s Wine Republic, the first—and currently only—wine shop in Minnesota to exclusively feature sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines. Judalena was managing another wine store when she realized that she wanted to venture out on her own, so she got to work.

“While doing my day job, I studied hard and made plans. I took the steps that I felt were necessary to get what I wanted,” she says. Success wasn’t easy, and gratification wasn’t instant—Judalena says her journey to Wine Republic was about 10 years in the making—but her patience and perseverance have paid off. Now nearly three years old, Wine Republic is abuzz with business and a wide array of events, including wine tastings every Friday evening. “It’s exciting to see that people are interested in taking control of what they’re putting into their bodies—not only food but also wine,” Judalena says. “Business is growing and definitely going in the right direction, and it’s very exciting.”

A common thread travels throughout the stories of many women small-business owners. There is no time like the present to chase your dreams. Mary Deschamps owns the Vintage Loft, located on Shoreline Drive in Wayzata. Dedicated to the art of upcycling, they rescue, repurpose and redecorate vintage furniture, which makes for eclectic home décor that is both environmentally and budget-friendly. Although Deschamps had long dreamed of her own upcycling shop, she assumed it wouldn’t be possible until her golden years or retirement. But then she realized nothing was standing in her way.

“Sometime two years ago, I woke up and [said], ‘Wait a second—why am I waiting until I retire? Anything could happen. I’m just going to go for it right now,” she says. “It was a scary experience, of course, with the unknown, but it’s the best decision I have ever made.”

Of course, opening up your own business is no simple decision. There are many factors to consider for prospective owners—the financial risks, the possibility of failure, even the sheer amount of effort required day to day. Christine Kuhns, owner of Meridian Boutique, says that the responsibilities of being a small-business owner go well beyond the typical 9-to-5 workday. “The hours are long, and I think that some people don’t understand that when you close your door at the end of the day, your day doesn’t stop,” she says. “You’ve got orders to write. You’ve got emails to respond to. You’ve got administrative work to take care of. There is always something that you’re working on.”

Owning your own business is hard enough as it is, but it has always been harder for women than for men. Not even three decades ago, women weren’t able to take out any business-related loans without the approval and co-signature of a male relative or spouse. Thanks to changing times and groundbreaking legislation, far fewer obstacles now stand between women entrepreneurs and their dreams. More and more women are making the leap to being their own bosses, and they’re changing the small-business landscape in the process.

Throughout the country, women-run and -owned business are on the rise, and Lake Minnetonka is a prime example of this national trend.

However, while the small-business gender gap is narrowing, it is not completely closed, and women owners still face challenges that their male counterparts do not. “As a woman in business, I understand that it [can be] hard to be taken seriously by other business owners, bankers or accountants,” says Mary Lauer, who owns and runs several small businesses throughout the Twin Cities metro, including Que Será, a home furnishing boutique and interior design studio in downtown Excelsior. “Somehow in our culture, even in this day and age, people discriminate against women in power because they are more comfortable dealing with men.”

Pushing through those challenges can get you far, and there are also support systems in place to help women. From local mentoring groups to federal loans and grants specifically for female prospective business owners, there is a wide array of resources available for small businesses and the women behind them—although a lot of times, women aren’t fully aware of them. As Lauer says, “Most women end up bootstrapping their businesses, are grossly undercapitalized and do not ask for the help and mentorship to make their businesses thrive.” Taking full advantage of such resources can often be a make-or-break difference between a successful business and a struggling one.

Certainly, being a businesswoman is tough, but the women owners of Lake Minnetonka say that the encouragement and support of the community make their jobs easier and more fun. It’s a fabulous place to live and work, they say, and an especially great place to be a woman in business.

“Close to half of the businesses are owned by women,” Judalena says. “There were about five of us that started business around the same time, so that’s fun to see when we’re at Chamber meetings all of the women there and all of the business owners; we all support each other.”

Throughout Excelsior and Wayzata, small businesses are booming. “Excelsior has been growing from the day I opened my business. When I first came to Excelsior, there was barely anybody there in terms of retail,” says Kuhns. “It’s just been a community that has gradually grown over the years, and that I now feel has one of the finest collections of restaurants and boutiques in the Twin Cities area. We are an incredibly thriving community, and people see us as a prime shopping and retail destination.”

“We are truly a hidden gem,” adds Lauer, citing the numerous boutiques, bakeries, restaurants and other bustling businesses in the area. Of course, being located next to Lake Minnetonka is a huge plus as well. “Pinch me—I can boat or paddleboard to work, or ride my bike on the trail,” she says.
For those considering making the transition from employee to owner, these women have a few words of wisdom: Make thorough plans, be willing to work and don’t give up. “You might get no’s throughout your whole process,” Deschamps says. “But somewhere in that vast sea of no’s, you’re going to find a big yes if you push through.”

It’s hard work, but a genuine passion for what you’re doing makes it all worth it. As Kuhns notes, “If you find what you love to do, and you’re willing to work at it, you will be successful.”