Women Entrepreneurs Drive Economic Growth in the Bronx

Betty Maurice and Elsie Juarez started Chat A Lot Kiddies in 2011.  (Kyra Gurney)

Betty Maurice and Elsie Juarez started Chat A Lot Kiddies in 2011. (Kyra Gurney)

When Betty Maurice and Elsie Juarez first opened their South Bronx speech therapy business in 2011, they were operating out of a one-bedroom apartment. Parents had to squeeze into the kitchen during their children’s appointments, but Maurice and Juarez could not afford a bigger space. Uncertain of how successful their fledgling venture would be, both women initially kept their day jobs at a Manhattan-based non-profit and worked at the business in the evenings.

Within a year, Maurice and Juarez were able to recover the money they had invested and dedicate themselves to the business full time.

Now, four years later, Chat A Lot Kiddies has 150 clients, seven employees and an expansive office with a colorful consulting space and a proper waiting room. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the South Bronx location. In fact, Maurice and Juarez plan to open a second office on the other end of the Bronx by next year.

“There’s a stigma in the South Bronx, that it’s dangerous, so a lot of clinicians don’t want to come here,” said Maurice. “When we were thinking about opening our business, we said ‘Where can we open it where there’s a big need for it’ and we decided on the South Bronx.”

Maurice and Juarez are among a growing group of women of all education levels and backgrounds opening businesses in the Bronx. The number of women-owned businesses in the borough shot up by 53 percent during a recent five-year period, far outpacing the other boroughs, according to a study released in March by the Center for an Urban Future. The New York-based think tank, which analyzed the U.S. Census Survey of Businesses Owners data from 2007 to 2012, the most recent period for which it is available, also found that female entrepreneurship in the Bronx had increased faster than its male counterpart, which rose 11 percent during the same period.

Women-owned businesses overall, not just in the Bronx, have become an important economic driver in New York City, generating around $50 billion in sales each year, according to a city government report. The number of women entrepreneurs has been on the rise citywide and there are now an estimated 359,000 women with their own businesses in the metropolitan area.

While Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens have a greater number of women-owned businesses, the growth rate in the Bronx is an encouraging sign, say non-profits and government programs that support small businesses in the city.

“Overall, it’s really impressive and exciting to see this growth in the Bronx,” said Amy Parker, a Communications and Operations Associate with the Center for an Urban Future. “It shows a certain amount of investment and opportunity that’s developing there.”

Parker said that the support provided by micro-lending organizations, start-up incubators and other small business initiatives is one factor that has likely contributed to the increase in the Bronx. She also cited “general neighborhood improvements” in the borough, like increased safety, and the Bronx’s affordability compared to other areas.

Small businesses, especially home-based businesses, also provide an attractive opportunity for women without a college education who might otherwise end up in a minimum-wage job, Parker said.

Awilda Velez, the director of the federally funded Bronx Women’s Business Resource Center, cited the Bronx’s large immigrant population as another reason for the increase.

“Entrepreneurship is not something you learn on the soil; it’s something you come [to the U.S.] with,” Velez said. “For a lot of immigrants, it’s a survival skill.”

Following a recent small business workshop hosted by Accion, one of several microfinance organizations that provide support to small business owners in the Bronx, female entrepreneurs told NY City Lens that financial independence and flexible schedules were two of the main reasons they went into business for themselves.

“I think it’s something about just being individual and having some sort of financial independence that only you claim and you control,” said Ese Ofurhie, 33, a Bronx native who created her own digital publication, Enspire Magazine, in 2013.

Bronx native Ese Ofurhie created Enspire Magazine with a friend in 2013. (Kyra Gurney)

Bronx native Ese Ofurhie created Enspire Magazine with a friend in 2013. (Kyra Gurney)

For Chat A Lot Kiddies’ Maurice being able to set her own hours has been crucial. Maurice has a three-year-old son and is pregnant with her second child, who is due in July. “At the beginning of my pregnancy I was really sick,” said Maurice. “At a regular job you can’t be like, ‘I’m sick because I’m pregnant.’” But in Maurice’s case, her business partner was supportive. “She’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ve got it taken care of,’” Maurice recalled.

While opening a business has its advantages, women entrepreneurs also face a number of challenges, including access to capital, explained Elyssa White and Marti Speranza, the directors of Women Entrepreneurs NYC, an initiative started by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration last year.

“There’s a pretty significant confidence gender gap which plays out in a number of different ways that negatively impact women in businesses,” explained White. According to the initiative’s research, women are more likely to use their own money or funds provided by friends and family than seek out loans, which can limit the growth of their business. When women do seek out loans, they often do not ask for enough capital from the lender.

As a result, while female entrepreneurship is on the rise citywide, women-owned businesses tend to be smaller and produce less revenue than their male-owned counterparts. Fewer than 10 percent of women-owned businesses in New York City have paid employees, according to U.S. Census Survey of Businesses Owners data analyzed by the mayor’s initiative. Similarly, male-owned businesses in New York City make an average of 4.5 times more revenue than their female counterparts.

The city’s women’s entrepreneurial group has launched two programs aimed at addressing the gender gap and plans to launch several more this year. Their goal is to reach 5,000 women from underserved communities through business and financial education initiatives, mentorship and networking events, and a leadership program aimed at addressing the “confidence gap.”

One interesting finding from the group’s research, said White, is that “women far and away start their businesses out of passion,” while men are more likely to be motivated by profit.

This was true for Evelyn Vargas, 52, who works full time as a business counselor by day at the Washington Heights and Inwood Development Corporation and as an entrepreneur by night. In her day job, she assists other small business owners, and in the evenings, she runs a cake business out of her home in the Bronx’s Pelham Parkway neighborhood with the help of her two daughters.

Evelyn Vargas custom makes a birthday cake in her kitchen.

Evelyn Vargas custom makes a birthday cake in her kitchen. (Courtesy of Evelyn Vargas)

Vargas has always loved to bake, but it wasn’t until she was laid off from her job at a trading company in 2007 that she considered turning her passion into a business. A former co-worker asked her to make a cake for a bridal shower, and the reception was so positive that Vargas started getting regular cake orders.

Vargas’ business, JustJazzy Cakes 212, has since outgrown her home, but difficulties raising money have kept her from renting out another space. Last year, Vargas won second-place in a business competition and the prize money enabled her to purchase a used car to deliver her cakes, instead of bringing them by subway where they were in danger of getting knocked out of her hands.

Vargas eventually wants to open up a bakery, and she has set her sights on a space near her apartment. “I want to leave a bakery for my two daughters and my grandkids,” she said. Vargas’ grandchildren, ages 10, 7 and 3, are already learning to help out in the kitchen so they can continue the family business. All of them, that is, except the three-year-old, who just stares at the baked goods. “He’s the taster,” Vargas explained.