“When I started my company with my mother 43 years ago, most women-owned businesses were home-based. The prevailing wisdom was that a woman-owned business was a small business. Thankfully, due to women leaders who pushed for change, today’s business world is much savvier and those beliefs have been largely relegated to the past. In our modern world, there is an expectation that women can—and should—run a large company.”
So says Lovey L. Hammel, co-founder of the strategic workforce solutions and talent management company, Employment Enterprises, Inc., member of the Chamber Board of Directors, and past Chamber Chair (2012-2013). She has been a Chamber member for 35+ years. We sat down with Lovey and discussed her story, including her career as a woman entrepreneur within Northern Virginia’s business region.
“Being a woman in business when my mother and I started out required different expectations. I was only 20 years old and being young worked in my favor in some ways and was a burden in others. I had doors open to me, but I wasn’t able to successfully close the deal. I’d secure a meeting and then be challenged to win the contract award. Women struggled to win corporate work back then and had to work very hard for every new job. I found that to get anywhere, I couldn’t offer a 100% effort. Success only came from continuously putting in 115%.
Part of that 115% meant being clever about our image and understanding our priorities. Since most women business owners worked out of their homes when we started out, my mother and I prioritized having official office space. Our first office was only a rented Sunday schoolroom, but it wasn’t in our home! We wanted to be acknowledged as a ‘real’ business and have a presence. We also realized that a mother and daughter team could, as my mother liked to put it, look like a ‘ma and daughter’ company. Therefore, we agreed to only refer to each other by our first names and keep quiet on our relationship. We were so good at it that people who worked for us didn’t catch on right away that we were a family-owned company! We kept the family portion of our story out of our marketing for the first 15 years we were in business.
I feel it’s important for a woman business owner to have a main priority and stick with it. Women need a strong story. I admit that I first approached the business world the hard way. When we started, I didn’t have a college degree. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It was a year into our business that I found myself in a meeting with IBM, struggling through their contract language, that I decided to take a class on business contract law. I went down to George Mason University and tried to enroll in the course, only to learn that one had to be enrolled for a degree in business as a pre-requisite. It took me 8 years of night courses to complete the program and it was one of the best things I ever did for myself. It did make work-life balance a bigger struggle, but it was an important part of my career and a confidence-booster.
Fortunately, women today don’t have to struggle quite as much as we did early on. The world has changed and women entrepreneurs now have that all important access to credit we didn’t have back in the 1980s. To secure my first loan, I practically had to sign over everything I owned and have my husband co-sign. Today’s women have quicker access to better cash flow options. Technology has also played a major role in women’s advancement within the business world. It’s more affordable and accessible, which has helped level the playing field. Not to mention all of the business women who have created a sisterhood of cheerleaders out there!
Those cheerleaders are so important to our mental wellbeing, as well. We need women we can call on for advice or guidance. We need their support to help stave off work-life stressors. Finding a work-life balance is still a major guilt-inducer, but thankfully for women today, I feel there is less outside guilt being heaped onto our shoulders. Self-imposed guilt will always be there—I felt it each time I missed one of my daughter’s activities. Having the outside world pile on to our own guilt can be crushing. Today, bolstered by business diversity goals, there is less guilt-based pressure heaped onto women entrepreneurs. In our modern world, as a gender, we’re no longer expected to stay home with the children or slow down our own careers for the good of our family. Not having that outside pressure is very freeing.
Despite the advancements women in business have made, today’s C-Suites are still disproportionately male. In my four decades as an entrepreneur, I’ve witnessed the evolution of women in business and, while there are women who have achieved C-Suite positions, it’s still a struggle to find gender diversity at that level. My work within the career placement industry has offered me unique insight into how much gender impacts career advancement. There are three differentiators that I’ve noticed:
- Women don’t often ask for opportunities. I hear time and again from women who didn’t pursue a senior role because, ‘they were waiting to be asked.’ My grandmother had a saying that, ‘if a door opens, walk through it. You may not be ready, but walk through it anyway.’ Women need to seek out these jobs, but often don’t because of the second differentiator:
- Women don’t feel they have ‘all the background.’ This one frustrates me because NO ONE has all the background needed for a job. No one has 100% of the required skills, experience, and expertise. The key here is to pursue the job anyway. If one person’s 60% is better than the other person’s, that person will win the position. Women need to ask and give their talent a chance to shine.
- Women in business often network with other women in business. Women’s organizations and events are fantastic. If I have a work-life question, undoubtedly I’m going to feel more comfortable asking another business woman for advice. Yet the path to the C-Suite is filled with people from all backgrounds, ethnicities, and genders. Siloed networking will not provide women with a broad enough background. They need to mingle with mixed groups. I recommend that women split their efforts and attend half of the events with women, and the other half in mixed company.
One thing that my mother and I wisely did early on was join the Chamber. It was an easy way to network and meet people from a wider field than we could have found otherwise. We made connections vital to our company’s success. The Chamber has helped me build my foundation, find customers, and meet people. When I’ve needed a reference, I’ve had my entire Chamber network from which I can call. It was one of our smartest business moves.
The Chamber was so important to me that I worked my way up through the Executive Committee to Board Chairman in 2013. I was inducted in June and in August was diagnosed with breast cancer. I could have quit, but instead decided that I’d worked too hard to hide! When I lost my hair, I wore hats. I also asked for help and made a deal with my Vice Chair, Mark Moore, offering to help him during his year as Chairman if he’d help when I was unavailable during mine. It worked out and the experience helped me get through a tough personal period.
As I reflect back on my 43 years as an entrepreneur, I’m so proud of what my mother and I achieved. From that little Sunday school room start to today’s staffing work in all 50 states, our company grew because we didn’t give up or give in. We put in the work and took the time to build our names within our community. I’m so very grateful for the whole journey."