Women Owned and Operated Businesses: Critical to New Orleans

we stand together

I, a female, am in the midst of starting a theatre company with another female colleague, Coco Guillot. I feel lucky to have found other female entrepreneurs all over this city to inspire my efforts. All of these said entrepreneurs have dealt with setbacks and tribulations connected to their gender. Though they don’t deserve an ounce of their adversity, all of the women I spoke with push through these times, and work to keep themselves, and fellow females standing tall.

Simone Burke has created a quirky, quaint, incredible useful store, Mo’s Art Supply. Right off of Oak street uptown, Erica Smith manages the shop. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Art with a focus in printmaking from Southeastern Louisiana University. At Mo’s, she belongs to a team of mostly women, many of whom are talented and well established artists. This company gives these artists the opportunity for steady income, which allows them to continue to work on their own projects. As a result, the city of New Orleans has more artists staying in town, continuing and expanding the rich culture.

Erica feels lucky to have become a part of the Mo’s family. She mentions that Simone makes an incredible effort to show her appreciation and support to her staff. Because the company has a high percentage of women, tasks that typically get passed on to men are delegated instead to women. Women who have interest in building and installing furniture, for example, are given the opportunity, thus proving that girls can carry heavy things, too (wow, who knew!?…every girl ever..). Born and raised in Louisiana, Simone proudly called it her company’s home as well. It was first established in Covington, and Erica helped open the New Orleans store in 2015. Erica found the store location on her own while walking around in her neighborhood. She saw an empty space, and she claimed it.

Erica manages Mo’s under the motivation of inspiring local artists and residents. She provides artists with creative vibes and educates the rest of us with care. She works unbelievably hard managing Mo’s, overseeing customer service, taking stock of inventory and more. Although she manages the shop full time, she still finds time to create her own work. Some of this work can be found on sale at Mo’s; beautiful proof that Simone Burke gives her employees the respect they deserve. Currently, Erica’s handmade sketchbooks can be found on the shelves. It brings her great joy to connect with other artists through their purchasing and enjoyment of her own work. Erica looks forward to continuing creating her own work, and feels completely supported by Simone in her endeavors, whether they are related to Mo’s or not. Erica takes the words written on the wall of Mo’s with her everywhere: “Now go forth and create.” Simone and Erica have both gone forth and created a company full of inclusivity, inspiration, and support.

Many local female artisans are showcased at the Nola Artisan Wearhouse. In fact, currently only women are showcased. The owner Jennifer Murphy has made a point to keep it so. She has partnered up with Tribe Alive, and together these entrepreneurs aim to promote female artisans locally and in underdeveloped countries, while providing them with safe and financially fair opportunities. Additionally, Jennifer cares deeply about creating an environmentally sustainable and socially conscious world surrounding her company. When Jennifer was in college at University of Alabama, she spent many a night crafting. She did this because she loved organic bath products and candles, but was a college student, and thus, couldn’t afford to add these luxuries to her budget. Jennifer learned a lot of crafting methods on her own, and recieved many tips from her mother. When Jennifer describes the early years of her business, she claims that it was not a “real job.” She was joking around, but the joke reminded me of my own voice. I hear a lot of women, including myself, claiming their passion projects to be fake jobs. I have never heard a man say this. We as women can and should lift each other up and help each other find the confidence to acknowledge our ventures as worthwhile and real. But I digress, I digress…

Ok, Ok, so anyway, y’all, Jennifer started selling her products at pop ups and farmers markets in her college town. Additionally, she would station herself at markets during the summer in Detroit (where she is from). Many of her satisfied customers in Alabama were tourists visiting for a football game, so she realized she had to widen her market. She created a website and it worked. The success of her online world, and the sweating involved in the outdoor market game gave her the motivation to open up a store; an air-conditioned store. At this point, she was unsure that her store would succeed, and continued to move forwards regardless. She notes that the worst possible outcome is that the store closes. I mention this, because I find it remarkably inspirational to hear women admit their fears while continuing to move forward. This honesty, accompanied by bravery holds so much power. Many women have been taught to be afraid of our desires. So, let’s be afraid, and let’s still go for it, like Jennifer did. But I digress again, I digress.

OK, OK, SO. Jennifer found a home in New Orleans through a job offer. Not only is she a successful entrepreneur, she is also an English teacher. Through moving here for her teaching job, a career she grew up imagining for herself, she was excited to open up a store. The rich, unique culture NOLA provides inspired Jennifer from a young age, when she would visit relatives with her family, and thus she felt it to be the perfect location for her passion project. At NOLA Artisan Warehouse, Jennifer employs Tulane students, who in exchange present and sell their work. This plan, an idea ignited by Jennifer’s mom, came about after Jennifer worked for six months without any help. With the help of her employees, she can now feel like a human again. Regardless, she continues to spend her evenings and weekends focusing on this store.

Jennifer works this hard because she loves her art, but also because she has to. From the beginning, she remembers many people trying to convince her to give up. Being a woman, she has been endowed with extra barriers. From the beginning she recalls a plethora of men specifically trying to convince Jennifer to quit. Property owners attempted to overcharge her by at least $500, a scam she saw through as a result of her research. Men with much larger artisan businesses have addressed Jennifer with condescension birthed from their intimidation of her small company. From such experiences, she has learned how to do her research. She knows she needs to be the greatest expert in any room, otherwise people may take advantage of her. The NOLA Artisan Wearhouse has been open for about a year now. Jennifer’s modesty and bravery keep her working harder than most. She moves through the world with the phrase, “ava fede,” (“have faith”).  Her inspirational work ethic, palpable passion and compassionate mission will keep her young company growing for years to come.

Ashley Daily is a name that many in New Orleans have come to know and love.  She owns and runs Euphorbia Kava Bar on Oak Street.  The establishment radiates Ashley’s personality.  It is welcoming and loving.  Ashley has pushed through considerable adversity and worked hard with immense determination to realize her dream of opening the first kava bar in New Orleans.  Her smile and positivity lift up the entire community that has sprung up around Euphorbia.  It is truly a family, and she is the center of it all.  If more business owners operated their businesses as she does, not just for profit, but for love and positive contribution to the community, the world would be a kinder place.

Another woman owned business worth mentioning is Blue Cypress Books.  Blue Cypress, located on Oak Street about a block from Mo’s Art Supply, is owned and operated by Elizabeth Ahlquist. Not only is Blue Cypress one of the most unique book stores in New Orleans, it is also the only one that can boast an all female staff.  Elizabeth prides herself on her selection, particularly her used book selection. Her website says “giving used books a second story on Oak Street,”  and indeed, Elizabeth does just that. She is a critical pillar of the New Orleans literary community and the city is richer for her and her establishment.

Most people who live in New Orleans and enjoy a good burger have heard of the next establishment I’m going to mention.  This establishment is Cowbell!  Located on Oak street right by the Jefferson Parish line, Cowbell is owned and managed by Krista Pendergraft-May.  She is a force to be reckoned with to say the least. Cowbell stands against hate and provides delicious, handcrafted food.  Her contributions to the city’s dining are paramount and the city would be poorer without her.

Crista Rock has triumphed over truly disgusting adversity. She feels it is time to tell her story publicly. I greatly admire her fearlessness. Born in Cleveland Ohio, Crista grew up constantly taking pictures. After studying graphic design, and then working multiple jobs with TV studios in Cleveland, she moved to New Orleans. At 23 years old, she began her photojournalism career with WDSU. It was the year 2001, and she was one of two females on the team. She remembers being paid 20,000 dollars less than her male peers, and still working much harder to prove her worth.

At 30 years old, Crista’s story gets more infuriating to say the least. While recovering from a shoulder injury, a co worker named Stephon borrowed her camera and returned the equipment broken without explanation. Rightfully angry, Crista asked for an explantaion. After attempting to confront him, he shut her down, telling her not to “bark” at him. As a result, Crista took a deep breath and requested a conversation with Stephon in a private area. When they turned the corner, this man grabbed Crista by her face, and threw her against the wall, resulting in serious bruising under her eyes. HR was informed of the incident before she had a moment to call the police. The co-worker admitted to assaulting Crista, and still HR would not let her call the police (or grab an ice pack for that matter).

After filing a restraining order and for an arrest warrant against Stephon, Crista was fired from WDSU for her refusal to work with the man who attacked her. This man, after admitting his crime to HR, losing his court case against Crista in record time, and filing for bankruptcy, (avoiding paying the court ruling to Crista) is still employed at WDSU.

Crista lost a lot of colleagues from this experience. Many irrationally blamed her for the incident and recused themselves from working with her. Additionally she felt very little support from friends. Still she moved forward.

In 2011, Crista started a production company, Crista Rock Productions,  focusing on capturing New Orleans. She has captured the painful world of the Katrina aftermath, and has exhibited the beauty and revelry that is Mardi Gras. She feels her business is such a success because “love always wins.” With this perspective, and a well oiled company under her belt, Crista has overcome her adversity and blossomed into a champion for all female entrepreneurs. The part of this story that remains unaddressed is the fact that her former co worker has not paid for his crimes. He was never punished like Crista was, and he was the only one at fault. These stories need to be told, because if men like him do not face consequences, men like him will continue getting away with crimes against women, both big and small. It needs to stop now. I thank Crista for speaking out.

Yes, I am in the midst of starting a non profit. We are a contemporary theatre company called nolaNOW Theatre company. Our mission is to lift the New Orleans community into the present moment through the use of contemporary stories. All of our work will be socially relevant and written within the past ten years. We are also developing a podcast focused on interviewing theatre industry members about their experiences as working creatives in New Orleans.

Since childhood, I have received messages from men and women alike that I am not a leader, that I would never blossom into an independant, efficient adult; that I must find someone to take care of me. This has been my greatest roadblock, and my greatest drive. This roadblock/drive inspires me to encourage young girls, teens and even older women to take control of their lives. We all deserve to have confidence in our aspirations. The many voices instilled in our society telling us that we are not smart enough, not strong enough, not skilled enough, not brave enough are crushed more and more with every female established business. The women I have written about above keep me going; my deep passion for theatre keeps me going; my wish to rid messages of worthlessness to future generations of women keeps me going. I feel this fire within me always, and this fire connects me to all of the other business women taking hold of their realities. I am proud to be a female entrepreneur, and I DESERVE to be an entrepreneur. I am lucky to have inspiration from many incredible female business owners all over New Orleans.

For  more information about any of these incredible businesses, click on the links below

Mo’s Art Supply

NOLA Artisan Warehouse

Crista Rock Productions

nolaNOW Theatre Company

Euphorbia Kava Bar

Blue Cypress Books


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