I recently took my first trip to the Pacific Northwest and chose to visit Vashon Island. I wanted a brief reprieve from my busy days of launching a company just a year ago. I wanted to hide away and refuel. So, I randomly picked a destination on the map and headed out. After a day or two on the island, I started to doubt the randomness of my destination. At first it seemed a mere coincidence that all my interactions seemed to be with women. The nature of my work is focused on women every day, so maybe my vision was skewed. The incredibly friendly and knowledgeable host I rented the boat from was a woman and happened to be a real estate agent on the island. The first store I stopped to shop at was owned by a woman who willingly left the doors open late so I could find the perfect piece of jewelry. The bookstore where I purchased a fresh new journal was owned by a woman.
All of these had to be coincidences. That was until day two of my vacation. In the morning, I grabbed coffee at an outdoor stand in Burton and discovered another woman owner. Then when I stopped back in town for dinner after a day of exploring the sights, I found a restaurant with amazing food, great conversation and energy, affordable prices, and yet another woman owner. I finally asked this woman if I could come back the next day and ask some questions. The owner, Hedy Anderson, agreed graciously.
On my way back to the boat I stopped at a country store and farm to grab some gifts. I was greeted by a woman in bare feet running around to close the shop. Of course she encouraged me to stay as long as I needed to get the perfect gift. As we chatted and I shared my observations, she said to me, “well this is the island of women!” And there you had it, confirmation that something was more than coincidental. I told Jan I was coming back out the next day and asked if I could chat with her. She agreed and said she would introduce me to the woman who ran the landscaping nursery on the same property. I was excited and realized my vacation had just become a discovery project. I quickly contacted my host Cheryl to see if she would sit down for coffee with me the following day. Now that I had filled my last day on the island with interviews, I decided to settle in on the boat with wine and research.
I was intrigued by the number of women entrepreneurs on the island, and I started to wonder if there was a reason. What was the draw to Vashon Island for women? Was there a uniquely supportive infrastructure for small businesses? Where were the men starting businesses? Did the women come together to strengthen each other’s efforts? I had so many questions. I was hoping some of the women could answer these questions for me. I was determined to uncover the secret of the women of Vashon.
My first stop was back to the coffee stand, but the owner was not working. I did chat with a friendly woman who shared her thoughts on the trend of women-owned businesses. It was an interesting perspective that I admittedly hadn’t focused on yet. This woman, while not realizing the amount of women-owned business on the island until her and her friends openly counted them, did point out a few demographic similarities among the owners. She mentioned the island’s majority racial demographic was white and that a large proportion of the women business owners were middle aged or older. She didn’t have any insights into the trend, just observations that older populations of women were thriving and may have started their journeys many years prior. I thanked the group of people for their thoughts and headed into town to chat some more.
I stopped to see Jan again and listened to her story a bit. Jan shared of her start in finance, doing accounting work for the advertising department of a large retail company in Portland. She later moved on to the lumber industry, overseeing international operations and navigating a male-dominated industry as one of the only women in a leadership position. Jan shared of the stress that came with that work and of her life outside of her career. Jan’s amazing journey took her to Norway to live, and eventually landed her in Vashon by way of her husband’s family. Jan had no intentions of running a country store, farm, shipping department, mailbox service, consignment shop, and leasing a garden center. She fell in love with a community and wanted to help. Jan met the owner of the country store when she arrived in Vashon and watched the owner suffer through Alzheimer’s. It was when Jan started to help the sons after the owner’s passing that Jan ended up running the entire business. I asked Jan what she thought of so many women entrepreneurs; did she think there was a particular reason? She didn’t have any concrete reason for it, but she did share another good insight. There is no government on the island. No office to run for. She said at a certain point, there is an outlet needed and it makes sense to do something in the business realm.
Jan introduced me to Kim, who owns the garden nursery on the property. Kim has lived on the island for 25 years. She made a pit stop on her way to Colorado and then never left. Kim has living off the land in her blood, you can see it all around. She thrives among the things she grows, and it is apparent she is respected for her trade. Kim greets me and shares her entrepreneurial journey towards running two companies. Her motto, “You can’t always wait for the right moment” seems to have worked well for her. Kim started doing gardening work for island locals and eventually hired staff to help her. Not long after that, she opened a landscaping design business and now runs all aspects of the company. Kim shared how planting and harvesting has always been a way of life for her growing up in Idaho, and it continues to be part of her life out in Vashon. Kim’s business is thriving, and she too mentions her love of the island community. When asked if she would ever leave, she calmly says no. I also asked Kim her thoughts on the women-owned businesses on the island and it was almost an afterthought. Kim felt like the island was a good place for anyone to come and live how they wanted, whether quietly or launching a busines. At least that is how it has worked for her.
My last stop of the day was to see Hedy Anderson. I had looked her up the night before and was excited to chat. I felt determined to find a common thread. Walking into the Sugar Shack, I was overwhelmed by the smell of fresh baked butterscotch laced chocolate chip cookies and a fruit pastry. There was an impressive vinyl collection, pet photos lining the walls, and a kettle of hot tea waiting. I never wanted to leave!
Hedy was also a longtime transplant in Vashon. Originally from the Milwaukee area, Hedy relocated to Vashon after visiting a friend. She decided it would be a great place to raise children. And she raised them with same type of support from the community the other women spoke of. An inpouring of help from others, no matter what the need is.
Hedy has had many successful entrepreneurial endeavors during her time on the island. She launched a handbag business as her first trial and fondly reminisces about her apprehension to bring her product to the farmer’s market for sale. Eventually, her business was fruitful enough to sell bags all over the US. Hedy then launched King Caramels, a successful caramel candy business on the island. While purchasing space to produce her caramels, Hedy launched another business idea, Sugar Shack Restaurant, with a French trained chef friend, and is where I sat to ask questions.
I asked Hedy what supports and resources she had as a business owner. Were there formal associations for women business owners on the island? Again, it seemed to be an afterthought. There were none identified. Hedy did share that she had tried to bring others in the food trade together. She even offered to rent out her commercial kitchen space to others who needed a kitchen for a short period of time. But all the efforts shared appeared to be organically organized. Nothing formal.
So, what was it about this island? After talking to all these women, I still had so many questions. I sat down with my host, Cheryl to try one last time. Cheryl was yet another transplant. She moved to Vashon after meeting her husband. Cheryl didn’t see herself living in the area at first, but eventually it called to her as well. And Cheryl has been working as a real estate professional ever since arriving. Cheryl shared that her real estate firm is run by a woman as well. All I had after speaking with Cheryl was a confident feeling in my gut that women were supported as business owners on Vashon Island, but I still didn’t know why.
In 2020, the state of Washington was ranked 3rd in the country for women entrepreneurs (Seattle Business, 2020) and reasons cited included access to venture capital and funding resources, formal women-owned business organizations, and a “favorable climate for female empowerment.” When I inquired about leveraging some of these resources, most of the women spoke more of the community support. They talked of other women business owners like they were neighbors. Women shared of their startup journey through the trials and tribulations and recalled how the community banded together to assist. Could it be that communal support of female empowerment is that powerful?
I am already planning a trip back to the island. Partly because it is a beautiful and welcoming place, and partly because I want to learn more about this community that seems to lift women entrepreneurs. What is in their community DNA that works so well? What is the draw to the island? And what can other communities learn from this success? I also want to continue supporting the amazing women of Vashon.