In the News

A Culture of Comradery

Part 1: Energy, enthusiasm and success

NAWBO Iowa has a rich history of empowering and assisting women business owners in the state. From humble beginnings in 1986 to becoming one of the fastest-growing NAWBO chapters in the nation today, the organization has grown and morphed to serve women leaders in many positive ways. This is the first installment of a three-part monthly series telling the beginnings of NAWBO Iowa and the years since.

On the afternoon of May 15, 1984, excitement, energy and a little bit of curiosity radiated throughout the Marriott Hotel in Des Moines. It was the last day of the Midwestern Women’s Business Ownership Conference, an event sponsored by the Small Business Administration and a private sector steering committee.

By all accounts, the conference was a resounding success. About 850 women from Iowa, Nebraska and other surrounding states attended and participated in 47 different workshops, leading to a new level of enthusiasm with women business owners in the Midwest.

“There was just so much amazement that nobody wanted to let go,” said Pam Schoffner, who attended the conference and was one of the original members of NAWBO Iowa. “We showed up to the Marriott hotel, and all of the women were just in shock that there were that many of us operating businesses. We became instant resources for each other, having previously not known we were all out there.”

What came from the conference was a new sense of energy and success for all who attended. The event also led to the start of The Roundtable, a Des Moines-based group of women business owners yearning for networking and educational opportunities. The Roundtable was the very beginning of what eventually became NAWBO Iowa, an organization that has provided women all over the state with opportunities to grow their businesses and connect with peers.

Equality for entrepreneurs

At the time of the conference and long before it, the climate for women business owners was not friendly.

Women struggled to receive business loans due to an antiquated system that didn’t allow females to receive loans or funds from a bank without a co-signature from a man. They also weren’t taken very seriously, as Schoffner can attest.

When Schoffner started her writing business, P.S. Writes, in 1979, she was fortunate to have the backing of many of her previous employers to help push the business off the ground. She wrote copy in marketing and advertising materials for companies all over the metro. But even with some backing, Schoffner ran into problems.

For example, whenever she wanted to borrow money from a bank to buy word processing equipment, her husband would have to leave the office and sign on her behalf. Her business was also seen as just a hobby because she worked from home.

“I was not viewed credible on my own,” Schoffner said. “There are even stories of 18-year-old sons coming to sign for their mothers.”

But the tides were changing in the mid-1980s.

In 1972, just 4 percent of businesses were owned by women and women in high-ranking corporate positions were just as scarce. The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s was setting out to change that. With the goal of pushing for equal employment rights, second-wave feminists paved the way for female entrepreneurs. They helped push for legislation like the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which allowed women to establish a credit line separate from their spouse.

As a result of the movement, women business ownership numbers soared. By 1987, women owned 28 percent of businesses. Between 1980 and 1986, the number of non-farm sole proprietorships owned by women increased 62 percent.

After the passing of the 1988 Women’s Business Ownership Act, legislation aimed toward equaling the playing field for women business owners, the percentage of women-owned businesses increased even more, holding 38 percent of all businesses by 1991.

Finding solid ground

The Roundtable had its first official meeting on Jan. 18, 1986, with 24 charter members. Mickey Carlson, president and co-owner of Penguin Studios, was elected president. Every second Monday of each month, The Roundtable met and included opportunities for women business owners to network and exchange ideas.

It wasn’t always formal, though. Without a permanent location, the group met in locations all over town.

“We were a very lean organization, and I remember we even met at a buffet place called the Royal Fork,” Schoffner said with a laugh. “But for the most part we met at various club locations and private rooms.”

What the organization lacked in luster, it made up in substance. It brought in speakers to educate members on issues at the local and national level. The group held sessions on employee management, hiring and firing, tax law and more. It also built relationships with other businesses, organizations and influencers to try to push change for the betterment of women business owners.

In August 1986, a delegation of 10 Roundtable members went to the White House Conference on Small Business in Washington, D.C. The members returned with an idea. During the conference, the delegation met with an organization called NAWBO. NAWBO, which was created in 1975, had a mission to address nationwide public policy issues and relayed the need to provide a united voice for women business owners in economic, social and political communities.

The delegation returned with enthusiasm and in awe of NAWBO and its effectiveness.

“They said, ‘We have to be a part of this group,’ ” Schoffner said. “Some of us looked at them and asked if we were ready for it. We had just got The Roundtable up and running, and now we wanted to take it to a different level.”

The rest of The Roundtable agreed to join, and in the summer of 1987, the organization changed its name to NAWBO Central Iowa, still with the goal of providing a valuable resource to women business owners across Iowa.

Since then, the organization has changed its name to NAWBO Iowa and has undergone a few more transformations. But all of the shifts have all been with that same forward-thinking goal in mind. During its inception, NAWBO Iowa played an important role for its members, and it still does today.

“Having this organization helped empower people, and they felt more legitimate,” Schoffner said. “It was a very strange time for women business owners. I can say I’m glad it’s over, and I don’t ever want to go back. I don’t think we ever will. We are already seeing women in major positions within companies, and I think we’re going to see even more in the future.”

After winding path, Kendra Erkamaa finds her passion

Kendra ErkamaaIt was time for Kendra Erkamaa to do some searching.

After having her positon eliminated in catering management in 2004, Erkamaa knew she had to find a new job. But after a few years in the food service industry, she understood it wasn’t the right career path for her. So she set out to do her own research, taking stock of her personal interests, passions and skills.

For as long as she can remember, Erkamaa has enjoyed helping people. Because of that altruistic desire, she just couldn’t find the right fit in education and in her career.  

Growing up in Iowa City, Erkamaa was the daughter of a helicopter mechanic and a nurse. She loved science and math, eventually attending Iowa State University as a George Washington Carver scholar and initially studying chemical engineering. But she struggled to find a passion, switching her major four times before graduating in 2002.  

“I wanted to do something where I was making a positive impact on people’s lives,” Erkamaa said. “As much as I loved learning, I didn’t feel a burning passion for what I was doing.”

With that in mind and presented with a new opportunity to find a new industry, Erkamaa wanted to make sure her next career choice was the right one. One field highly interested her: financial planning. She could serve as a guiding influence in many people’s lives while helping them reach their financial goals.

To find out more about the industry, she picked up the phone and started calling financial planners.

“That’s when I realized that this is a powerful profession to be in,” Erkamma said. “Because so much of my family’s history was struggling with finances, I love to be on this positive side of creating financial wealth and doing good things for people.”

After those calls, she joined Triangle Financial Services in 2004, eventually taking over the business in 2007, where she has been ever since. During those three years, Erkamaa learned and soaked up knowledge about the industry, covering securities, financial planning, insurance and more. 

She experienced trouble right away. After buying the business just months before giving birth, Erkamaa guided the company through the deepest market crash in 70 years in 2008. Today, the company has seen unprecedented success, still taking a client-first, holistic approach to wealth management, working side by side with clients along the way. Triangle Financial Services is a fully licensed firm from fee advice, insurance, stocks/bonds and mutual funds.

Later in 2007, Erkamaa connected with NAWBO Iowa through a client. Erkamaa was looking for a support network to help her navigate the challenges of being a first-time, female business owner. Since joining, she has felt the benefits of the organization through the growth of her business and network.

“NAWBO Iowa has been incredibly valuable for me, and it’s more than just an impact on my business,” she said. “The organization is also my network of some of my closest friends. There’s some powerful and fantastic connections.”

Erkamaa was tabbed to lead NAWBO Iowa as co-president alongside Kathryn Towner, owner of WinCommunications, in 2018. In addition to her commitment to NAWBO, Erkamaa is on the board of the Money Smart Week, Jumpstart and Zenith Chamber Orchestra organizations. She is also a budget counselor at Beacon of Life.

In 2007, Erkamaa was named the Women Business Owner of the Year by the Greater Des Moines Noon Chapter of American Business Women’s Association (ABWA).