In the News

A Culture of Camaraderie - Part 2: A roller-coaster ride

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 second installment of a three-part monthly series telling the beginnings of NAWBO Iowa and the years since.

Part 1: Energy, enthusiasm and success

After the official creation of the National Association of Women Business Owners Iowa chapter in 1987 — the organization originally started as the Roundtable in January 1986 — its takeoff and early years were rocky. It was more of a trial period for NAWBO Central Iowa — the name at the time — as it was figuring out just where it fit in the local and regional landscape.

“The membership during those years would go from being high, then drop way down,” said Pam Schoffner, a historian of sorts for the organization and a member since the beginning. “We’d have plenty of money, then the next thing you’d know, we’d have lunches back at the Royal Fork because we couldn’t afford a better venue. It was truly a roller coaster.”

As the organization attempted to gain more attention in the region, it undertook several initiatives. The leadership decided to partner with Iowa’s Small Business Administration and Des Moines Area Community College to create signature programming. NAWBO Iowa held breakfasts at the girls’ state high school basketball tournament to help create mentorship connections. It implemented several key programs, but hardly any of them stuck.

This period — a limbo of sorts — lasted the better part of two decades, as the organization tried to find its footing in Des Moines and Central Iowa.

“It was a weird time. It was like faking it until you make it,” Schoffner said. “It was a trial and error. We were feeling our way through and trying to figure out exactly what we were supposed to do to best serve women business owners.”

Finding a foothold

NAWBO Central Iowa wasn’t alone. Nationally, women business owners were feeling a bit out of place as well.

After the landmark 1988 Women’s Business Ownership Act ended discrimination in business lending, women entrepreneurs became more prominent. The increase in numbers was assisted by the economic recession of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when educated women were being laid off in large numbers and jumping into businesses of their own. According to a 1993 report, women were joining business ownership at about two times the rate of men. The report said if the trend continued, women would own about 50 percent of all businesses in the United States by 2000.

While the sharp increase wasn’t sustained — women account for just a third of business owners today — it was indicative of a change in perception regarding women entrepreneurs. Schoffner remembers going to Washington, D.C., with then-Iowa Congressman Neal Smith to campaign for a national database for women ownership numbers.

“That was a time women were trying to find their way,” Schoffner said. “We didn’t know how powerful we were or just what we were. There weren’t even statistics being kept in those years.” 

The unknown partially fueled the prolonged up-and-down period NAWBO Iowa experienced. Women business owners were joining the world of business ownership, and, because of stereotypes, biases or struggles, many were dropping out as well, Schoffner said.

“There were a lot of women testing the waters of owning a business, but when they got into it, it was more than what they thought,” Schoffner said. “There were a lot of early business failures. They couldn’t get over the significant investment it took and ended up doing something else. It was also hard to get financing for women, even with the new laws.”

Weathering the storm

Between the late ’80s and the mid-2000s, NAWBO Iowa dealt with the inconsistency.

To help endure the ups and downs, NAWBO Iowa took on much of the national organization’s brand and identity. NAWBO sent representatives and experts in various fields to teach local board members about marketing, international relations or anything else the local board was interested in.

At the biannual NAWBO conference, Schoffner and local leaders connected with other NAWBO branches to learn from their models or mistakes. The leaders tried to find the right time to hold meetings, either during the day or in the evenings, and what programming would actually work. At that time, volunteer participation was poor and membership fluctuated every year.

It was an undoubtedly frustrating time for longtime members, but it was a necessary period for the organization to grow and learn.

“I look back at it, and it was a frustrating time from a leadership perspective,” Schoffner said. “But you can say that it was our self-discovery. Women didn’t have a lot of credibility in the business world at that time. There weren’t any numbers or statistics saying women were economic drivers.”

In the mid-2000s, NAWBO Iowa finally found its footing. It took drastic changes and a shift in processes to accomplish the organization’s goals. But for those who stuck it out for many years, it was a change worth taking.

“I could see that this organization was something that was bigger than us,” Schoffner said. “We needed to be a part of this and be involved to make a difference because we had something to prove. I wanted to see that through.”

Kathryn Towner grows into entrepreneurship after career in sales

Kathryn TownerKathryn Towner, owner and president of WinCommunications, was already a business owner of sorts before going out on her own.

She worked at McGraw-Hill, a textbook publishing and sales company, in her first job after graduating from Iowa State University in 1986. While Towner was technically an employee of the company, working in outside sales, she was largely on her own, dedicated to her territory and clients — a mindset and skill set closely resembling those of a business owner.  

“If you look at what I did in my first job, I was very independent,” Towner said. “My boss was always out of the state somewhere, and I managed my territory as if I owned it. So you could say that I was always an entrepreneur. It had those elements, so I wasn’t caught off guard.”

In the mid-1990s, Towner’s husband, Greg Goaley, started an internet marketing company, right before the internet boom of the late ’90s and early 2000s. After the turn of the century, Towner was faced with a tough decision. McGraw-Hill rearranged, and part of that adjustment would be moving Towner to Omaha, Nebraska. With children and a life planted in central Iowa, moving wasn’t part of the family’s plan. She loved her job — at that point, she had been with the company for 15 years — but it was time to move on.

So in 2001, Towner joined her husband at WinCommunications. She wanted to add something new to the company, rather than work for Goaley — “I wanted to add my own revenue stream,” Towner said. She spent hours teaching herself proper email marketing, which was just coming to the forefront at the time, and built up another part of the company.

Towner and Goaley operated their own slices of the businesses separately, but always worked together it came to sales leads or decision-making.

“The biggest challenge for me [being an entrepreneur] was just wearing all hats,” Towner said. “When you work for yourself and are making your own decisions, you remember fondly the times when someone was telling you what to do next. That’s a big challenge.”

As Towner and her husband gained a better understanding their strengths over the next five years, they started to work more collaboratively. Towner was the programming and logistics-minded person. Goaley was more creative. Towner describes the dynamic as Goaley being a Mac computer and herself being a PC.

Being a fully self-employed family, there was also the necessary collaboration of parenting. Towner and Goaley raised two sons, both athletes, always balancing work, family and plenty of Dowling Catholic High School football. At the same time, Towner and Goaley were fully dedicated to managing and broadening the business.

About a decade later, in 2015, Towner faced perhaps her biggest and most painful challenge. Goaley fell ill and died in December of that year. Towner was tasked with running the business herself.

“It was challenging,” she said. “We raised our kids, got them through high school and put them in college. Then he was sick and we lost him. I really dedicated myself to making this work. It was the business he started, and I wanted to build on the legacy he left.”

Towner found solace in her fellow NAWBO Iowa members, who helped her navigate the world of business ownership without a partner. She originally joined NAWBO Iowa in 2001, but she leaned on the members more than ever after Goaley’s death.

“At NAWBO, you can literally call up anyone and have a conversation,” Towner said. “Sometimes you miss that accountability aspect when you’re on your own, but when you call someone else who may be going through the same thing, it motivates you.”

Towner is now co-president of the organization along with Kendra Erkamaa. Towner said there is a bit of a give-back factor after all the help NAWBO Iowa has given her. But even more than 15 years after she joined the organization, Towner is still gaining valuable skills, resources and networking opportunities from her peers.

“There is a give-back motive,” she said. “At the same time, I’m still gaining. I want to help our members connect and stay engaged. And I always encourage members to get on the phone and just call another member. It’s been so worth it for me over the years.”