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Women of color storm the Charlotte marketplace

Minding their business and doing it right

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In 2014, like so many other years, Charlotte had its ups and downs in too many ways to count. We had a mayor sent to prison for the first time in our fair city's history; same-sex marriage was legalized; hydraulic fracturing (fracking) got approved; the list goes on. Some pretty controversial stuff went down this year.

So here we are. At the end of one year looking back, and looking forward to the beginning of another. The closing of one door and the opening of the blah, blah, blah.

Reflecting is for squares! Let's instead shine our little light on businesswomen who kicked necessary ass in 2014 and joined the rapidly growing community of minority, female, small business owners in the Queen City.

According to an article published by the Center for American Progress, the number of female-owned businesses in the United States grew 59 percent between 1997 to 2013, a number way above average. In that same time, African American women-owned businesses grew a staggering 258 percent, Latina women-owned businesses grew 180 percent and Asian American women-owned businesses grew 156 percent.

We wanted to find out how this trend continued in Charlotte through 2014, so we went to Julie Ayers, president of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) in Charlotte. She says that the raw numbers are hard to get ahold of, but anyone who has attended NAWBO meetings over the years could tell you that they're becoming a larger and much more diverse group. "I think a lot of it has to do with Charlotte, I think it's very open to newcomers," Ayers says. "There aren't a lot of barriers to entry, so I think that makes [Charlotte] much more conducive."

Marsha Barnes, 39, can attest to that. Barnes recently opened The Finance Bar, a mobile financial consulting company targeting women and young adults. She says she was blown away by the amount of business her company experienced when they opened in the middle of the holiday season.

"My overall goal and reason for starting The Finance Bar was to really help individuals with their personal finances, become more savvy. And for a lot of people that means a fresh start at the new year, so I just kind of buckled down and did what I had to do," Barnes says. "It was like a gift and a curse at the same time, because I asked for the business, I wanted the business, and I was able to help people in the long run."

Too much business is a great problem to have, but juggling her full-time job as a corporate trainer for Wells Fargo, her seemingly endless responsibilities as a mother helping her son get situated in his first year at college, and trying to find a little down time through the week made the process of getting her business ready for launch a little more hectic.

"It was like a whirlwind," Barnes says about the months leading up to the holiday season. "I knew that once my son left I would miss him so much, so I'm like: 'I really need something to keep myself busy.' But I'll tell you even looking back now, I can't believe that I was able to pull it off and accomplish it."

Her vision came to fruition after reading an article one night in bed about female-owned and -operated food trucks. In that article, Barnes saw the perfect solution for her business. She wanted the ability to handle sit-down appointments, but didn't want to lease office space, so she started investigating.

"I just hung onto that single idea that: as long as it's possible, then I can accomplish it," Barnes says.

She found the necessary vehicle and all the right people to trick it out, and with her gung-ho mentality, it all came together. You'll be able to see her cruising around Charlotte in her bus with polka dot curtains later in 2015.

Courtney Ajinca, on the other hand, took a more traditional route and opened a brick and mortar. Evolve Hair Boutique is a beauty boutique in NoDa that specializes in luxury hair extensions and beauty products.

Ajinca, 26, says that business started off a bit slow when she opened her doors in July 2014, but since then it has kicked off and given her plenty of optimism going into 2015.

She would like to open at least one new store this year and is open to different places for her boutique to call home. Raleigh is a big dot on her radar, but she even has her sights set on eventually opening stores across the United States and Europe.

"We are growing exponentially so far," Ajinca says. "I'm kind of letting the cat out of the bag a little bit, but I'm partnering with some bridal salons. We have that on the horizon and we have some events we're gonna do. I'm just really super excited about everything. It can only go up from here."

She was surprised to find so many other young women enjoying similar success in her home city, but loves the sense of community and is excited to see the number of female business owners growing.

"Since I've opened, I've met tons of entrepreneurs, and it's so inspiring. I love seeing women who are doing their thing and making money and, you know, in whatever way they can. It's very empowering and very inspiring," Ajinca says.

Tasha Burks, CEO at T. Burks and Associates, has been a part of that community for almost a decade now.

Before the great recession was even a bump in the Wall Street fat-cat's belly, she lost her job and had to consider her next move. She says she enjoyed sales, but never really liked the corporate structure of most sales teams.

"I read about recruiting and felt it was something that fit my skill set. I received offers to work for established recruiting firms, but then I thought and said: 'I can do this, but I'll do it for myself.'"

Now entering her ninth year in business, Burks is focusing on expanding and developing her company as a brand — she has her eye on college recruiting.

As an established member of the community of local female entrepreneurs, Burks and others like her set a standard for younger women opening their own businesses.

"[Being a part of that community] feels great because it shows that we [women] are becoming more confident in our abilities to establish ourselves as entrepreneurs. Occasionally, I'm asked to speak to a group of aspiring women entrepreneurs and it feels great to see the drive and passion the bring to business. I love the fact that my story of business bumps, fails and successes may encourage confidence in other women to stay on the path."

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