Women join Ladies Who Launch 'incubators' to nurture creative business ideas

by Evelyn Theiss / Plain Dealer Reporter

It's a Monday night, so the Rocky River stationery shop Paper Trails is closed to customers. But there's something brewing in the back of the store, besides tea and coffee.

Margey Lowery, a blonde with a pixie cut who looks like Hilary Swank's twin, is talking to six other women with a husky voice that joins intensity with gentle encouragement. She and the other women here are discussing business, using business language, setting business goals. On the surface, that is; but if you really listen, they're creating. They're talking about vision and concepts -- about business as an art form. Lowery's energy is a natural outgrowth of doing what she feels is exactly what life has prepared her for: spurring other women to become entrepreneurs.

"What's your special sauce?" she'll ask them, meaning, "What makes your idea stand out from similar ones?" The woman she asks will pause, then become more specific. Once Lowery, 45, helps each of them find what potential project excites them and engages sometimes-latent talents, her energy is multiplied. To call what's happening at this gathering (fueled by homemade guacamole and freshly baked brownies) "networking" would miss the point.

Rather, it's an organic, particularly feminine process, a turning inward to discern what one loves, is good at, wants to share with the world. Then, taking it forward by relying, as women have for generations, on other women to advise and propel you with a confidence you didn't know you could muster. It's called an "incubator" for a reason: It's where, after creative ideas are birthed, they are held close, nurtured and allowed to gather strength before they're unveiled. And this incubator is not just for business ideas, but, above all, for inspiring all kinds of visions.

"What we do here is creative thinking, combined with helping women define their project," says Lowery. This is the fourth and final meeting of the Rocky River autumn incubator group of "Ladies Who Launch." Such groups are held in Northeast Ohio under Lowery's leadership several times each year, to the east, to the west and in Akron. These groups also meet in 54 other cities in the United States -- but Cleveland is where it all started, the home base of Victoria Scaravilli Colligan, who founded the now-national organization and lives in Hunting Valley with her husband and children. She is the daughter of well-known arts patron Diann Scaravilli.

But Colligan, 39, hasn't gotten all that much attention, even locally, for creating such a fast-growing enterprise. "People who don't know me that well, they think I own the Cleveland franchise," says Colligan, who has a combined law degree and MBA from Case Western Reserve University. "They don't understand that I started the whole company." In the wake of that success, she turned the Cleveland franchise over to Lowery.

For several years, Colligan was in a business partnership with New Yorker Beth Schoenfeldt, and the two co-wrote a book, "Ladies Who Launch: Embracing Entrepreneurship & Creativity as a Lifestyle," published by St. Martin's Press. This past year, though, Colligan went solo with Ladies Who Launch. Colligan is back to the vision she first had in 2002, when she started an online e-mail network for women entrepreneurs. It was based on a deceptively simple idea: "Women define success as something that combines the lifestyle they want with something they're passionate about." And a woman, unlike most men, wants to make her business work around her life, instead of working her life around the business.

On this night in Rocky River, six women share their now-refined plans for launching businesses. Among them: creating an online community for textile artists, turning a retail embroidery business into a boutique supplier, creating a new kind of one-stop graphic-design business, turning a homemade chocolate-covered toffee recipe into a corporate gift line.

They're meeting at Paper Trails, a success story for another Ladies Who Launch incubator graduate, owner Katie Pickard. Incubators, by design, aren't housed in soulless conference rooms but in places like this shop, which showcase creative success.

The active Cleveland-area network of LWL grads -- and you have to have had the experience of an incubator to be part of it -- numbers just under 200, says Lowery, who lives in Bay Village. LWL's national success validates her belief that men and women start businesses differently, Colligan says. A woman tells a man, perhaps her husband, that she has an idea for a business she wants to start. He'll say, "Write a business plan" or "Crunch the numbers" or some other nitty-gritty advice. Too often, the woman, either bored or overwhelmed by the idea of those tasks, will say, "Forget it."

What women prefer, says Colligan, is to "start things organically, test things, talk to friends, get feedback, connect with other women to move forward. Later, there's plenty of time to write a business plan." In his best-selling book "The Tipping Point," Malcolm Gladwell wrote about "connectors" -- people who know a lot of people who know more people.

As Lowery points out, that's what women naturally are: Among jobs, play groups, book clubs, neighbors, workout friends and so on, they know a lot of people -- and, more so than men, they talk to these other women about personal issues of importance to them.

An incubator creates not only a sounding board, but a place to forge friendships and find support, the kind of support a woman can continue to rely on as she gets her business under way. So as Lowery works with the women, she'll take them through the creative process that she has seen work.

First, women imagine what they want to see in their lives, the kind of work they'd be so excited to do it wouldn't seem like work. Second, Lowery has them state their dreams: write them down, then dare to say them aloud to others -- especially in this safe space. Then Lowery has them refine their plans, and get the other women's reactions. As a source of expertise of any kind -- whether Web support, writing, advertising, you name it -- it's hard to beat Lowery's long list of resources. Off the top of her head, she'll say "Call [fill in a woman's name]; she can help you." Finally, she urges the women to celebrate even small achievements with a reward, with anything they consider a treat: maybe a dinner out, a cupcake, a massage. "I have the best seat in the house, because every month I get to see a group of women come in the door with nervous energy and excitement but trepidation," says Lowery. "I'm fulfilled, because I get to tap my own creative energy to help them along. For me, it's like watching flowers bloom -- with women finding out there's a growth community that supports them." It's not just business, she knows. It's about reshaping lives.