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50 Female Business Owners in Downtown Bloomington Is No Coincidence

Staff / WGLT
First Friday is an event held each month on the First Friday of the month. This recurring, self-guided event showcases the visual arts and artists for the purpose of art education, visibility, and the opportunity to purchase.

Downtown Bloomington is home to over 50 female-owned businesses. One reason for that cluster is the relationships those women have built over the years, allowing them to bounce ideas off each other and making the tall task of entrepreneurship a little easier.

The Bistro owner Jan Lancaster said her goal was to always own a business. She was never interested in corporate life.

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Jan Lancaster has had The Bistro for about 30 years. Lancaster said in her teen years Downtown Bloomington was the place to be. Several years after opening The Bistro, Lancaster opened an upscale restaurant.

“I think as we evolve, more and more people are figuring out ways to be creative and start their own businesses. We have so many art co-ops going on Downtown, we’ve always had a lot of artists but with businesses opening up ... a lot of them are women-owned businesses, which I think is very empowering,” said Lancaster.

Corporate life and high rent costs tend to act as limitations to creativity, a possible deterrent for women.

Illinois State University professor of strategy and entrepreneurship Avi Datta said if the rent is affordable in a place, the quality and authenticity of tangible retail products will improve.

“People oftentimes shy away from opening coffee shops, ice cream stores or any retail store because of high rent. In Uptown and Downtown there has been some efforts to keep the rent down, so that the businesses can flourish,” said Datta. “I don’t know who took that effort in doing so, maybe the local business community or the government, but that helps in sprawling out businesses ideas in the Uptown and Downtown area. This means the biggest expense that they have to incur, if that is standardized and affordable, then you can concentrate more on the business than the rent.”

Specs Around Town owner Julie Kubsch said she was welcomed by her fellow women entrepreneurs in 1996 when she moved to Bloomignton and started her business.

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Julie Kubsch started her business in 1998. Kubsch saw in the newspaper the space that became Specs Around Town. Kubsch said when she saw it, she knew it was the perfect place.

This “welcome” and friendships eventually create what’s known in the business world as a “cluster,” which is a concentration of interconnected businesses in a particular field.

“We all bounce ideas off of each other. A lot of people have never done this before, and we’re all a good resource for each other,” said Kubsch.

Datta said clusters are considered to increase productivity.

“A cluster is essentially, for whatever socioeconomic factor, it attracts a lot of people in creating one type of product or one type of business and they all flourish and take care of each other and essentially becomes an attractive force in that industry sector,” said Datta.

Women started an average of 1,821 new ventures in the U.S. per day between 2017-18, according to the 2018 State of Women-Owned Businesses report. In the No. 2 spot for Most Popular Small Business Ideaswas retail. According to Women Entrepreneurs Statistics, the U.S. has 12.3 million women-owned businesses.

Datta said the Downtown area offers more to the retail industry in that tangible products sell when you have customers walking down the sidewalk along the business. Downtown businesses have a more clear, direct model that is attractive to those in retail. 

Datta said retail may be an area where women feel more comfortable.

Von Champs Boutique owner Carmen Champion said the opportunity for women to flourish in Downtown wasn’t created by her.

“We have a lot of long-standing female business owners that were here already. The predecessor prior to me, who owned the yoga studio, was female,” said Champion. “Individuals who have done the heavy work and investment and maybe that’s the opportunity that was created by someone beyond me to make it more comfortable, to make it feel more accessible.” 

Lancaster said the women who are stepping up to run for local political office are inspiring the business community.

“The same goes for businesses. I think that more and more women are just stepping up and wanting to be independent and wanting to own their own businesses and going out to find out a way to make that happen,” said Lancaster.

Lancaster said she is awed by the concentration of women in the Downtown Bloomington area and was excited to see them featured during this month’s First Friday event on March 5.

“We have a great network of businesses and more are growing,” said Lancaster. “We have a new boutique called La La Boutique, which is owned by a mother and daughter, and then we have Von Champs. There are so many new things happening, and women are taking control down there, it’s great.”

The City of Bloomington’s economic development department works with the Downtown Bloomington Association to promote and develop Downtown Bloomington.


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