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Women's Work 

For thousands of New Orleanians, the female touch in business is gold.

Businesses owned by women have a tremendous impact on the local, state and national economies, with 30,650 such firms in the New Orleans metropolitan area alone generating $4.5 billion in sales and employing almost 48,000 people. The Center for Women's Business Research figures show that women own more than 29 percent of the 105,460 private businesses locally, and another 15.6 percent -- or 16,469 -- are 50-50 partnerships between men and women and employ more than 52,000 people.

So how do these women compete in a traditionally male-dominated corporate structure and continue to grow in an area where the economic climate is stagnant at best? Many find new markets for their products and services outside Louisiana while keeping their base -- and the economic benefits the enterprises hold for the local economy -- in New Orleans. There's no single roadmap businesswomen can follow to the riches of an outside economy, but local entrepreneurs have proven that a good idea, solid products or services, hard work and, sometimes, a little luck have all fueled their journeys to success.

"I don't think there's a real magic bullet," says local artist Mary Viola Walker, whose unique handmade jewelry and one-of-a-kind "gem" handbags have been featured in national media such as Modern Bride and television's CBS Morning Show. "It's all incremental, and you just have to keep your doors open and keep answering your phone. It builds over time." Walker sells her creations at her MVW Gallery (3652 Magazine St., 891-4122; as well as at private trunk shows, on her Internet Web site and at trade shows, where an editor from Modern Bride noticed her jewelry and featured it in a couple of issues. Walker also has made contacts, both through customers at her store and her own legwork, that have landed her jewelry in the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans as well as stores in Nantucket, Palm Beach, Indiana and the Hamptons.

"Every once in a while you hear about these wild success stories where one thing happens and their business just takes off Š but I think for the rest of us, you just have to keep working," she says. "It's a gradual process, and it just grows a little over time."

One store called Walker after a friend took one of her gem purses to a wedding in New York and the storeowner saw it. Another picked up her jewelry lines because the owner's parents had seen Walker's work at MVW Gallery while visiting New Orleans. "It's just word-of-mouth and a series of happy accidents sometimes," Walker says. "You just have to be ready to take advantage of them when they happen."

The expansion of Zehno Cross Media Communications (757 St. Charles Ave., Suite 203, 525-1271) onto the national front several years ago was no accident but a carefully designed plan by owners Paulette Hurdlik and Kathy Cain, who started their business as Design Partners 20 years ago. When they changed the name, they also changed the focus from a predominantly design, marketing and communications firm for local businesses including banks, education and healthcare concerns to specializing in education-oriented and nonprofit groups.

"We reinvented ourselves in 2000 specifically because we wanted to move our base nationally and internationally if possible," says Hurdlik. "We did this by specializing into a market Š and added a Web division and went after national and international clients successfully."

Zehno's current clients include London School of Business, Columbia School of Business in New York, Haas School of Business at University of California-Berkeley, LSU Law School, the Newman School, Historic New Orleans Collection, University of Toledo and others. The firm has won numerous awards for its campaigns and works hard to attract new clients.

"We took steps to establish ourselves as experts in the education market," Hurdlik says. "We began speaking at national conferences and publishing ŒWhite Papers' on various topics. We completely redid our marketing to showcase our specialty."

The course change of Cynthia House was much more dramatic. For years she operated a construction business, which she still owns, but now most of her energy is spent building Enhance Me (527 Julia St., 877-736-4262;, where she sells beauty products from skin care to Bronze Velvet, which has become the country's top selling airbrush sunless tanning product since she introduced it in February. In establishing her business, House made her showroom and trade shows her means of expanding into stores and salons across the country. All of her promotional materials and the products themselves have a toll-free number printed on them, and women at Enhance Me are always on hand to discuss women's needs and product desires on the telephone.

"The Internet has given women, especially, the opportunity to expand (their businesses) outside their geographic area because it has no bounds," says House, who spends almost every weekend traveling to trade shows to introduce her products to the public and vendors. The Internet, she says, also allows entrepreneurs to work in the most advantageous location for them, whether it's an office building or a back bedroom, without suffering adverse effects on their image. "With the Internet, customers don't know if you're a multi-national company or a woman working out of a warehouse on Julia Street (as House is).

"We're selling an image. Our vision was to enhance the lives of women on the inside and outside. It's about self-confidence. So many women are busy taking care of their husbands, their children, their business, their aging parents that they tend to put themselves last. We try to give them reasonably priced products and tell them it's OK to take care of themselves. By enhancing themselves they can help the people around them better."

In expanding The Curtain Exchange (3936 Magazine St., 897-2444; from a store in New Orleans eight years ago to almost two dozen across the country by next month, owner Georgina Callan took a more traditional approach by franchising the idea and supplying all the stores with ready-to-hang designer window coverings.

"I think a lot of [the success] is the concept itself, which is an unusual concept: the idea of ready-to-go curtains on the luxury scale instead of catalog curtains," says Callan, who already has franchises in 12 states. "We'll have 21 stores by November, and we've got more opening next year."

In part, Callan, who designs many of the curtains sold at the stores, is able to keep up with the fast expansion because she focuses on making and distributing curtains and helps others establish the support businesses she needs to achieve that goal. "A lot of our workrooms (that make the window treatments) are here in New Orleans," she says. "We're growing those companies alongside us. We do not want to be a gigantic, big organization. We want to help grow other companies that are comparable to us in size. We're all working in the same direction, and we all need to help each other get there. I think that is how a lot of business is run now, should be run and will be run."

As much as possible, Callan says she likes to help establish and work with such businesses in the metropolitan area, where The Curtain Exchange maintains is base of operation. It soon will add bedding to its stock.

"I look at the city and see there is a workforce here of many people who can sew and many who are willing to run a workroom," she says. "Why not give them the opportunity to do what they do and Š I can stay focused on the core product."

Leontine Linens Ltd. (804 Webster St., 899-7833; founder Jane Scott Hodges took a little different tack in enlarging her customer base. Because the products she offers -- monogrammed linens, towels and heirloom-quality bedding products -- are custom made, she hired a network of representatives in other states to meet customers individually and take their orders. She utilizes a Web site to disseminate information about her linens, and recently bought a manufacturing plant in Kentucky that originally was founded by renowned linen pioneer Eleanor Beard in 1926 and has been producing Leontine products for the past seven years.

"We never really wanted to be a manufacturer, but we bought the [Eleanor Beard] company two years ago because it was going to close." Saving the plant's operations, she says, has ensured that Leontine Linens' products will retain their impeccable quality through sewing techniques that few people know how to do. Plus, she adds, it saved the jobs of the women who have been employed at the plant for decades.

What makes Hodges' products so unique not only are the designs, which are numerous, but also that each piece is made to order and customers are served by representatives that come to their homes, take measurements and help them select the perfect colors and monograms.

"The whole idea is to live with heirlooms," says Hodges, who began her foray into the business when she couldn't find the linen products she wanted as a newlywed. "They are things you can pass on but live with also. Everything is washable that we do, and each piece is made to order so you select the fabric, trim and type of lettering that is right for you."

The business has attracted national media attention from television shows and numerous magazines, including Southern Accents, InStyle, Elle Decor, Martha Stewart Weddings and The New York Times Magazine, and Leontine Linens recently opened a showroom in the prestigious Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York. In setting up Leontine representatives in various cities across the country, Hodges says she has fulfilled another personal goal of providing women with jobs that allow them to devote time to their families.

"We set the business up in such a way that it would accommodate working women and mothers," says Hodges, who initially started Leontine Linens in the back bedroom of her home but now has a store off Magazine Street. "They have a set of samples and go to clients' homes. The women who sell the lines have connections in their own areas. For me, it's always been about helping out other people in business Š and networking. "We have been so lucky that we've honed in on a product that no one else is doing exactly what we do. I never foresaw the level that this would go to. It was a little back-room bedroom business that took over my life."

click to enlarge "So many women are busy taking care of their - husbands, their children, their business, their aging - parents that they tend to put themselves last," says - Enhance Me's Cynthia House (center, pictured with - company representatives). "We try to give them - reasonably priced products and tell them it's OK to take - care of themselves." - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • "So many women are busy taking care of their husbands, their children, their business, their aging parents that they tend to put themselves last," says Enhance Me's Cynthia House (center, pictured with company representatives). "We try to give them reasonably priced products and tell them it's OK to take care of themselves."
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