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Peoria-area entrepreneurs embrace challenges, benefits of running women-owned businesses

Business owners Francie Hinrichsen of Founding Females, Reagan Leslie of Leslie Tyler Design, and Caroline LaHood of ColorForge stand in front of the WCBU mural in the station's newsroom.
Joe Deacon
From left, business owners Francie Hinrichsen of Founding Females, Reagan Leslie of Leslie Tyler Design, and Caroline LaHood of ColorForge say the support, camaraderie and encouragement shared among women business owners in the Peoria area have helped them pursue their entrepreneurial paths.

Getting a new small business off the ground can be challenging for anyone.

Often, women face more obstacles and need to handle extra responsibilities compared with their male counterparts.

In Greater Peoria, an organization called Founding Females helps women navigate the challenges and run their businesses successfully.

Reagan Leslie of Leslie Tyler Design and Caroline LaHood of ColorForge are among the women who credit the support, camaraderie and encouragement gained through Founding Females in helping them pursue their entrepreneurial path.

“I think women, we overthink things. We want things to be perfect when it comes to even parenting or our families, and I think business is no different,” Leslie said. “So I think really, there's a great benefit of being a woman in business because I think you have the attention to detail that is going to set your company apart.”

LaHood said women supporting other women in business provides the encouragement to take the next steps forward.

“Life often hands men a 40-hour work week, and they position other important things around it. Women, if they want a career, they often have to fit it in the cracks — and that's OK,” LaHood said. “It's OK because we have an important role in our family; we have an important role in our community.

“There's nothing wrong with that, and we need to talk about: as women, how we leverage that to our advantage to the community's advantage? As a female business owner, I'm not trying to stand toe-to-toe with men. I'm trying to stand toe-to-toe with my unique values that I bring to the table and creating a business around my life and not a life around my business.”

Francie Hinrichsen, the founder of Founding Females, said the sense of community among women entrepreneurs enables them collectively to get through the tough times.

“I think that men tend to validate themselves [and] society tends to validate men, women tend to seek validation externally,” Hinrichsen said. “So, if we acknowledge that that's the case — that we've been brought up to look for that external validation before we take a step forward — and say, ‘No, we're in community; we're going to validate each other,’ and encourage one another to take steps forward, even when it feels scary, then we can clear each other's paths and help one another. If we're linking arms and we're all rowing together, we can take steps forward together with that encouragement.”

Reagan’s story

Leslie said her background studying theater arts developed an “artist approach” that led her to launch Leslie Tyler Design, a construction and interior design firm she started four years ago.

“I studied theater arts in school, so I guess I kind of always had this artist approach to creating any sort of career,” she said.

“Right after college, I did a lot of logistics management, which really wasn't my love, but it gave me a foundation that I could build upon. So in 2019, I took my love for preservation and old historic homes and I figured I could almost trick people into saving the architectural elements if I can make them look cool. So I brought in my background in set design and applied it to homes.”

Leslie said the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic within her first year of business forced her refocus her business goals.

“For the past four years, now, I have just been digging my heels in and looking for every opportunity to not only get involved with what design looks like and making that accessible to residents of Peoria, but then also what preservation looks like, which kind of has led me down this path of redefining the construction industry as we know it,” she said.

“Locally at least, we don't really have a lot of the trades and craftsmen that are necessary. So, building that out meant really seeking out national support and trying to pull that in and then start training our local trades and plaster repair and historic carpentry and all of those elements.”

Leslie said she recently purchased a property through Peoria’s land bank and started working on rehabilitating it.

“I basically told the City of Peoria that if you could support this effort and trust me a little bit, then I can hopefully show people on a more broad scale and then that way, we can start addressing some of the central neighborhoods and the blight that we have,” she said. “Because what I have found is ultimately, the real problem that we have is not necessarily housing, but the quality of housing, and having capable trades that can work on those homes and firms that are willing to take on those jobs.”

Leslie said as a single mother, juggling her time between parenting and running the company is among her the challenges she faces. But it’s hardly the only one.

“I think my main, I guess, challenge as specifically a woman-owned business is the industry at large,” she said. Again, I'm in construction and design, so I'm constantly talking to men that have been in the industry for decades, and proving that I am just as capable and knowledgeable about things, both from my colleagues that I work with, but also clients.

“So I think being taken seriously is been probably one of the challenging things. I feel like women consistently have to show up perfect; we don't have the luxury of the mistake, I guess. So that that's been one of the most challenging things that I've experienced.”

Caroline’s story

LaHood’s official job title is director of operations for ColorForge, a start-up she refers to as “the beauty industry’s technology partner for reimagining cosmetics.” She runs the business with her husband John, and the couple also operates Peoria’s La Gondola Spaghetti House location.

“Everyone always wants to know: how did you go from pizza to makeup? My husband is one of — he has seven sisters, so growing up the joke was always like, ‘everyone takes too long to do their makeup,’” she said. “He's also a maker; he studied industrial design. He's just always trying to find the newest tool or two-way, or what can he do? So in 2014, we were at an additive manufacturing or 3D printing conference, and he had this idea of, ‘Hey, they're making all these things with binder jetting now. Why can't we make makeup?’”

Caroline LaHood said they bought a 20-year-old 3D printer for $5,000 on eBay and drove to Tennessee to get it.

“He just put it in our basement and started developing the technology. So, we have been developing the technology and now we're just really building out the company,” she said. “We started in 2020 as well, right before (COVID) — a lot of pivots, a lot of delays. But I think that makes us tougher, and shows our sustainability in this very tough ecosystem. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint-hearted, and I think we're really proving out our mettle now.”

Like Leslie, LaHood said juggling family responsibilities with business operations can be very difficult. But along with that, she and John are venturing into unfamiliar territory.

“These are two industries — additive manufacturing and cosmetics — that we don't have formal education in,” she said. “My husband [is] self-taught in all chemistry and additive manufacturing, and I am teaching myself and business and VC (venture capital) funding. We really just need to prove and have the confidence that we belong in the room when we have a conversation. We've learned to ‘fake it till you make it’ — and everyone else is probably doing it in the room, too.”

LaHood said the system of support she sees in Founding Females can encourage other women to start their own businesses.

“I think women just naturally tend to build community beautifully. We strive towards community, and we nurture it,” LaHood said. “Personally, my cup is always filled and I'm energized when I'm around other people. So, this ecosystem in Peoria that's building, where we can say, ‘hey, I'm doing that; hey, I love that you're doing that. How can we work together? How can I just hold your hand and pull you along?’ That's what's going to create a new generation of women entrepreneurs.”

Supporting one another

Hinrichsen admits even getting Founding Females launched took “a lot of grit.”

“In Founding Females, we talk a lot about the ‘before it worked’ stage, and there's a lot that goes into a business before it gains momentum a lot of times,” she said. “So, a lot of grit, a lot of research, a lot of making relationships and building strong, genuine relationships that you can trust. It's taking steps and being bold enough to believe that you can make a difference, that you can make an impact on people with your product or service.”

Leslie said it’s reassuring to have a group like Founding Females offering support in both good times and bad moments for the business.

“What I’ve realized for years now, it's like there's seasons,” she said. “There's seasons of that harvest. There's also seasons that it's winter and there's nothing happening. Then there's seasons that you're planting those seeds, but those seeds aren't going to sprout until, I think, three months, maybe. It was like a three-month time frame of like when you stop reaching out. So, I think in the best way possible, it’s taking it in stride, but then making sure that you're surrounded by community is one of the big takeaways.”

LaHood said women working together to gain more acceptance in the business world will help to level the playing field.

“I am proud of the role that I have as a female in my family and what I'm able to contribute,” she said. “So, I think normalizing that as women is really important, even if it's just supporting other women and saying, ‘Yeah, it really is that hard. No, there's nothing wrong with you; it really is that hard and we can do it, we can get through it,’” is just sometimes the encouragement that we all need to continue taking that one step forward.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.