After a dinner honoring Minnesota female business owners recently, I thought about the amazing stories I'd just heard and the powerful effect women have had on the economy — so much of it recent, during the span of my career that began in the 1980s.
I heard something different when I later talked about the dinner with some of the successful businesswomen there. In separate conversations, each one told me they left the event thinking about the connections they made with younger women and the future ahead for them.
"We conquer one thing," said one of those women, Amalia Moreno-Damgaard, owner of Eden Prairie-based Amalia Latin Gourmet. "And we conquer the next thing."
That is the story of the most powerful economic transformation of my lifetime — the rise of women in the workforce, along with related rises in income and power. Not even the emergence and, these days, retirement of the baby boomers is as important.
For the women in the Minnesota chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, or NAWBO, it is the story of their lives. About a decade ago, they created the hall of fame to recognize successful Minnesota female entrepreneurs, and to inspire more.
"The stories of these women making a difference running a business is a kind of light beacon," said Jill J. Johnson, who started Johnson Consulting Services in Minneapolis in the 1980s. As a child, she decided she wanted to own a business after seeing a businesswoman interviewed on TV.
Initially, the Minnesota hall of fame inducted women who were gone long before NAWBO got its start — like Elizabeth C. Quinlan, who more than a century ago created the first luxury store in Minneapolis.
It was in the 1970s and 1980s that the biggest leaps happened for women. Most women of prime working age were not working until 1980. Today, the share of prime-working-age women with jobs is at an all-time high.
And it wasn't until 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Women's Business Ownership Act, that banks had to lend to women without requiring a male co-signer. NAWBO formed in the mid-1970s in part to force that change in banking. Minnesota quickly had one of the largest chapters in the country.
"They were women who were looking at how to move the economic needle for women," said Johnson, who took part in the lobbying.
"They were pragmatic because they understood women business owners wouldn't be successful if some of these systemic infrastructure issues weren't changed," she added.
The 1988 law required the Small Business Administration to set up more programs to help female entrepreneurs. And it required businesses that do contract work with the federal government to demonstrate that they work with women- and minority-owned businesses.
Johnson won a national SBA award in 1989 and was a NAWBO-Minnesota president in the 1990s. She advised later leaders, particularly during downturns that led to membership drops.
The pandemic created the latest challenge for business owners. NAWBO-Minnesota lost members as business owners cut costs. Mary Nutting, owner of Bloomington-based CorTalent, saw her time as president of the group extend to three-and-a-half years, when a typical term is now one year.
The group in 2020 was still rebuilding its finances after hosting the NAWBO national convention in 2017. When the pandemic hit and stalled that rebuilding, Nutting said, "It was touch and go there for awhile."
She brought in new board members, restarted fundraising and, with successor Mary Younggren, owner of Edina-based Advent Group, pushed to diversify the membership. That set the stage for Moreno-Damgaard, who became president of NAWBO-Minnesota this year.
"One of the main initiatives this year was to mirror the Minnesota business community that is very diverse and increasingly diverse," said Moreno-Damgaard, who spent 20 years in banking before starting her food business. She is also well-known as a frequent guest cook on Twin Cities radio and TV shows.
NAWBO-Minnesota this year hosted a meeting of leaders from 43 Minnesota nonprofit and development organizations led by people of color to make connections and encourage investment. Several of those leaders later joined in the organization's hall of fame dinner.
Growth in Minnesota's economy is leveling off because of the retirement of the boomers and curbs on immigration. Also, there will never be another phenomenon like that wave of women coming into the workforce and rising up the income ladder that began in the 1970s.
Even if the wave doesn't get bigger, events like the NAWBO-Minnesota dinner are designed to keep it strong. Nutting even paid for young women at her firm who want to start their own business to be there. "It's like, 'Great, let's learn, let's learn,'" she said.
"We have very young women who are just starting businesses. That's when they need the most hand-holding," Moreno-Damgaard said. "We have the role models for them. They have done big things."