Women Rock the Block

Women Rock the Block

Nikolene lacono getting the Brunswick Downtown Association business of the year award. Photo by Patti Spencer-Yost from BDA.

Many women own businesses in downtown Brunswick—an abundance! A barber, an artist, a pair of craftswomen, an outdoor enthusiast, a restaurateur, and a jeweler—these women make up just some of the business owners in town. Together, they create a community that is thriving, even amidst the pandemic. One key to their success? Working together. They are each other’s best cheerleaders and, rather than compete, they enthusiastically refer customers to each other and also freely share their expertise.

“Maybe it is a motherly aspect. We are all mothers. It could be that,” laughs Jenna Vanni, when thinking about why this community of business owners is so tight. She is the owner of Woods + Waters, an outdoor gear exchange that is one of the newer female-owned businesses in town. She regularly brings her daughters, ages 4 and 6, into her shop. “I want them to see how I interact with customers and how to help others,” she says. She hopes that one day they may want to carry the tradition forward. “One of my daughters says she wants to own a shop one day. It will most likely include unicorns or dresses. Who knows?” she says, laughing.

Jenna just celebrated her second year in downtown Brunswick. Although she lives in Yarmouth, she decided to start a business in Brunswick because of the supportive community of other women who own shops here. “I got into business wanting to connect to and help other people, and I think the other women here want the same. They’re all so willing to share their guidance,” she says. In talking about her first meeting with Dustan Larsen, co-owner of Hatch, just down the street, she remembers, “She was this power-house who gave me a confidence boost and support in the opening, and she has continued to do so moving forward.”

Dustan co-owns Hatch with Hannah Beattie. They sell a variety of handmade items made by women around the state. “We’re not just the two of us,” says Hannah. “We are businesses within a business,” she adds, rattling off the list of craftswomen who sell products from soap to cards to magnets at Hatch. “We help people try it out, talking over how to figure out a price point, and giving them a place to market what they make—to turn a hobby into something they can do to earn money.” Dustan has three daughters and Hannah has four, and all participate, says Hannah. “There’s a lot of great energy from our girls. That helps us to connect to our customers.” 

Across the street is Hannah’s sister-in-law, Leslie Beattie, who owns The Mix, an art supply store. Hannah and Leslie have long shared a love of crafting and ran Beattie Chicks Makery together before starting their own shops. The Makery was also a downtown space—a place for young girls to come, take classes, and create. Her passion for encouraging creativity and positivity shine through, for example when young or beginner artists are choosing new art supplies. “It’s the best part of the job! I love connecting people to materials that have the potential to unleash endless amounts of joy!”  

Leslie credits her success to her mom, whose death four years ago resulted in Leslie having the funds to purchase the store. “My mom’s positive nature definitely comes through in the store.  She would love that The Mix is here to encourage people, regardless of ability, to feel accepted and valued—and to find a way to express themselves that brings their spirit joy.”

Leslie has connected with her business neighbor, Shelby Rossignol of Rossignol’s Hair Shoppe, through her passion for nurturing kids. Shelby is a young, single mom who took over her family’s barbershop in 2016, just before Leslie bought The Mix. Leslie has enjoyed getting to know Shelby’s son who came in just before Christmas and assisted in bagging customer’s orders and organizing supplies.

Jenna Vanni of Woods+Waters at 12 Pleasant St. in Brunswick, part of CEI’s WBC program.

At the other end of Maine Street is one of the oldest female-owned businesses in town—Indrani’s. Indrani Dennen and her husband have owned it for over 30 years. She sells handmade gifts, jewelry supplies, and clothing from around the world. She first opened in 1989 in a small, unheated space on Mason Street, but she has been in the Tontine Mall since 1991. Indrani’s passion is to bring goods from other parts of the world, including her native South Africa. When she left during apartheid and came to Maine with her husband, she wanted to find a way to support and encourage the craftswomen there who were struggling. “I brought back so many baskets that at one point that they wouldn’t fit in my house, so we opened a shop,” she says. When she started, downtown was a very different place. Now she is encouraged to see how many shops are thriving and how many other businesses are female owned. “How it has evolved is really from the strength of varied little businesses,” she adds.

While many of the connections between these businesses happen organically and through the desire of the women involved to support each other, there is also a valued official association. The Brunswick Downtown Association (BDA) was formed in 2004 to provide support to businesses in the downtown district. BDA markets businesses and also connects them with each other through social events and networking opportunities. They also celebrate new businesses, like the ribbon cutting they did for Shelby’s shop when she reopened it in 2016.  Not only are many of its members women, but much of its leadership is female as well. Debora King serves as BDA’s Director and Patti Spencer-Yost is the head of Marketing and Communications.

“In the eight years I’ve been at BDA, there have been a number of businesses opened by women under the age of 45,” says Debora. “It’s a very encouraging sign that these young women are confident enough in the economy of downtown Brunswick that they are willing to make an investment.” She points to the flexibility of these women during the pandemic. “I don’t mean to put the guys down,” she says with a laugh, “but some of the businesses that have done the best during the pandemic have been female owned.” Take Nikaline Iacono, for example, who has completely shifted her business, Vessel & Vine, from a restaurant to a specialty wine and food store, as well as holding a series of outdoor dinners focused on regional cuisine. She is the winner of the BDA’s Business of the Year for 2020. Debora also mentioned April Robinson who is starting a new bakery, the Ritual Bakehouse & Patisserie, and is completely retrofitting a space that was previously an antique store—all amidst a pandemic.

The connections between women’s businesses go beyond Brunswick, although Brunswick serves as a hub of sorts. It is also home to one of the offices of Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI), a non-profit that develops economic opportunities in the state. One of CEI’s programs is its Women’s Business Center (WBC), which offers an array of services to women starting or growing their own business. The WBC offers are webinars and workshops as well as coaching on finances and marketing and grant opportunities. Jenna of Woods + Waters noted that, the WBC “has been an incredible resource offering free marketing online courses, events, and just personal support.”

Brunswick is part of the Southwest region served by the WBC, but there is a whole other segment of the state benefiting from the Northeast program. In sum, the WBC covers the entire state. Anna Ackerman, WBC Program Developer, says “We are thrilled to be working with female entrepreneurs across the state at all stages, from customer discovery and formulating a business plan, to advising on how to make your first hire and beyond.”

The network of female business owners in Maine is strong and growing, bringing its maternal ethic of caring and community with it. “There’s a feeling that you’re not alone,” says Hannah. “From one connection to one person, it really grows out. You find new connections, and they are amazing and wonderful.” Leslie adds, “We aren’t just businesses. We are a community, and we want everyone to feel included. We want that for our children.” These women don’t just work together to build strong businesses. They build a welcoming place for the people in their town.

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Susan Olcott

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