Pam Patton’s lifelong love for cooking began when she was just 9 years old. 

“I would spend every summer in Alabama with my great-grandmother,” said Patton, who left a corporate career to start a restaurant and catering business on Des Moines’ East Side. “She had a farm with about 10 acres and always grew everything, and that’s where I really fell in love with fresh produce.”

Patton, who had often informally organized large get-togethers for friends and family, began catering events on a part-time basis while working as a diversity consultant with Principal Financial Group Inc. 

“A friend of mine saw that I had put together a luncheon for about 50 ladies,” Patton recalled. “She said, ‘Are you ready? I’ve got an event for 150 people and I want you to do it for me.’ That’s how I got started in catering.” 

In January 2011, she opened Patton’s Restaurant & Catering at the corner of East 16th Street and East Grand Avenue, with a menu of Southern and Caribbean specialties such as jerk chicken, jambalaya, collard greens and red velvet waffles. After 2 1/2 years in business, Patton feels the restaurant is turning the corner toward success. “I would say the business is really starting to get legs,” she said.

Patton and other Iowa women business owners like her are hoping to improve weak growth for women-owned firms in the state. 

Employment by women-owned firms, which nationwide increased by nearly 10 percent in the past 15 years, has in Iowa actually decreased by more than 22 percent since 1997, to an estimated 55,600 employees, according to a recent census-based survey by American Express OPEN. During the same period, the number of women-owned businesses in Iowa, estimated at 71,000, has increased at an annual average growth rate of less than 2 percent. That was half the average national growth rate of nearly 4 percent. 

Developing new skills

Patton is among more than 200 women business owners statewide who have received assistance from the ISED Women’s Business Center, a program of ISED Ventures in Des Moines. Founded in 1987 as the Institute of Social & Economic Development (ISED) and later renamed Iowans for Social and Economic Development, the not-for-profit organization provides low- and moderate-income residents with financial and homeownership education, a matched savings program, free income tax preparation and small business services. The Women’s Business Center provides in-depth business planning workshops, special topic seminars and one-on-one technical assistance to entrepreneurs across Iowa. 

“It’s not the same thing to be a great cook as it is to be a successful restaurateur,” said Amelia Lobo, director of the Women’s Business Center. “Pam worked with us for a long time to get ready, and she eventually quit her day job and started the restaurant.” 

Developing new skills, such as understanding financial statements and writing a business plan, represents some of the biggest challenges for prospective women business owners, Lobo said. “When you’re thinking about starting a new business, that can really be quite overwhelming,” she said. “I want to make sure that the women we work with are as ready as possible for opening a business and running a business.”

Sitting in Patton’s restaurant,  Lobo pointed out several other women-owned businesses along East Grand Avenue that her center has assisted, including Western clothing store La Bufa, Rolling Wok Cafe and Secretos Beauty Salon. The Women’s Business Center is in the process of producing a directory of past clients who are still in business, a number that now exceeds 200 businesses, she said. 

The ISED Women’s Business Center is part of a network of 110 women’s business centers across the country. “We provide training and one-on-one counseling; most of our services are free,” Lobo said. “We also help them to connect with financing. We don’t do lending ourselves, but we try to help our clients get prepared to apply for loans, whether those are microloans or bank loans. And we also try to get them to think creatively about how they can start a business with perhaps less money. For instance, by starting out catering before you open a physical space.”

The center’s business planning class is very popular, Lobo said, filling up with about 15 aspiring women entrepreneurs four or five times a year. 

“One of the things I focus on is trying to get people to think early on about what they’ll need to be ready for business growth,” she said. For instance, counselors can work one-on-one with aspiring business owners to review their personal credit reports to identify areas they need to work on to raise their credit score, so they’ll have a better chance of obtaining credit down the road for their business. 

Immigrant training grows

Lobo, a native of Costa Rica, got a bachelor’s degree at Grinnell College and later returned to Costa Rica to earn a master’s degree in business administration. Later, in 2008, she was working in New York City as the underwriting manager for Accion New York, a microlending agency, when she and her husband, a Waterloo native, decided to move to Iowa. 

“I’ll be honest. For a long time, I didn’t see myself moving back here,” she said. “When I moved, one of my big concerns was whether I would be able to find good pupusas (a Salvadoran tortilla dish) in Iowa,” she said with a laugh. And yes, she found El Salvador del Mundo, a restaurant in the Highland Park neighborhood that serves out-of-this-world pupusas.

Kidding aside, satisfying foodies’ cravings for international delicacies is really an important piece of the economic development puzzle, Lobo observed. 

“In Des Moines, it’s very obvious that having more ethnic restaurants and different kinds of retail will attract young professionals,” she said. 

Lobo works with two business advisers, both of whom are also immigrants and bilingual. One works in the Des Moines office, while the other operates from offices in Muscatine and Mount Pleasant to oversee the Emprendedores Latinos de Iowa, a program formed in November 2012 dedicated to working with Latino entrepreneurs in southeast Iowa. 

To her knowledge, Lobo said, ISED is the only small business resource in the state that provides services in Spanish. “I would love to be able to provide services in other languages as well, but I’m thrilled to begin with Spanish,” she said. “That’s actually one of the reasons I joined the organization in the first place.” 

Providing schedules that meet aspiring women business owners’ needs is also a priority. “We know our clients work long hours; they’re juggling two or three jobs and have children, so we try to provide an alternate schedule,” Lobo said. “Our classes are generally in the evening, and we try to switch around the day of the week it’s offered. We also offer one-on-one counseling after work hours and on weekends. I think that’s really valuable for our clients.” 

No money to borrow 

Another Des Moines business owner, Betsey Qualley, found out about the Women’s Business Center’s programs while she was in the throes of trying to obtain financing to launch her cat-grooming business, Smitten Kitten LLC, more than five years ago. 

“In the end, all the banks I talked to said, ‘You need to have a full-time job for us to finance you for this business,’” Qualley said. “But I couldn’t have a full-time job and open a business. The only option they gave me was to second-mortgage my house, which I wasn’t willing to do. So I just used my own money, and my husband loaned me some money from his businesses, and I grew slowly.” 

Qualley’s business, much like Patton’s, evolved from something that she was already doing for friends – grooming cats. 

She had learned cat grooming from her aunt, who owns a cat grooming shop in Lincoln, Neb. When she moved to Des Moines 10 years ago, she noticed there were no pet groomers who specialized in cats. 

“I thought, ‘I should have my own shop so that I don’t have to work for someone else,’” Qualley said. She also offers a variety of cat food and specialty cat items for her customers, along with a cat boarding service that she recently launched at her shop.

ISED Ventures helped Qualley develop her business plan and introduced her to the Central Iowa chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). 

“That really changed things for me in that I finally had a community of women to talk about these issues,” said Qualley, who in 2010 received the first Aspiring Women in Business Award presented by the NAWBO chapter. Additionally, she was able to connect with other women business owners who, like her, are also mothers with young children. “It’s nice to have that connection to talk things through with,” she said. 

Now, she has a steady stream of returning clients, some of whom come from as far away as Pella and Perry. 

Her long-term goal: Franchise the business in other locations. More immediately, “my plan at this point is to try to figure out how to make this business run with less of me,” she said. “I’ve hired somebody to help me with grooming; I’d really like to be able to trust someone to do that completely without me.” 

Valuable connections

Having a husband who is a business owner – besides a law practice, he co-owns a DJ business as well as a bar - probably gave her more confidence to start her own business, Qualley said. Still, she found how she was treated by most bankers to be disconcerting. 

“I was really surprised that even in this day and age how many bankers wanted to talk to me about what my husband did,” she said. “I think I must have been naive.” 

Patton, who applied for bank financing near the height of the recession, was turned down by every one of the financial institutions she tried.

“The toughest part was when you get all your paperwork together and go to the bank and they say, ‘Oh, we’re not lending to restaurants,’” she recalled. “There was no money out there for restaurants. That was tough; it made you want to give up.” 

A $30,000 loan through the state’s Targeted Small Business Loan program, combined with savings that she and her husband, Stanley, sunk into the business, was enough to get started. 

“He is definitely my partner,” she said of Stanley, who works at the restaurant after his day job and on weekends. “We had never had a business; we had always had jobs, and raised kids and put them through college.”

ISED Ventures also provided valuable connections to resources, among them the Neighborhood Development Corp., which helped Patton to locate a building for her restaurant. 

“I found that I didn’t need to know everything, but I needed to be in touch with the people who knew what to do, and that’s what was helpful,” Patton  said. “In this business, you need help - you need individuals who can point you in the right direction.” 

Over the past 2 1/2 years, Patton’s revenue from the restaurant side of the business has surpassed what the catering is bringing in, and it now makes up about 70 percent of her sales, Patton said. “It’s starting to live on its own without financial backing from my husband and myself or anyone else,” she said. One of her greatest coups: Several of the bankers who turned her down for loans are now among her regular customers.  
“I’m extremely busy at the restaurant, but I can look out and see that they’re very comfortable,” Patton said of her customers. “It’s like being at home or at grandma’s house, and that’s what makes me happy. So I think I made the right decision.” 

Women’s Business Center seeks more private funding to offset federal cuts

Much like the small businesses that it assists, the ISED Ventures Women’s Business Center has its share of funding challenges. 

The center’s funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) recently was reduced due to the federal budget sequester. Additionally, some of its federal funding for low-income entrepreneurs has been completely eliminated in the past couple of years, said its director, Amelia Lobo. 

“The SBA requires that we match what we receive with a share raised privately,” she said. “We can meet that, but in order for us to grow, we certainly require a lot of support from private institutions. We don’t receive any money from the state of Iowa or any local governments.” 

Consequently, the organization relies heavily on corporate and private foundation support. Its biggest nonprofit supporter currently is the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB), based in Texas. “They’re a great organization that really focuses on helping organizations that help Latinos develop wealth,” Lobo said. NALCAB is funded in part by St. Paul, Minn.-based Northwest Area Foundation, which also directly funds an ISED Ventures rural entrepreneurship program focused on Latinos. In addition to Northwest Area Foundation, which is the biggest supporter of its microenterprise programs, ISED Ventures receives local funding support from Bank of the West and Bankers Trust Co., she said. 

Other Iowa businesses and nonprofit organizations support ISED Ventures by sponsoring classes or workshops, and more sponsorships are needed, Lobo said. 

“Our business planning workshop is very heavily subsidized for the students; we charge $300 for the class and apply a scholarship on a sliding scale,” she said. “The African-American Leadership Forum has very generously funded some of our students to take the class. So we would love to have more partners like that to fund specific groups of students. We would also like to have a company or organization to sponsor the entire business class, which is 30 hours of very intensive work.” 

Stand Up and Be Counted initiative seeks to create action plan 

Iowa’s economic development agency has taken on a private partner in an initiative to make the state a more conducive place for women to start businesses.

In June, the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) formed a new partnership with Cedar Rapids-based Ascent, a not-for-profit organization focused on nurturing women-owned businesses in Iowa. The initiative is an effort to address the state’s last-in-the-nation ranking 
for growth in women-owned businesses.
As an initial step, Ascent launched a “Stand Up and Be Counted” initiative to identify women-owned businesses in Iowa and connect them with resources. In conjunction with this effort, Ascent’s pilot project will focus on working with women business owners to better understand their needs, uncover patterns, build a more robust network and create an action plan to increase the revenue and employment of existing women-owned businesses in Iowa, IEDA officials said. The program will focus on women business owners who want their enterprises to grow and have a scalable business model.

“We need to come together and encourage more business ownership among women in Iowa,” said Lydia Brown, Ascent’s president and CEO, “And the ‘Stand Up and Be Counted’ movement is just the starting point.”

To join “Stand Up and Be Counted,” women business owners can register on Ascent’s website at Organizations around the state can help promote “Stand Up and Be Counted” by placing the program’s registration link and pin on their own sites. The Ascent registration link and pin can be found at