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Utah’s gusto for entrepreneurs often overlooks women of color

Morgan Williams, owner of Blendyd studios
Courtesy of the University of Utah
In addition to her award from the NBA Foundation Pitch Competition, Morgan Williams, owner of Blendyd studios, was also a part of the University of Utah’s Master of Business Creation Program — which focuses on accelerating entrepreneurs into successful startup business owners.

For entrepreneurial women, Utah represents something of a paradox. The state loves to crow about the strength of its economy and business friendliness — including how the Beehive State usually ranks near the top on lists about everything from launching a startup to low tax burdens.

While the business bona fides are strong, Utah’s Achilles heel can be found in the gender pay gap and women’s equality.

Citing census data, the Utah Women & Leadership Project pointed out that only 16% of the state’s businesses are women-owned, leaving it in 45th place nationally. That percentage shrinks even further if you’re looking for businesses owned by women of color.

The Women’s Business Center of Utah identified one of the biggest barriers to women of color starting a business as access to funding. It’s a struggle that Jenna White, the owner of Empire Body Waxing in Murray, is familiar with.

“Blood, sweat and tears and my little Joe Biden check [American Rescue Plan act stimulus payment]. That helped,” White quipped. “But yeah, I just started very small. And I had a pretty solid reputation for waxing, specifically, previous to opening Empire. So it's not like I started with like zero clients.”

Aside from money, for the last three years that she’s been in business the other obstacle the Black entrepreneur has dealt with is racial bias.

"Like they wouldn't even, like, assume that it was something that I could pull off or own and just like that implicit bias portion of things."

When the Utah Women & Leadership Project asked about demographics in 2022, 89.6% of women business owners in Utah identified as white, 9.6% as Hispanic/Latino and Asian/Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders made up 2.0% of respondents. Black or African American women came in at 0.4%. The numbers aren’t in line with the census population. Susan Madsen, the project’s founding director, said that women of color are undersampled because they did not have enough minority women who participated.

Jenna White waxes the eyebrows of a client.
courtesy Lillian Michelle Photography
Jenna White, the owner of Empire Body Waxing in Murray, waxes the eyebrows of a client.

In Utah, representation can have a big effect across business, politics and recreation.

A different 2020 study from the project found that one of the top barriers to female entrepreneurship was a lack of mentors or role models — someone entrepreneurs could look at as inspiration for starting a business.

As a whole, women of color are underrepresented in the trucking industry. As a Black millennial woman, Morgan Williams, owner of Blendyd Studios, is well aware. Her software design company works with trucking companies to streamline their driver recruitment process.

“I came into taking over a business in an industry that I wasn't necessarily familiar with,” Williams said.

She inherited the company after her twin brother Cameron passed away in 2021.

Originally called Everwoke, the company focused initially on trucking logistics and was funded through the help of friends and family as well as partnerships with Utah tech companies like Domo. After doing some research, Williams discovered there was a more dire need in trucking.

In conversations with CEOs and managers she heard about challenges ranging from logistics to fuel and insurance costs, but “the one thing that kept coming up as a priority was ‘I need talent.’” The commercial driver shortage is a problem both nationally and locally, so she pivoted her business.

Initially, Williams planned to remain in her native Chicago to operate the business. However, with Utah's strong tech economy and access to funding and support thanks to the groundwork established by her late brother, she decided to make the move in August 2022.

"Being a Black woman in business here in Utah has been more of a superpower than a barrier for me. There is the ecosystem of support from funding to partnerships and educational opportunities that has just been phenomenal and what I've been able to accomplish in months, that would have taken me years somewhere else."

Even with the positive support Willams has had so far, she isn’t oblivious to the gender and racial bias that comes with being in a predominantly male field.

“I am probably the unlikely choice for what I'm doing. There's nothing that says Morgan should be doing what she's doing. And so for every barrier people [say] ‘you're a Black woman, you're not going to be able to raise money.’ Thank you. Let's see what happens. ‘You're a black woman, I don't know if trucking is the right field for you.’ Thank you. Let's see what happens.’ I know what I'm capable of,” Williams explained.

Both Williams and White have been awarded funding for their respective businesses as part of the NBA Foundation Pitch Competition held during February’s All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City. The competition highlighted Black entrepreneurs from across the country and four of the finalists came from Utah.

Williams’ company is in the process of rolling out a full mobile product this summer and White is looking to expand into Utah and Weber counties. The funding is a boost, but not everyone is so lucky.

That’s why the Women's Business Center of Utah said women need to educate themselves on what resources are available to them. Ann-Marie Wallace, the center’s state director, said they are working with the Minority Business Development Agency to get federal grants to help women acquire funding to get their businesses off the ground.

Not only is having money to start a business important, but Wallace noted that women need to also take on loans they can eventually pay back.

Even with all the financial and supportive obstacles, what's motivating women to start a business?

A majority of participants in the Utah Women & Leadership Project’s research said they have a drive to "create something." Others pointed to following a passion, flexibility between family and professional lives, and independence.

Another factor might be the change that both White and Williams embody in trying to build their respective businesses in Utah. The project notes that research from the National Women’s Business Council has found that “women who experience discrimination or face challenges in male-dominated workplaces are increasingly turning to entrepreneurship” as an alternative path to a career.

Editor’s note: The Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and USU’s Utah Women & Leadership Project are KUER sponsors.

Curtis Booker is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in Central Utah.
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