Small businesses owned by women in Eastern Shore town a key part of the economic vitality communities like it need to thrive
Pundits are fond of drawing analogies between proverbial Main Street and real-life Wall Street. But at least one small town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore may be a bellwether for the ways in which women play a critical role in that all-important heartbeat of the American economy: small businesses.
More than 50% of the businesses in historic downtown Onancock, a charming town of roughly 2,000 people in Accomack County, are women- or minority-owned, notes Jenny Gehman, program manager of Onancock Main Street, a recently established nonprofit with a stated mission of “forging community partnerships, cultivating downtown businesses, enhancing our artistic and recreational assets and celebrating our historic and cultural character.”
“We determined our mission after spending more than two years surveying our residents, businesses and visitors about what was special about our town and where there are opportunities to improve,” Gehman explains. “The process for becoming a Main Street town is very inclusive of the community’s voices. We have a strategic plan that prioritizes our goals so we can focus efforts in the areas that will be most impactful.”
Among the businesses playing a key role in that inclusivity is Dawn, located at 63 Market Street, a specialty shop that offers unique women’s clothing, accessories, gifts and housewares to a loyal and primarily local customer base. The shop was also built on a commitment to showcasing products designed by women, young female entrepreneurs and fair-trade industries driven by women.
On a recent mid-week morning, long-time Dawn store managers Diane Newcombe and Sue Gibian (pictured, at top) were bustling about the colorful, eclectic shop, assisting clients as they searched for the perfect scarves, boots and bags to snazzy up their winter wardrobes or nautically inspired pillows and plates to accent their homes. The shop opened in 2001 and moved to its current location in 2008.
Its namesake and founder, Dawn White, got her feet wet in the retail industry while she was living in the Caribbean, where she ran the retail division of a marine store and developed a set of experiences that informed how she approached becoming an entrepreneur.
“The idea was that I wanted to create a shop where women could come and be comfortable to meet and to connect and to be in a place that felt kind of like their own home,” White says. “I envisioned clothing, accessories, footwear and home ingredients that were unique and distinctive.” That concept, she explains, led her to focus on featuring products produced by and empowering women overall.
White’s observation about the notable gender diversity of the businesses in Onancock is that, although it may have developed organically over time, there has been a sense of understanding among the women business owners there that their collective success—built on the day-to-day determination it takes for anyone, male or female, to run a small business—is part of greater whole that is key to the town’s livelihood.
“Finally, this Main Street initiative is coming to fruition through the dedication of a wonderful collection of people from a variety of backgrounds in the town, and I feel like that is just going to solidify and create that business community.”
Just a few of the other woman-owned businesses in downtown Onancock include Lewin & Carr Realtors, Canvas Hairdressing, Magpie’s Garden, Shore Produce, Hello Art Gallery and the iconic Janet’s Café, where owner Janet Hotcaveg and her team serve up must-have sandwiches and breakfast bites under the corner spot’s immediately recognizable red- and white-striped awning.
“Diversity of business ownership is important,” says Jenny Gehman of Onancock Main Street. “Onancock is part of a larger ecosystem. We want our businesses to reflect the increasingly diverse nature of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the state, and the nation, and provide an array of experiences for our residents and visitors. Additionally, we want to help provide business opportunities for everyone, so that our community continues to thrive and grow.”