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April 01, 2021 | Tom Ballard

Knoxville Chamber concludes “Women’s History Month” with panel discussion

By Kailyn Lamb, Marketing Content Writer and Editor, PYA

The Knoxville Chamber of Commerce ended “Women’s History Month” on March 31 with a panel on Women in Business. The panel feature three local business owners: Nancy Barger, Owner and Founder of The Pavilion at Hunter Valley Farm; Mahasti Vafaie, Founder of The Tomato Head; and Katy Richardson, Founder of Neighborhood Barre. Moderated by Ashleigh Christian, Director of Investor Development at the Chamber, the three owners gave candid and transparent insight on being a business owner.

The three women started the panel by talking about what drew them to running their own business, and what barriers they may have faced as a female business owner. The panelists all started in different fields before running their own business. Richardson worked as an auditor and has a finance and accounting background, Barger worked as a pilot, and Vafaie went to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to work in biomedical engineering. The latter two agreed they saw more barriers in their former fields for women than they have as entrepreneurs.

For Vafaie, the challenges of running a business makes it fun. She joked that all the different challenges help to “keep my brain young.”

In giving advice to upcoming entrepreneurs, the three women agreed that networking and having a community of people to support you can be key. For both Vafaie and Richardson, it was a landlord that was willing to take a chance on their brand-new businesses.

Barger also said that when she first started, resources such as the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) did not exist. Although she is now an established business owner, she still takes advantage of programming at KEC for mentorship and more.

“Having that tight-knit group around you that you can rely on and learn from is a huge asset,” she said.

Community resources can also be key in helping you when your business is struggling, said Richardson. Neighborhood Barre, which now has 18 locations, first franchised in 2015. But the first lawyer she used put together a non-compliant disclosure document for the business, Richardson said. She added that if she had spoken to another business owner with experience in franchising, she may have realized something was wrong.

“You really need to know what you’re getting yourself into and educate yourself on the industry of your business before you decide to expand,” Richardson said.

Barger has also run into legal issues with her business. When her mother died, Barger discovered there was a Right of Survivorship written into the contract she and her mother had as business partners. But since Barger only owned 33 percent of the land where the business was located, the other landowners took her to court. Having the Right of Survivorship helped save her business, despite the legal battles that ensued, she said.

“Have your documents in order and make sure you know what those documents say,” she added.

The panel also discussed work-life balance. Vafaie said that over time she has fluctuated how much time she dedicates to the business. When she first started, she was there constantly. Once she had children, she began to spend a little less time at Tomato Head to spend time with them. All three agreed that having a team in place is crucial. Team members can help take over different tasks. Richardson also pointed out that in some businesses, such as the boutique fitness industry she works in, it can be easy for owners to dedicate too much time to one portion of the business while letting sales or other aspects drop.

Facing challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic, closed out the panel. In talking about personal health, Barger commented, “Your health when you own and run a company is the health of your company.” She also said that supporting your employees is key to keeping your business together.

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