Say you’re a woman living in Western New York.
There’s this business idea that’s been clicking around in your head for years. But the undertaking seems akin to scaling a sheer rock face. Where do you begin? There is no roadmap or checklist. You only know that the corporate world seems to be dominated by men.
Perhaps you’re already a business proprietor. Who could you ask about getting a grant, locating additional resources, or finding any legal requirements in New York State?
Now there’s an answer: Buffalo Boss Babes. Here you can bring questions, meet fellow entrepreneurs, or even discover inspiration that may change your life.
Entering its fourth year, Buffalo Boss Babes is an organization whose mission is to inspire, motivate, connect and empower creative women in the community.
Carrie Rinehart, owner of Rusterior Design in Forestville, is the founder. Beginning a networking group was never her intention, but once she opened an Instagram account and began posting stories of local women and their successes, Buffalo Boss Babes assumed a life of its own.
Rinehart, 34, recently passed the leadership reins to Danielle Pietrocarlo of Hamburg. For 10 years, Pietrocarlo, now 37, owned Dani-fit in Blasdell. After her gym closed last July, it seemed natural for her to segue into Buffalo Boss Babes.
“My big why for my entire life was empowering women and being with them on their journeys, whatever they may be,” Pietrocarlo said. “Fitness was my platform to get there. When my gym closed, I was lost. I had no purpose for eight months. I knew Carrie because I had spoken to the group and was featured on their website. She had put Buffalo Boss Babes to rest. I asked her if I could take it over, and I was honored that she said yes."
Today, Rinehart’s screen printing business, Rusterior Design, is busier than ever, but that was not the case when she opened in 2013. In fact, the decision to start a business was not a simple process.
“Growing up, I always wanted to be creative,” she said. “I made crafts, did calligraphy, made scarves and headbands. Eventually I cut a buffalo out of vintage fabric, sewed it on a tank top, and people went nuts over it, saying ‘I love that. I want to get that.’”
Despite the demand, Rinehart could only cut and sew a limited number of shirts while working by hand. Seeking to become more efficient, she signed up for a screen printing class at the Western New York Book Arts Center in Buffalo. As she learned, she saw the benefits of being able to generate more product. But Rinehart had little money to invest in screen printing equipment. So she became innovative.
“I took a bunch of pictures of the homemade wooden press, brought them home to my then girlfriend and now wife, and asked if we could make this. We gave it a try. We drew up a plan and used scrap wood in our barn. It worked, and that’s the press I still use today.”
In the early days, however, her business model felt uncertain. And she felt alone. Few women worked in screen printing. The industry was largely populated by men.
“I was struggling,” she said. “I was treading water, and recognized that I didn’t know it all. I started looking around for networking or business groups.”
She found some that were career specific, for say, photographers or marketers. She also encountered big groups where participants paid to attend dinner once a month and were required to bring a friend each time. It felt like a long-term commitment that she wasn’t willing to make.
“Nothing fit what I was looking for,” she recalled.
Until she found herself in Rochester one Sunday morning, sitting with a group called the Roc Girl Gang.
“It was glorious,” Rinehart said. “It was the best networking thing I had ever seen. They did a panel discussion, and I was so energized. But it was in Rochester, which is two hours away from where I live. It made me realize that we needed this in Buffalo.”
With encouragement from the group leader in Rochester, Rinehart created an Instagram page and a blog for Buffalo, reaching out to local businesswomen that she knew. Within a week, she had garnered more than 1000 followers.
“It was the start of something I was not prepared for,” she recalled.
Instagram fans soon suggested meeting in person. Rinehart had no idea how to organize that. She considered holding a meeting in her basement, but instead asked Resurgence Brewery on Niagara Street if they would host.
“I told them I had no money and no idea how many people would come,” she said. “They reserved us two long tables, and I put someone up front to pass out name tags and greet people.”
The inaugural event was to begin at 5:30 p.m. The brewery wasn’t yet open at 5 p.m., but already a line was forming. More than 150 women — most in their 30s and 40s — showed up to the first event. Rinehart was shocked by such widespread interest, admitting that she cried tears of joy when the evening ended.
‘Just show up’
Buffalo Boss Babes continued its fast-paced inertia. Soon there was a speaker series, with panel discussions and more in-person meetings. Pietrocarlo explained that the vibe is relaxed and casual.
“Different women in Buffalo sit on a panel, tell their story, and get really vulnerable while explaining why they do what they do,” Pietrocarlo said. “Everyone asks how to join or get in. It’s easy: just show up. You don’t have to be a member. You don’t have to be a business owner or entrepreneur. Maybe you want to open a business and you don’t know where to go for resources or support. It’s for any women in the area that want to be inspired or motivated.”
One such woman is Viktoria Enright, owner of Knotty Moose Studio, which makes custom wood designs, including furniture and picture frames.
Enright, 39, was one of several featured speakers at a Buffalo Boss Babes meeting in April. Although she had never attended an event before, she immediately felt welcome.
“There is a great energy at the event,” Enright said. “It’s not huffy puffy like I’m up there talking down to you about how great I am and here’s everything you should learn from me. There are struggles to being a woman business owner that people don’t realize. We’re more similar in our struggles than in our successes. It’s cool to be able to connect and support each other.”
After graduating from the University at Buffalo with a dual major in business and psychology, Enright traveled and worked as a documentary photographer, who also sold frames on the side. She soon realized that the frames were selling better than her photographs, so in 2015 she shifted her business priority. She had learned woodworking after interning alongside Matt Kantar, a carpenter in Buffalo.
She gleaned plenty of unexpected insights at the recent Buffalo Boss Babes panel. Topics are not limited, and often address a wide scope of issues that small business owners need to consider.
“We were talking about accounting,” Enright said. “Small businesses do everything. I do all my own accounting. There was someone who had been a CPA that was giving good advice. She said if you really want to scale and grow, hire an accountant that can understand your numbers and show you how to take risks in the right way. Get over the hump of paying for a service. That stuff isn’t cheap, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that time is money. If I hand off my accounting, can I spend my time better by designing and creating in my business?”
Another angle of discussion was about the pros and cons of social media. Most businesses today rely on technology.
“I use Instagram to promote my business and I get a lot of orders from that,” Enright said. “If that one tool disappeared, where would our businesses be? If your business isn’t going anywhere because one tool is missing, that’s a problem. There was a scared shock that went through the crowd when we all considered that. I think about how much of my day is spent posting and cheerleading online. Is that turning into sales I need to grow my brand?”
Pietrocarlo loves that the women who attend Buffalo Boss Babes meetings are comfortable enough to share their vulnerability. She was one of the business owners to be featured on the blog soon after it began. In 2018, she took a turn as keynote speaker for an in-person event.
“On our panel, people tell their deep, dark secrets of trauma and maybe this is why they started their business,” she reflected. “People cry. It’s open and real and authentic.”
Before the pandemic, as part of her keynote, Pietrocarlo faced the topic of fear. Recently, in a lengthy Facebook post, she reflected on that speech. She recalled that two months before she had given birth to her third baby. At the time, she worried about so much.
“I remember feeling like crap… and shoving my[self] into yoga pants so I could keep up my ‘fitness instructor’ persona… I wouldn’t dare strip down and share my struggles as a business owner, my failed relationships, my stress of motherhood, depression, and [poor] self-body image. I had a reputation to uphold… right?
“The only thing that felt right (and also scary as hell) was to be vulnerable, honest, tell my story, and get it off my chest. So, I did it. From there I stopped pushing dirt under the rug, and dealt with it. I feared closing my business for years, because I didn’t want to let people down. I vulnerably stood up and said “I’m sorry, this is no longer serving me…” It was this event that made me courageous.”
That day, Pietrocarlo had no expectation other than sharing her personal story. She could not have predicted the impact that her words had.
“As soon as I was done, a girl I didn’t know came up to me and said, ‘That was amazing,’” Pietrocarlo recalled. “She said, ‘I’m quitting my job and I’m finally going to start my own business.’”
That was Morgan Culhane, owner of Content on Draft, a social media marketing company that trains breweries to set up marketing strategies. Culhane, 30, is a Brockport native who lives and works in Buffalo’s Elmwood Village. She explained how life-changing it was for her to attend a Buffalo Boss Babes event for the first time.
“At the time, I was working a 40-hour-per-week job, and freelancing on the side,” she said. “I had a lot on my plate. One of my friends suggested going to the event at Resurgence. It seemed like a cool thing, and beer was in my lane.”
Culhane was 26, feeling overworked and unhappy. When she heard Pietrocarlo speak, it raised goosebumps. Soon, tears followed.
“I had never met Danielle,” she said. “I had never been to a Boss Babes event. I can’t even remember details of her story, because it spoke to me on such a deep level. I don’t normally believe in signs, but this was a very clear sign that if she can go for her dream, I can do it too. I knew exactly what I needed to do when I listened to her story.”
Culhane approached Pietrocarlo after the panel discussion ended.
“I introduced myself, and told her ‘I’m going to quit my job tomorrow because of what you said,’” Culhane recalled. “She was stunned. We exchanged information, and I gave her a little of my backstory and thanked her for saying what I needed to hear. I knew this was a little crazy because I was fresh off my family’s health insurance, and had a full-time job with benefits.”
At her desk the next day, Culhane had begun writing her resignation letter. Second thoughts were creeping in. She was about to phone her father for his advice, when Pietrocarlo texted.
“You can do this,” the message read. “This is what you’re supposed to do.”
“I didn’t call my dad just then,” Culhane said. “I finished the resignation letter, gave it to my boss, and put in my two weeks’ notice. I called my dad afterward. I’m close with him, so he was excited and proud and a little scared for me. My parents represent the side that’s practical, but ultimately, they were supportive. But I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t get that message from Danielle just then.”
Content on Draft has gone through the ups and downs of a pandemic as Culhane has transitioned from working in a partnership to a solo enterprise. She remains involved with Buffalo Boss Babes, attending meetings regularly.
“It’s great to have other people who understand what it’s like to start your own business and work for yourself as a woman,” Culhane said. “To me, there’s no better community for that than Buffalo Boss Babes.”
Rinehart agreed. This was one of the reasons she founded the group.
“Women can relate to each other differently than men,” she said. “I’ve been to different networking events where it’s co-ed, or all men or all women. I think it’s easier for women to be vulnerable in a room full of other women. Oftentimes in business, everybody thinks they have to be a big bad businessperson. People think they can’t show weakness or failure. Women don’t always state their true hardships because it may seem small. Coming into a group full of women is very nurturing. You can talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. We can all relate in a way that’s different.”
Like much of the world, Buffalo Boss Babes went on hiatus during the pandemic.
“It was out of pure survival,” Rinehart said. “Everybody was working from home, and kids were being homeschooled. We were all scared, not knowing what we were doing day-to-day. I wanted to keep it going, but couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone to help me. I had to cut things out.”
Earlier this year, it was agreed that Pietrocarlo would take over a leading role while Rinehart stepped back and continued concentrating on her own business. Already there are new goals in place.
“We want to keep growing,” Pietrocarlo said. “We’re big on social media. That’s where most of our community lives, so we want to consistently inspire people. We want to give them the courage to do whatever they want in their life.”
Pietrocarlo began a podcast that is available on Spotify. She is considering shifting the group into a nonprofit, perhaps offering grants and scholarships in the future. She even has ideas about selling apparel, journals, and candles.
One thing remains the same: the group’s target audience is women.
“It’s not like we get together and hate on men,” Pietrocarlo said. “We’re just supporting each other by being women-centered. It’s important that we give off a vibe that doesn’t make men think we don’t appreciate them.”
Their next in-person meeting is Sunday, June 12 at Hoak's on Lake Shore Road in Hamburg. More information about Buffalo Boss Babes can be found on their Instagram page.
“I still struggle with explaining what it is,” Pietrocarlo admitted. “People keep hearing about us, but it seems like you really get it when you come to an event.”
© 2022 by Jeff Schober
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