When we think of “small business,” we might picture mom and pop restaurants setting up shop, or a home consultant hiring employees and moving into a larger, downtown office. Add to these images the story of a woman who turned a side project making creative, practical household items into a full-fledged business that is also a tool to engage her community.
Meet Julie Hellwich of Smart Women Company.
Hellwich’s Smart Women Company offers everyday products with an engaging message and a retro style. Among her product line is everything from office mouse pads printed with “Smart Women back up their words” to kitchen matches with “Smart Women light the way” across the box.
For Hellwich, Smart Women’s positive branding highlights the extraordinary value in daily actions. Her products are communication devices. Says Hellwich, “Smart is a way of being.”
Smart Women Company began in 1999 after Hellwich’s homemade, stamped gifts were a hit with her friends and family. Since then, Smart Women has grown from a hobby to a business that ships across the country and world in addition to an agent for positive change in Hellwich’s St. Paul community.
Her Smart Women branding, with messages like “Smart Women vote!” and “Smart Women are the life of the party” helped get women out to vote on election day. A local charter school approached Hellwich to help set up a student project. She used her expertise, giving students a chance to design and create their own branding for beeswax products, like lip balm and skateboard wax. “These were kids who had no experience with this kind of thing,” says Hellwich.
Smart Women products also minimize environmental impacts, as they use no plastic or unnecessary packaging. For example, a durable rubber band holds together recipe cards. Other items have reusable string or clips that customers can use in their own homes instead of throwing them away. Simple steps like this reduce each sale’s pollution impact.
Hellwich credits her Minnesotan grandmothers, Betty and Gert, with the inspiration for this do-it-yourself mentality and thrifty desire to reduce waste. Hellwich’s grandmothers, like so many other families across the states, learned waste-reducing lessons and about reusing materials during the Great Depression.
“My grandmothers would make Barbie clothes from scraps of cloth around the house,” Hellwich says. “It was about not being wasteful and creating what you needed yourself.”
Buying locally made materials has been more of a challenge. Early on, much of Smart Women’s product line was produced and printed within the United States. In the last ten years, however, it has been increasingly difficult to find domestically made products at any price. “The adhesive tape that said ‘Smart Women stick together’ used to be manufactured in from Kentucky, but I had to take it offline when the price of domestic adhesives went up 30%,” says Hellwich.
Smart Women’s experience is an example of the increasing specialization of economies, spurred by cheap fossil fuels’ availability, which makes foreign goods less expensive despite the massive amount of energy required to transport them.
A lack of support for a local and sustainable business model was another obstacle. “I got a lot of flak for wanting to run my business this way,” says Hellwich. “People said to just buy from China because it was cheaper.”
Along with many small businesses, Smart Women has suffered from banks’ reluctance to loan even to successful and growing small companies. “I’ve seen a big disconnect between what politicians are saying and what banks are actually doing,” says Hellwich. Even though Smart Women seems to be a model small business loan candidate — locally owned, growing, supports the community — it still has not received the promised support.
Hellwich’s enterprise has stretched the definition of a small business, using her company as a means in uniting resources and innovation among normally separate sectors — business, education, non-profit. These types of small businesses can benefit Minnesota both socially and economically. We will not be able to fully tap this resource until we shift the scale and focus of economic development policy to incorporate the community good they provide.
See MN2020.org‘s Made in Minnesota Gift Guide for a locally-owned business in your area.