Female entrepreneurs join in a shared workspace to collaborate on common issues
A group of Herndon’s female business owners are archetypes of collaboration over competition in the local small business space. When business partners and long-time friends, Kate Viggiano Janich and Amy Dagliano, joined the Fairfax small business community, they came with SCORE mentors–an organization connecting retired entrepreneurs with new business owners. Janich was introduced to fellow entrepreneur Rachel Eisenfeld by her SCORE mentor.
Janich and Dagliano formed a partnership with Melissa Romano when her brewhouse hosted their co-working clients early into starting the business. From there it was “like a positive domino effect,” said Eisenfeld. “We kept introducing each other to other women business owners in the area,” Vinich said.
Meg Donnelly and Romano had more seniority as entrepreneurs than the rest of the ladies and offered their expertise. The group came together over their shared experiences as women in the small business community with brick-and-mortar establishments. “It can be lonely and draining being a business owner,” Janich said, but the women would collaborate with their businesses or simply show up for one another.
Romano, with a background in architecture, came to naming them the “keystones” for the significance of a single keystone in holding together a stone or brick arch. “As we were working together, I thought that was an appropriate name for the way we were all supporting each other,” she said.
Liz Kamp says being able to “let it all out” is the “beauty of the keystones group being as small as it is.” The keystones were well-established in the community and online, in the form of a slack channel, before COVID hit. A relationship devoid of competition was even more dependent upon joining forces to survive a pandemic as business owners and as people.
Having created a safe, comfortable group, the women in the keystones were able to support each other on a human level atop the business level. Eisenfeld had her baby during the pandemic and found help with that from her keystone peers. “We hold each other up,” she said.
“It was an unknown for everyone and we had to do what felt right but it was invaluable to be able to bounce ideas off one another,” Dagliano said. The keystones pivoted from sharing registration information for early business establishment to where to find resources for COVID supplies, what policies to put into place, how to communicate with their clients/customers, and more.
When grants were given to businesses throughout the pandemic, Romano noticed that the youth of a business determined whether or not it was qualified for those grants. Although her and Donnelly’s businesses were established enough to qualify, they advocated for their fellow keystone women’s businesses that didn’t by “[speaking] to some local and state government representatives on the matter”--something they hoped made lasting change. While Romano said her businesses didn’t go under, they “had incredible hardships and worked ten times as hard to stay afloat.”
Ultimately, the women were “working so hard for a different kind of business” and Kamp said they came to the point of feeling that “this [wasn’t] what [they] signed up for and this [wasn’t] the business [they] set out to create.” The keystones offered a space where they could share that exhaustion, mourning, and “keep moving forward together” as Dagliano puts it.
Donnelly said “the group gave me purpose” in finding and disseminating information about where to get supplies, to how to properly filter air for the safety of clients/customers. The women had to be business owners, supervisors, accountants, mothers, partners, and more. “The support is always there in this group,” says Romano, offering both encouragement and acknowledgement of their tireless investment into what they do. Donnelly said, “I feel like I’m better prepared for the hills and valleys because of the support of this network.”