Early entrepreneurial spirit foreshadows success for American Family agency owner Jennifer Swenson
October is National Women’s Small Business Month. Here we highlight an American Family agency owner, Jennifer Swenson of Phoenix, Arizona, and hear from two of her customers, Cheryl Finn and Kelly Boudreau, who are also women small business owners.
As a child growing up in Minnesota, American Family agency owner Jennifer Swenson saw other kids running lemonade stands. She was eager to sell, too.
But she wasn’t so sure about lemonade. What if it doesn’t sell? It will have to be thrown out. And if it all sells, what if there isn’t more? She settled on the idea of putting her sister’s stuffed animal collection up for sale and advertised throughout the neighborhood. At six years old she was already thinking about supply and demand, product shelf life and marketing. She was thrilled to get her first sale.
Although she got in trouble for selling her sister’s belongings, her parents knew Jennifer was destined to be a strong woman entrepreneur or business owner and encouraged her participation in DECA and business competitions.
Following college graduation, she went to work for a small woman-owned staffing agency. Jennifer was grateful to learn more skills and be mentored by a woman who was running a successful business. Though she enjoyed her work, a nagging feeling told her she was working very hard – for someone else. And she knew she wanted to one day be her own boss.
During this time, she also enrolled in grad school to earn a master’s in business and business and industry training and education. She unfortunately was laid off after September 11, 2001, and took a position teaching business and marketing to high school students.
She taught for several years, but it wasn’t the right fit. “I always knew I wanted to be in business for myself,” said Jennifer. “I just didn’t know how.”
Insurance business a natural fit – even at a risky time
She started looking for opportunities where she could run my own business. “Insurance caught my eye because it combined an educational element as well as sales,” said Jennifer. “It seemed like a natural fit.”
That entrepreneurial spirit that had showed itself at age 6 ultimately led Jennifer to take a chance on her own American Family Insurance agency in 2008.
It also took courage. The housing market was crashing, the economy was in recession. And a young Jennifer jumped into her 1998 Toyota alone and drove to Arizona for an opportunity to open a brand-new agency – in a state where she knew no one, in a male-dominated industry.
“I was definitely afraid,” said Jennifer. “But I thought if I don’t do it now, when? This was my time. And the fear made me work even harder to achieve success.”
She ran her business from the back room of another agency owner who let her use the space because she was cautious about signing a lease. She worked constantly, doing quotes, meeting everyone she could anytime she could, attending every networking event, working harder than she ever had before.
Just two years later, Jennifer received an agent of the state award. “I remember pinching myself – like I’m really doing this,” she said. “I’m building a business. And I’m defeating the odds!”
Achieving success as a woman small business owner
Twelve years later Jennifer is still in Arizona running a successful agency with her own office space and staff. “There were a lot of people who doubted me, but I have never regretted it, even though there were times I wondered if I could do it. But I turned the fear and self-doubt around.”
“I also surrounded myself with other successful women who have done well in creating their own business or have had success in their industries,” said Jennifer.
For other women who want to start their own businesses, Jennifer says “do it!” “There’s never a perfect time. Sometimes you just have to jump in and use that fear,” she said. “There is a lot of help and resources out there to assist, too.”
Jennifer believes this is great time for women entrepreneurs who have that fire to own their own businesses. And she has found other women business owners are very supportive and willing to help.
“This last year has been especially trying for everybody with the pandemic and just the unknown of what's going to happen,” said Jennifer.
“It’s nice to be able to rely on each other,” she said. “When I’m having a tough week that feels like it's never ending, to be able to reach out to other women and share ideas or struggles we might be having, it helps. And knowing we're in this together and we're going to get through it together.”
And Jennifer pays it forward. She encourages other women who have the same dream she did. A member of her own staff now works part-time while she tries to get her own business off the ground. Jennifer’s been working with her to make that happen and coaching her on everything from advertising to business cards and marketing materials.
“There’s something that’s driving her and pushing her to do more and want more,” said Jennifer. “I recognize that and want to help her make it happen.”
Supporting other women business owners
When it comes to customers, Jennifer says communication is key, whether it be phone, in person or text. Social media like Facebook and Facebook messenger have become important tools as well. “I communicate how they want me to,” she said.
One of her favorite things is working with other women who have different types of businesses. “Commercial insurance is probably the most fun for me,” said Jennifer.
She loves supporting her customers, whether it’s going to their restaurants, food trucks, salons or bakeries. “Whatever they’re doing, I can do something to support and check in on them.”
Jennifer said she’s honored many customers see her as part of the family. “I’m their family insurance agent, so they usually don’t look elsewhere because I’ve taken care of them.”
Women small business owner customers appreciate trust and expertise
Two of Jennifer’s customers who value her as a business partner and someone who understands what it means to be a woman small business owner are Cheryl Finn and Kelly Boudreau. Cheryl and Kelly are owners of Salon Estique, a Phoenix-based full-service salon. The two met in cosmetology school nearly 30 years ago and have been in business together for more than 26 years.
“We’re Jennifer’s customers and she’s one of ours,” said Cheryl and Kelly. “We support each other and what’s really important is we trust Jennifer. She’s personable, professional and we know she looks out for us.”
Cheryl and Kelly value the personal relationship they have with Jennifer. “I can always call her up with a question or request,” said Cheryl. “There is a person on the other end of the line who knows us, knows our business and really cares about addressing our needs.”
Jennifer was there to sort out insurance coverages when Salon Estique changed locations two years ago. More recently as COVID-19 too hold, she assisted with getting payments put on hold, which “provided us with some needed cash flow at a difficult time.”
Cheryl and Kelly said it feels good to work with people who are specialists in their fields. “We’re good at what we do and it’s helpful to work with others who are good at what they do,” Kelly said. “We don’t have to worry about knowing everything about insurance because Jennifer’s in our corner, she’s the expert and we can rely on her guidance in those decisions.”
As women small business owners, Cheryl and Kelly like working with those who can relate to them. They decided years ago that when choosing business partners, they would always try to work with women first.
“That’s for many reasons,” says Cheryl. “First we’re a business for and about women. Our staff is all women. It's our preference, no doubt about it. It’s important to us to support other women business owners. I think we understand each other in a unique way. And the women we do business are supportive in so many other ways.”
With COVID-19 presenting a whole new set of challenges, that support becomes even more critical. Business is “okay” but people are waiting longer between services and they are still trying to get back to where they were.
“But we’re here. And we feel good about that and look forward to taking care of our customers. Having women business partners like Jennifer to lean on and work with brings positivity to a trying situation,” they said.
See more from Jennifer, Cheyl and Kelly: