By Amanda Luevano, Downers Grove Patch
A small group of local women entrepreneurs gathered at Downers Grove South High School on Wednesday to network with students and discuss ways to bridge the gender gap in the business world.
The event—a vendor show to promote women's entrepreneurship—was conceived by South High seniors Maddie Kuerschner and Jackie Clifford as part of a state competition for DECA, an organization that prepares student leaders for careers and education in marketing, finance and other business area.
Of the nearly 180 DECA members at South High, only 40 are female. The number was so striking to Kuerschner and Clifford that they decided to make it the focus their state research paper.
"Women are still very much a minority in the business world, even though there are so many opportunities for them to be successful," Kuerschner said. "We were really interested in exploring that topic, and also finding ways to promote women's entrepreneurship in our school and community."
As part of their project, Kuerschner and Clifford decided to organize a vendor fair that would allow women business owners to share their success stories with students.
"We wanted an event that would highlight successful women and encourage students who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs after high school," Kuerschner said. "I think the main goal was just to inspire girls and show them the opportunities that are out there."
Nine women from eight local businesses attended the event, and even more offered their support during the planning process, Clifford said.
"We thought it was going to be really difficult to find female business owners in the area, but we ended up finding so many great women," Clifford said. "Everyone was so nice and encouraging when we told them what we were doing."
One attendee, motivational speaker Mary Kay Slowikowski, attended her first DECA event more than 20 years ago. She said she was so thrilled to hear about Kuerschner and Clifford's efforts, she jumped at the chance to participate.
"When I first started my business 25 years ago, it was a difficult time for female entrepreneurs," Slowikowski said. "But times have changed and there are now so many opportunities for women. An event like this is just a good, positive thing for young girls."
Slowikowski knows all too well the obstacles associated with being an entrepreneur. She was moved to tears as she discussed her long struggle with panic attacks and agoraphobia prior to becoming a public speaker.
"There are so many things that life can throw at you, but you can never give up on your dreams," Slowikowski said. "That's what I want to tell these girls today. I want them to know that they deserve to be successful and happy."
DECA sponsor and business teacher Stacey Polen said she "couldn't be prouder" of Kuerschner and Clifford for putting together the vendor show.
"These young women have done an incredible job promoting the idea of women's entrepreneurship and opening their classmates' eyes to a world of possibility," Polen said.
Kuerschner and Clifford, both 17, are already well on their way to becoming entrepreneurs themselves.
Kuerschner has already been accepted to Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, where she plans to pursue a career in fashion merchandising. Clifford is still undecided, but will likely attend DePaul University. She hopes to one day own her own wedding planning business.
Both girls credited DECA with preparing them for the next chapter in their academic careers.
"We've learned how to network and put ourselves out there, which is a huge thing, but we've also learned how to manage difficult situations," Clifford said.
Although the girls are graduating at the end of the school year, they hope the vendor show will become an annual tradition at Downers Grove South.
"It's something that's so important for the school and community to support, so we'd love to see it continue in the future," Kuerschner said.