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Small business triumphs Three women share their success stories

Earlene Cruz was in disbelief when she was selected as one of 10 promising culinary arts scholars for an accolade from the James Beard Foundation — an organization whose awards are often referred to as the “Oscars of Food.”

But the small business owner isn’t surprised that the male-dominated food industry she’s in would respond with even more incredulity.

“People (in the food industry) see me and maybe don’t see someone who they believe could get certain things, like James Beard (recognition),” she said. “There’s definitely a hierarchy and discrimination based on gender.

“It’s also based on things that go beyond gender, including one’s experience level. If you’re not a trained chef and if you haven’t had the prominent restaurant, you’re looked at in a certain way.”

She knows what to expect of the industry, having literally been raised in it — living in a building connected to a restaurant operated by relatives during her childhood.

“My parents can’t believe I’m still in the food industry,” she said.

New Jersey seemingly has an abundance of women small business owners, like Cruz, who grew up in male-centric industries and went on to excel in them.


Vicki Bixel is in a much different industry than the food sector, but shares in having men as most of her competitors. She runs Semple Bixel Associates Inc., a fundraising management consulting firm for nonprofits and gift-supported institutions generally.

Like Cruz, Bixel also had age working against her as she took over the 40-year-old, family-owned business from her father in 2005. She became a leader of the firm at 27 after an upbringing that had her in close proximity to nonprofit circles. But the nature of the industry rendered age- or gender-based discrimination null.

“In the nonprofit world, they’re so much about compassion that I don’t find that organizations or people discriminate against women when selecting a firm,” she said. “I feel like, luckily, I’m in a pretty uniquely equal industry.

By the numbers
These five industries are the ones in which women-owned businesses are most on the rise in New Jersey (ranked by percentage of growth compared with previous U.S. Census Survey of Business Owners, which is conducted every five years):

60.3 percent
Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting

45.3 percent
Accommodation and food services

43.3 percent
Other services

26.7 percent
Health care and social assistance

21.7 percent
Administrative and support and waste management and remediation services

“And there are more women in fundraising and more women-owned firms all the time, many more than when I first started.”


Bethanie Warnock also grew up in a male-dominated field, which most would accept as the epitome of such an industry — the automotive sector.

She took the wheel at Warnock Auto when her father passed away, and navigated the business to success before selling it. She then took an unexpected direction after owning an auto dealership — opening a spa. It was a lifelong dream of hers.

Warnock, now the owner of B Polished Spa, said she was one of the state’s few woman leaders in the automotive industry. The same obviously cannot be said for her new venture, as the salon business is the third-largest group of women-owned small businesses by SBA lending.

“There are a lot of odd similarities, though,” she said. “You are taking total care of a customer. … They come into both settings with extremely high expectations. As long as you can meet those expectations, you can have pretty nice interactions with people. Those interactions haven’t changed much.”

Warnock spoke to the experience of seeing an industry that she grew up in making progress, as many industries have had to do:

“I went from a very male-dominated industry and then transitioned very quickly to a small upscale salon, an industry of primarily women. The obstacles faced by women in the auto industry were just starting to improve; we were breaking down barriers as I was just leaving that industry.

“But I had grown up in it all along, so I didn’t know any different. … So, to me, being a woman in a male-dominated industry didn’t have a huge effect. It wasn’t an overwhelming obstacle that I felt I had to overcome every day.”

E-mail to: [email protected]

Brett Johnson

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