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I sat down with Cara Loffredo, co-founder of Boston Women’s Market (BWM), a “catalyst for womxn to create, innovate, and claim their power as entrepreneurs”. We talked about the mission of the Market, its digital transformation prompted by the pandemic, and Cara’s experience bringing communities together for small business.
Can you tell me about how Boston Women’s Market started and your mission?
BWM started out as a one-time event in 2017, held at the Loring-Greenough House in Jamaica Plain, Boston (Mass.). We got such a great response from it and people thanked us for putting together a community of smart, energetic, and capable women entrepreneurs. They’re able to showcase to the world, promoting what they have to offer and how they contribute to the community. That empowered us to keep going. In 2018, we started rolling out more and more events. One of the biggest value propositions, to me, is the community feel between the vendors. We are not just a space where you can come and sell your goods, we’re also supportive of one another. The entrepreneurs who are just getting started find huge value in that because it can be an intimidating environment coming into the vendor community: you’re worried about your competition, whether your product is good enough, and how much you stand out next to other vendors. When they come into our space, they instantly realize it’s not about that. Our vendors are really eager to teach each other about what they do and give pointers. We’re also really trying to utilize online resources on our website to make them feel more confident in areas of business that they’ve never had experience in, whether it’s email marketing, or deciding if they should be a solo entrepreneur or an LLC.
You mentioned your website and skill-building offerings for vendors, how has the pandemic played a part in this?
Before COVID, we had a lot of projects and ambitions for what we wanted to do but we were so busy organizing in-person events. When COVID happened, we had to cancel all of our 2020 events and were able to roll out some programming that would have never been possible. We wanted to open an online store for Boston Women’s Market, because it’s another avenue to expose women entrepreneurs and their brands to a different audience. If we can showcase and encourage shopping small through us in even more ways, then it’s only a win-win for the maker, because we’re purchasing from that maker and then their consumers [are] purchasing from us. We also revamped our website and made it more cohesive. It was an opportunity for us to really define our brand more strategically and made us think about how we wanted to present ourselves. At our events we have vendors coming to us and saying, “I really need expertise in social media advertising”, or “Do you know anyone that does website stuff?”, or “Is this pricing good?”, or “Is this a good proposal?” We now have what we are calling the “Experts Circle”. It’s a community of specialists and various small businesses (we’ve personally worked with) that our vendors can turn to and trust for various reasons — we can vouch for our experts. Another positive thing that came out of COVID was our membership program. Now, after we had that COVID period to really focus on these things, we’re able to keep them going even while we return to organizing in-person events.
Speaking of vendors, I know they apply to be a part of Boston Women’s Market, but can you speak to the selection process and what you take into consideration?
Before COVID, we were more of a first-come-first-serve application process. Now, we are approaching a more spread-the-love type of approach. We often release multiple applications for different markets at once. What we try to do is get as many vendors as we can to be in at least one of our events, so we really are thoughtful about spreading the opportunities and the love. If I couldn’t get a certain vendor in an event, I’ll do my best to make sure they’re first priority for the next event. It shouldn’t be about who saw the email first and who got to apply first because so many of our vendors have other full-time jobs. They can’t be at their computer all day long. We also have to make sure that we don’t have 20 of the same type of makers all in one event, so we have to look at an even distribution of categories as well. It takes a lot of time, but I think our markets are stronger because of it.
Your vendors are probably aware of what you stand for when they apply but do you perhaps have more targeted themes or messaging for them based on location? Are there things to be aware of in the community you reach in each market to help integrate those vendors with the given venue?
I think that’s a two-fold question. When vendors join our community, they’re automatically put into a pool of communication that reinforces who we are and our values. We really want to make it clear that if you embody our values, you are always welcome in our community (and we’re not just for women — anyone who supports our endeavors are welcome to apply). We have various newsletters going out throughout the weeks leading up to the market. They are educational, inspirational, interviews with other founders, or value propositions. We have also learned over the years that certain communities gravitate towards certain types of vendors, so vendors have to consider those types of things depending on where the market is being held and whether it’s a good opportunity for them. There are all these little things that you have to consider, so we try to make sure to identify potential concerns upfront — to be as transparent as possible with our vendors.
What have you learned over time in managing different experiences such as working with property managers, onsite event coordinators and others?
It all comes down to communication. There are people from all walks of life that have different personalities you encounter on a daily basis when you’re at your full-time job in a corporate environment, or wherever. It’s the exact same thing with event planning, organizing in-person events, online workshops and things like that. I always abide by the rule that over-communication is the best method. If we feel like we need a little bit more support from the site, whether it’s advertising, organizing, spreading the word or anything like that, we have no problem telling them because we want it to be successful. They’ve invited us onto their property for a reason. They’re trying to achieve a goal and we are in this together. If something maybe isn’t going as planned, we always over-communicate and pitch ideas for a solution.
What goes into selecting the venues where you create events to connect communities and vendors? We go into a space, but by us going into that community and the space it’s not all about us, it’s about the neighborhood. Our visitors then go to the restaurants, they go to the other shops in the neighborhood, they’re walking around, they’re spending money in other places in the neighborhood. Whenever we create listings for events, we always make sure to highlight the neighborhood. We also do outreach to restaurants and neighbors and tell them they are welcome to stop by or bring their coupon to come get a free appetizer afterwards. We always invite people to join in.
Conversations with J Wheaton. Written by J Wheaton. Edited by Eugenia Macias.