In July of 2017, Isabel Benatar and Sam Letscher sat in Evanston’s NorthShore hospital, tapping away on their devices. Benatar was perched on a chair next to the bed where Letscher reclined, foot bundled in white gauze. Letscher’s toe was throbbing, but there was an even more intense pressure in the room: the impending launch of BOSSY, a directory of women-owned businesses in the Chicago area.
Earlier that day, Letscher had pulled a glass door directly onto her big toenail. But the Northwestern seniors wanted to release the directory within the next 24 hours before leaving town for vacations to Colorado and California. Benatar grabbed a sandwich for Letscher and sat in a waiting room chair to finish inputting the last few businesses into the directory. The next day, BOSSY Chicago went online and Chicagoland residents gained the ability to look up women-owned businesses in their area on BossyChicago.com.
Benatar and Letscher put the directory together in just three days during Wildfire, a summer program at the Northwestern Garage that pushes NU students to develop and launch a startup in 10 weeks with $10,000. From the start, Benatar and Letscher knew they wanted to support ethical spending in light of the 2016 election, but they weren’t sure how. “This was around the time when everybody was boycotting Uber and boycotting companies that sold Trump products, and there was a lot of discussion about where we’re putting our money,” Letscher says. “But there seemed like there could be something more.”
During the first three weeks of Wildfire, Benatar and Letscher continued what they had been doing since spring quarter: interviewing women-owned businesses from Andersonville to Evanston and all the ‘L’ stops in between.
They knew what female business owners struggled with: for every $1 a woman receives in small business loans, a man receives $23. This initial discrimination in capital means their businesses will, on average, be smaller than male-owned businesses. Female business owners are often overcharged by repairmen, who assume they don’t understand the physical structure of their shop. Customers frequently mistake younger, male employees for the owner.
Back in the Garage, they cycled through ideas to bring customers to woman-owned businesses — should they start a magazine? A blog of their interviews and a newsletter? Potential project ideas swirled around them, scrawled in red Expo marker on whiteboard-plastered walls. “I was wishing there was a clear right answer, or someone could just swoop in and be like, ‘that’s the right choice,” Benatar says.
On Monday of week four, Letscher and Benatar went in for their weekly meeting with their mentors Neal Sales-Griffin and Billy Banks. They discussed the idea of the directory, and the advisors gave them their favorite piece of advice: just start. They launched BOSSY that Thursday.
Friday morning, the Women and Children First bookstore shared the directory on their Facebook page. BOSSY exploded. The Chicago Reader reached out for an interview; consumers commented on the local bookstore’s post and recommended women-owned businesses; users messaged BOSSY with statements of support. Letscher woke up that morning in Colorado under an avalanche of social media buzz. Alone, toe throbbing, with her family off hiking in the Rockies, Fletcher replied to comments and furiously added businesses to the directory.
BOSSY Chicago has evolved since the hectic week of the directory launch. Benatar and Letscher are now building their team and recruiting social media directors and writers. The founders hope new members will allow them to focus on BOSSY’s other challenges: creating a more navigable directory, building a sustainable revenue model and highlighting the difficulties women face at the intersection of various identities.
“If they’re truly dedicated to supporting women’s businesses,” says Zoe Johnson, a Medill sophomore, “and really spend time advertising the work of trans women, women of color, women of all socioeconomic classes, queer women, disabled women – they will be providing an amazing resource for the Chicago community.”
Sydney Monroe, another user, says she connected with BOSSY’s name. “It reminds me of when I was young and people would call me or other girls who were louder or took initiative [bossy],” she says.
The directory serves the Chicago area, but Benatar and Letscher think it has the potential to go nationwide as the next TripAdvisor or Yelp for women-owned businesses. At the end of Wildfire, the team presented to the Garage community at “Demo Day.” The team showed a graphic of a map with hundreds of pins that represent potential cites to feature on the BOSSY website, and with it, the opportunity to promote thousands of women-owned businesses.
“[The presentation] just encapsulated the point of like, ‘We’re nowhere near the end,’” Banks says. “‘We are just beginning and are going to really have impact and an impact at a big scale.’”