In late 2016, a Small Business Friendliness Survey conducted by Thumbtack named Tulsa the best city in the country for women who are starting small businesses.
Thumbtack conducted interviews with female business owners throughout the country to calculate and compile the information into a study which focused on the owners’ optimism about their prospects, pay and area friendliness toward women-owned businesses.
More than 12,000 small business owners participated, spanning 35 states and 78 cities. Of these 78 cities, Tulsa earned the #1 ranking.
What makes a successful small business owner in the first place? In order to get to the root of Thumbtack’s rating, The Collegian spoke with two local business owners: Brandy Sandusky, founder of Rogue Marketing LLC, and Libby Billings, owner of three popular Deco District restaurants (Elote, The Vault and Roppongi).
Sandusky is a TU alumni who graduated in 2000 with an MSBA. She played cello in the orchestra during her time at TU. “[My professors] wanted me to be a performance major but I didn’t want to play without the orchestra, I liked the feeling of having a team around me. You’re inspired by other people around you when you have elements that can fill the music in,” she said.
After college, she began working at Tulsa’s Channel 8. “I’d had a taste of how agencies operated, but I didn’t feel like it was a very good environment, so I went to work for Marsha Baker as an account executive,” Sandusky said.
Libby Billings is a Booker T Washington alumni and OSU IT culinary school graduate who began as a caterer and quickly realized that to maintain her growing business, she would need a brick-and-mortar kitchen. She founded Elote in 2008, eventually growing her business to include The Vault, a more upscale American dining restaurant, and Roppongi, a new and successful ramen bar.
Billings’ restaurants are notable for their eco-friendly practices, including the use of free-range meat and organic ingredients. “I was actually the first restaurant to have recycled commercially and the first restaurant to use eco-friendly to-go boxes. We have an eco-platinum certification that nobody else in Oklahoma has,” she said.
Both women quickly realized that they preferred operating their own businesses to working for someone else. Sandusky worked for a man who “wasn’t very organized or helpful” for about three months before she started her own marketing agency. “But I did get to observe someone else’s failure — I learned what not to do,” she quipped.
“At Rogue I get to be the composer, the conductor, and that is so much more rewarding. Seeing other people’s work come to fruition…that’s worth more than any amount of money,” Sandusky said.
Billings, too, prefers to be her own boss. “I managed some restaurants before I started Elote and…I’m not very good at listening to what other people tell me to do,” she laughed. “I’m very creative, and I like the freedom of working really hard and seeing the result from that… It is in me, I don’t think I’m meant to work for other people.”
The two women have faced challenges with the growing success of their businesses. Both Billings and Sandusky are mothers with two children. Billings originally only opened Elote for lunch on weekdays so that she “could still be a mom at night and on weekends,” but “it was really, really hard to make it financially,” so she eventually opened the restaurant full-time. Sandusky also faced a similar situation — when she founded Rogue Marketing, one of her two sons was a newborn baby and she and her husband had just moved to a new home.
Billings noted that the success of her restaurants presented her with the challenge of learning how to relate to different clientele. “Whenever I started the Vault, I thought it would end up being a place where Elote clientele ate when they wanted a nicer, a little more upscale meal, but there isn’t a lot of crossover, it turns out. It’s much more upscale, and I kinda had to change it into that…I do have a little bit of a harder time relating to the audience at the Vault, but I’m getting it, and I’ve hired the right people to do that in the restaurant.”
Though Tulsa is rated #1 for female-owned businesses, Sandusky has noticed that there is a specific standard for women to adhere to in business. “I think there was a time when I had to be in heels and a dress and look a certain way,” she said. She recalled being at a meeting where a man asked her to go get coffee for everyone, not realizing that she was the one running the meeting.
Billings has noticed a distinct minority of women in business environments. “I am often the only woman at the table or one of very few. I serve on a number of committees and boards and councils and it is frequently male-dominated. But that hasn’t ever really bothered me, probably because I have four brothers, so that is kind of just how it’s always been.”
Despite this, both women mention the contributions of their Tulsan mentors, male and female, to their success. Sandusky mentioned that Tulsa provided her with mentors such as TU’s own advertising professor Bill Hinkle, as well as many successful Tulsan women. “Marsha Baker and Terri Walker-Cornett, Beverly Roff, Gayle Larson and Deborah Kurin. There was a super team of women at Channel 8 and I just happened to be in the right garden at the right time so I grew,” she explained. Sandusky said that her biggest mentor is her mother, who “taught me 40 years ago that women can be strong and do anything.”
Billings gave a nod to her female business mentors, and also noted a lack of support between women in the business community. “With social media and Yelp and TripAdvisor and all that stuff, everybody’s a critic, especially when you’re in food,” she said. “So if an article is written about you in the paper…people have torn me apart. It’s always women that will tear me apart, so I’ve had to get really thick skin.”
“I wish that would change, for sure,” she remarked.
Both Sandusky and Billings noted that Tulsa is an extremely affordable city, both in terms of living costs and business costs, and that this may make it conducive to starting a small business. Sandusky also pointed out that other attractions, like Tulsa’s parks and entertainment industry, are a draw for people wanting to live and work here. “My children have a lot of green grass and blue sky to look at. We have amazing things like the Tulsa Ballet and the symphony.”
Massive amounts of development and fostering of the arts in downtown Tulsa in the past decade may also have an effect on the city’s business success. Billings herself contributed to this, bringing people to the Deco District with luchadores and various festivals based at Elote.
Sandusky and Billings both mentioned Tulsa’s various resources for business owners. Sandusky remarked that “Tulsa has the intelligence and the creativeness and the think-tank of a major market without the hassle.”
“Tulsa’s a very accepting economic environment,” she continued. “It’s receptive to change. A good climate.”
Billings said “We do have a lot of organizations like the Small Business Administration and the Chamber [of Commerce] that want to see you succeed…there’s tons of resources there if you need help.”
Both women emphasized that their fellow Tulsans provide business owners with a support system.
“I have my audience of people who want to support local and free-range and organic,” Billings said. “Tulsans do love to support other Tulsans, so that’s been a good thing for sure.”
“I think people are willing to help each other here,” Sandusky smiled. “We’re still willing to shake hands and hug and wear boots.”