After 12 years as a dietitian, Heather Mishefske sought a career change that would allow her to spend more time on a lifelong passion — training and caring for dogs.

In late 2005, she took the plunge of buying a small doggie day care business and being both her own boss and employee.

“Anyone who starts a business knows 12 to 14 hours a day is normal,” she said.

The business grew, though, allowing her to hire more people and expand services with more training classes, adding grooming services and now caring for an average of 65 pooches a day at emBARK, 2109 Fairfax St.

Mishefske will be among numerous local female entrepreneurs to share their stories and advice during the daylong Women’s Business Conference on May 16 in the Davies Center on the UW-Eau Claire campus.

Karman Briggs, director of local community action agency Western Dairyland’s Women’s Business Center, said the event sponsored by the organization is intended to help businesswomen grow their businesses.

“Women are starting businesses at a faster rate than men are right now,” she noted. “Women are quickly catching up to that 50 percent mark.”

While women own about 40% of small businesses in the U.S., Briggs noted that they have lagged behind when it comes to growth. Female-owned companies employ 9% of the nation’s workforce and account for 4% of revenue generated by U.S. businesses.

The upcoming conference will feature workshops, exhibitors and networking opportunities for women to learn about ways to build up their business ventures.

The event starts at 8 a.m. with a panel of local businesswomen, including Mishefske, who will discuss their journeys as entrepreneurs. Others on the panel are Becki’s Mediterranean Olive Salsa owner Becki Spina, organic dairy farmer and star of Wisconsin Public Television’s “Around the Farm Table” Inga Witscher and Hello Adorn handmade jewelry owner Jess Gardner.

There will then be 20 different breakout sessions for the rest of the day, along with breaks in between, a networking lunch and a 4 p.m. happy hour to close the conference.

Breakout sessions are generally organized around four tracts: starting up a business, growing one, recent trends and roundtable talks on hot industries. Each tract has five sessions during the conference.

Session topics include legal advice for startups, building relationships for growing a business, healthy workplace communications, managing an online presence, government programs, taxes and bookkeeping, sustainable business growth, online sales, running a food-based business, social media marketing, freelancing and attracting employees.

About 90 exhibitors were lined up this week already and the goal is to have 100 on May 16. Among them are area banks, child care services, marketing firms, business groups, government programs and products specifically for women.

Conference attendees will also be able to get into two sessions on May 15.

“We’ve beefed up the preconference events,” Briggs said.

The two preconference events — one on improving customer service and the other is an evening networking mixer — will be at Chippewa Valley Technical College’s Business Education Center, 620 W. Clairemont Ave.

The networking mixer will include information on applying for a women’s business certification — a designation for being a female-owned business, which can help when vying for federal government contracts.

Starting out 16 years ago as a resource fair, Western Dairyland’s Women’s Business Conference has grown into a larger event attracting a bigger audience.

Less than 200 attended that first year, Briggs said, but attendance had risen to 550 at last year’s conference.

“It does pull in people from outside the area as well,” she said.

Some attendees have come from southern Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota, she said.

A conference specific to women helps address challenges their gender has faced in the business world.

One of the historical hurdles that female entrepreneurs have faced was difficulty getting loans from commercial banks. It wasn’t until 1988 that the federal government passed a law ending the requirement many banks had that women needed a male cosigner to get a business loan. Women are catching up to men when it comes to business ownership, but another challenge is finding peers that can offer advice and encouragement.

While businessmen can teach a lot, Briggs said it helps to have a female mentor that has experienced the same challenges of balancing home and work along with facing gender stigmas in the business world.

Mishefske’s advice to would-be female entrepreneurs is to know the core of their business well first and the ancillary skills of running it can come later.

“Knowing your craft is so important,” she said. “Once you know the trends and how to stay on top of them, you can lay out a plan.”

As her business grew, Mishefske said learned lessons on human resources, management, marketing and other aspects of business through Western Dairyland, local mentoring organization SCORE and the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at UW-Eau Claire.

“I’ve utilized a lot of resources,” she said.

And some of her best advice came from friends in other industries who could relate to the challenges she was facing in her business.

“A lot of people have been there, done that,” she said.

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