NEW YORK CITY — In the early morning hours, when other New Yorkers are fast asleep, you’ll find Sheset Roberts in the back of a little restaurant in West Harlem, surrounded by mixing bowls and cookie sheets.
Roberts doesn't have enough money for her own commercial kitchen, so she’s made deals with local restaurants to use their ovens after-hours, free of charge, as she tries to make her cookie business grow.
“They’re made with love,” said Roberts, 26, of her small-batch creations, which are baked using wholesome ingredients and sold under the name Sheset's Natural Delights, to local vendors and through the mail.
Roberts heads one of an estimated 670,100 women-owned businesses in New York City, according to the city. Experts say despite the challenging economy, the scene for women entrepreneurs has never been hotter, with more tools and opportunities than ever before.
“It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur,” said Rana Rosen, co-founder of the Women’s Collaborative, one of dozens of women's networking groups that have sprung up in recent years, providing an alternative to the established old-boys networks.
“It’s a bona fide little buzz right now,” she said.
Many of the biggest success stories have been able to turn the economic downturn into an opportunity.
Brooklyn’s Colette Burnett had spent years as a banker, managing accounts at the Bank of America when she decided to quit her job to make chicken wings.
“There were people who said, ‘Are you crazy? You would leave banking to go cook wings?’” said Burnett, 39, who now owns the popular restaurant Super Wings, which recently opened its second location in Brooklyn to rave reviews.
Burnett, who was raised in Trinidad, said she’d always dreamed of owning her own business, and eventually came to realize that she could combine her life-long love of food — especially wings — with her Caribbean culture to create something that was missing in the market.
“I had the same thought again and again: Why did no one do Caribbean flavors? And then I thought, ‘Why not you?'”
She started experimenting in her kitchen with her favorite ingredients: tamarind, mango, pineapple and within three years had perfected a menu of nearly a dozen flavors of wings — each representing a different Caribbean island.
She left her job in 2009 and within a year was winning culinary awards, including a "Throwdown" on the Food Network against grill champ Bobby Flay. “It was the biggest thing!” she raved.
While the decision might have seemed like a major risk, Burnett said the recession changed her expectations.
“I saw a lot of people losing their jobs. Wall Street was going crazy,” she said, adding that “the security that we held so dear” was no longer a guarantee.
Also stoking her confidence were the years she’d spent managing a portfolio of 400 business accounts of every size across Brooklyn, and meticulous planning that included extensive taste tests, market research and enrolling in a city-run, six-week program, which helped her develop a business plan and learn from fellow entrepreneurs.
Even the decision to open her first location in Crown Heights was based on solid research. At tasting events, she'd realized the people who were most drawn to her flavors were not Caribbean, but people who'd never been exposed to that kind of cooking. She checked the census and parsed through demographic data, and saw the neighborhood was heavily gentrifying, with people coming from the south, from California, and the coasts.
“I wanted it to be where the change was happening,” she said, “because it ... is so unique.”
The ailing economy was also a critical factor for Audra Fordin, the fourth-generation owner of Great Bear Auto Repair and Auto Body Shop in Flushing, Queens.
Growing up in a family of mechanics, Fordin said she was always treated as another of the boys, and learned the ins-and-outs of the industry around the dinner table and from her father at the shop.
Instead of a silver spoon, “I was born [with] a lug wrench in my mouth,” said Fordin, 41, a petite brunette with a ponytail and hearty laugh.
Then the bottom dropped out in 2008 and Fordin was faced with the prospect of losing the business that had taken her family generations to build.
“In order to not crumble, we needed to re-engineer our business strategy,” said Fordin. “I needed to save my business.”
Speaking with customers, she began to realize that part of the reason they kept coming back was Fordin herself.
“They [had] never met a woman in this industry,” she said.
Then, came an idea: She launched a workshop she dubbed “What Women Auto Know” to teach other women the ins-and-outs of car maintenance, selling them on the idea that they could save money — and be empowered — by doing repairs themselves.
“It took off like I never expected,” said Fordin, who still seems amazed by the success. “I had waiting lists. I could’t keep up... It was so huge," she said.
Now, Fordin is a leader at the forefront of a movement poised to transform the automotive industry, appearing everywhere from local papers to Motor Trend magazine and even running workshops for girl scouts, where kids cut up bicycle and wheelchair tires to make belts and leashes.
“If she’s going to wear a tire, hang a tire in her closet, then a tire’s not dirty and scary," explained Fordin. “The next generation [of women] is going to know the automotive industry.”
Fordin also acknowledged that, while being the only woman in the room has sometimes been a challenge, she never could have saved her businesses were she not female.
As a mom with three kids, she said she has a fundamentally different approach to the business than most men. She’s always put a premium on customer service, she said, forgoing the “foreign language” of car-speak, and treating her cars as members of the family, who are ailing and need care.
“It’s a woman’s mentality. I relate to the care differently,” she explained. “It’s like being a doctor. I need to understand my patient."
“It's about how to communicate with, how to nurture your car," she added. "That’s the female component, that’s the compassion — turning this big machine, this computer, into a personal thing.”
Burnett said she also felt being a woman gave her a certain leg up in the “new economy,” where customer service is king.
“We think differently,” she said. “We seem to be more connected to the human element and customer service seems to come easier.... That is, I think, our biggest win.”
That same viewpoint also impacts the way she thinks about her restaurant's role in the neighborhood, and ways to serve the community more than just food.
“It’s what mothers do — that kind of giving thing," she said. "We can put that into business as well."