BISMARCK — Business is booming in North Dakota.

A decade of high-octane oil production and the prosperity that came with it has helped position the Peace Garden State ahead of the pack in several economic categories and earned it a reputation as a haven for entrepreneurship. However, the rising tide has not floated all boats.

The number of women-owned businesses in North Dakota has decreased over the last five years, according to a study released in September. So too has the revenue brought in by these firms and the number of workers they employ.

North Dakota ranked last in the country in growth of female entrepreneurship.

There are 1.5% fewer women-owned businesses in North Dakota today than there were in 2014, according to the study, which was commissioned by American Express and based on U.S. Census data. Over the same time frame, women-owned businesses have grown nationally by 21%. Revenue brought in by North Dakota firms dropped by an even starker 3.5%.

The trend was troubling to Kodee Furst, so she and a few business partners started Annie Capital in 2018. The Dickinson-based firm coaches and invests in female entrepreneurs in the Dakotas.

"We knew that nationally, the story on venture capital was pretty appalling with regards to how much was being distributed to women-owned, women-led companies versus male-owned, male-led companies," Furst said. "Then we were looking more locally and regionally and said 'this is getting a little bit scary.'"

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Several factors have combined to put North Dakota's businesswomen at a disadvantage, Furst said. The lack of capital investment in women-owned ventures makes starting and growing a business much more difficult, while a shortage of supportive networks keeps many aspiring entrepreneurial women from making valuable connections and gaining confidence in their ideas, she said. Without any major population centers nearby, it's also a challenge to access bigger markets, Furst said.

Kodee Furst co-founded Annie Capital in 2018. Photo submitted.
Kodee Furst co-founded Annie Capital in 2018. Photo submitted.

North Dakota's burgeoning tech industry could also be contributing to the disparity between male and female entrepreneurs, according to Jeremy Jackson, an assistant professor of economics at North Dakota State University. The industry, which has established a strong foothold in Fargo, is historically and currently dominated by men, Jackson said.

Furst also noted that a dip in the growth of women-owned firms could partially be a byproduct of the waning oil boom, which crested about five years ago.

Jackson and Furst ruled out the idea that any cultural elements were stunting the growth of women-owned businesses. If anything, the hardworking spirit and agricultural background of many North Dakotans is an asset in entrepreneurship, Furst said.

One of North Dakota's most well-known entrepreneurs, Dot Henke, grew up on a dairy farm and said the hard labor was good preparation for the long work days that come with running a growing business. After a career in finance, the Velva resident started Dot's Homestyle Pretzels, which now moves 200 tons of salty snacks every week and sells everywhere from Boston to San Diego.

Free samples of Dot’s Homestyle Pretzels were on hand for the 1 Million Cups event on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, at The Stage at Island Park in Fargo. Dorothy and Randy Henke, founders of Dot’s Pretzels, shared their entrepreneurial story during the event. Ann Arbor Miller / The Forum
Free samples of Dot’s Homestyle Pretzels were on hand for the 1 Million Cups event on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, at The Stage at Island Park in Fargo. Dorothy and Randy Henke, founders of Dot’s Pretzels, shared their entrepreneurial story during the event. Ann Arbor Miller / The Forum

Henke said her success resulted from a combination of luck and drive, but the network she established early on got the business off the ground. She began to think the company could really flourish after handing out samples and selling bags of pretzels at showcases put on by Pride of Dakota, a state-run organization that promotes North Dakota goods. The vendors at the showcases were like "one happy little family," and the support and advice she got from more established sellers proved invaluable, Henke said.

Like Henke, Beth Veeder came into entrepreneurship later in life. The longtime Watford City resident bought Meyer's Department Store in 2011 and started Door 204 Coffee in a neighboring building three years ago. Veeder said she learned and received assistance from Linda Knudtson, who sold her the department store after nearly a quarter-century in business. She also learned how to run a coffee shop from a friend with experience in the industry.

Beth Veeder, pictured Feb. 24, recently opened Door 204 coffee shop next to her Meyer’s Department Store in downtown Watford City. The coffee shop also includes a private mailbox business.  (FNS Photo by Amy Dalrymple)
Beth Veeder, pictured Feb. 24, recently opened Door 204 coffee shop next to her Meyer’s Department Store in downtown Watford City. The coffee shop also includes a private mailbox business. (FNS Photo by Amy Dalrymple)

Henke and Veeder said North Dakota has the potential for a surge in female entrepreneurship for women who put in the late nights and early mornings. To help young businesswomen get there, Furst wants to help foster the kind of supportive network Henke and Veeder found on their own.

Furst, entrepreneurship promoter Emerging Prairie and The Nice Center at North Dakota State University joined forces to organize North Dakota's first Women's Entrepreneurship Week, which was held at the end of last month in Fargo. It was a smash success with more than 700 students, business leaders and entrepreneurs in attendance. Henke and her husband, Randy, were featured guests and spoke at the event.

Getting women with entrepreneurial aspirations in the same room could give them the reassurance and confidence they need to take the daunting leap into business ownership, Furst said. Someday, she hopes the event won't even be necessary.

"My hope is that we never have to talk about women entrepreneurship. There will just be entrepreneurship," Furst said. "But, until we see some of the gap closing and until we recognize there are some significant challenges for women, we have to continue to try to do things like Women's Entrepreneurship Week to bring people together."