Women mean business in Pierce County
Clemencia Castro-Woolery | Gloria Martin | Monica Blackwood
Pierce County’s history of women in business runs deep. In 1889, maritime entrepreneur Thea Christiansen Foss transformed a single rowboat purchased for $5 into a shipping empire. Foss Maritime is now the largest tug and towing operation on the West Coast.
Today, women still mean business in Pierce County. In this issue of Onward, meet three leaders who are working with passion and making a difference in business and the community.
Clemencia Castro-Woolery, partner, Ledger Square Law
“When I walk out the door of my office, I’m in my community, not a crowded elevator or parking garage.”
“I love working here,” said Castro-Woolery, a longtime Lakewood resident. “The community, especially the local Bar community, is far more collegial than in King County. It makes it much easier to negotiate deals and settle disputes.”
Being in Pierce County isn’t just about the legal stuff, she said. It’s also about having opportunities to make her community a better place. Castro-Woolery has served on boards for multiple organizations, including the YWCA Pierce County, Asia Pacific Cultural Center, and more. She was also board chair of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce amid the pandemic and in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the ensuing racial protests.
“It was momentous in terms of the changes we made,” she said. Those changes included altering the Chamber’s mission statement to emphasize it as an antiracist organization. “We helped make the South Sound the most equitable and inclusive place to do business in Washington state.”
Child care is biggest barrier
As a business owner and attorney practicing in business and employment law, Castro-Woolery knows well the challenges that women face in working or entering the workforce today. As a current trustee for Pierce College, she sees firsthand how the child care crisis is a barrier for women who want to attend school. She was fortunate.
“I had three small children at home while attending law school, but I also had parents and husband to help — and help me become successful,” she said. “A lot of women don’t have that. Child care is a big challenge for women and businesses everywhere, and it needs to be dealt with on a national level.”
Working in a man’s world
Starting a business and having it succeed has been a big step for Castro-Woolery and her law partners. “I feel really good about starting this firm,” she said. “It’s a collaboration I’m very proud of, and it’s a great place to work.”
Still, she is a woman in a business that is very much a man’s industry. She often reflects on a quote from the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “My mother always told me to be a lady.”
“I can still be me in a man’s business world,” Castro-Woolery said. “It’s OK for me to use my brain, be where decisions are being made and have the right to sit in that spot. I can be in power, but always try to do it with grace and humility.”
It’s not all long hours and legal briefs. With the pandemic easing, Castro-Woolery and her husband enjoy traveling again. They recently spent three weeks in Italy and look forward to exploring new destinations.
Gloria Martin, owner, Southern Kitchen
“Tacoma and Pierce County mean so much to me, and I love doing business here. This is such a unique, diverse and inclusive community.”
Gloria Martin didn’t set out to operate one of Tacoma’s most beloved restaurants. In 1996, she owned a multicultural bookstore located next door to Southern Kitchen. One day, the owner approached her and asked if she wanted to buy the restaurant.
“I didn’t know anything about the restaurant business,” Martin said. “But I did know about food.” Her father, a chef in the military, taught her the basics of Lowcountry cuisine from the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. She bought the restaurant and has served up “food for the soul” ever since.
A foodie phenomenon
Known for its fresh ingredients, hearty portions and stellar customer service, Southern Kitchen was already a local icon before the Food Network put it on a broader map. After the restaurant was featured in a 2010 episode of Diners, Dives and Drive-ins, the foodies followed.
“It was crazy, and it really turned a corner for us,” said Martin, who had to double staff to serve the burgeoning customer base. “People still come in because they’ve seen a replay of the show.”
The restaurant was also featured on comedian Kevin Hart’s TV show in 2017. The media exposure has been great for business, although Gordon says her customers and the community have been the real highlights of her career.
Sensing a shift
That doesn’t mean it’s been an easy road. Amid multiple challenges that come with owning and operating a restaurant, Martin has faced added hurdles as a Black woman.
“When I first started out in this business, it was hard to be taken seriously,” she said. “It still is in fields that are predominantly controlled by men.”
Women, especially Black women, are still underrepresented and underestimated, Martin said. But she believes that’s beginning to shift. “Change is long overdue, but there are more conversations happening and more opportunities and support for Black and women-owned businesses.”
Take the leap if you love it
She’d like to see more women business owners in Pierce County and thinks it’s a good time to take the leap. Martin offers this advice: Have a passion for what you’re going into — and a solid business plan.
“I’m old school. Do what you enjoy doing and don’t focus on making a lot of money,” she said. “Just be aware of cash flow. It’s a numbers game, after all. Just bring in more than you spend.”
A note from the chef: It’s not easy to pick just one, but Martin’s favorite item on the Southern Kitchen menu is the mac and cheese. “It’s pure comfort food and simple as all get-out,” Martin says. No wonder it’s the restaurant’s best seller.
Monica Blackwood, owner, West Sound Workforce
“There is a plethora of opportunities here because of the melting pot we have. And it’s interwoven with a fantastic quality of life and broad range of industries.”
Four years ago, Monica Blackwood was weighing her options when she scheduled lunch with longtime mentor Julie Tappero, founder and operator of Gig Harbor-based West Sound Workforce. She was considering her next career move as she was leaving the architectural interior design firm where she was director of operations.
“I’d planned to get some career advice from Julie,” she said. “That ended up being a really expensive lunch.” Tappero transitioned to retirement and Blackwood bought the company, one of the top recruiting agencies in the Pacific Northwest.
The move made sense. Overseeing HR in her previous role, Blackwood developed a passion for connecting people with the right jobs.
“I love seeing people take their talents to companies that support and value them,” she said. “It’s like magic. When people are successful, they have self-worth, they are contributing, and the companies are successful. That enrichment and success spill over to their families and communities.”
COVID brought issues to light
Still early into her ownership, the pandemic hit. It’s made things interesting, as businesses dealt with staffing challenges, remote work and other issues. “When I entered into this journey of ownership, I tried to think of all the scenarios that would be challenging,” she said. “Global pandemic was not on that list.”
Aside from the obvious trials, the pandemic accelerated and amplified some critical workforce issues. “We were already looking at needs around child and elder care and the struggles with remote work. All those things came to a head quickly and we had to respond.”
The perfect problem
There’s a misconception among women leaders and business owners that needs to be dispelled, Blackwood said. “The idea that you need to be a perfect leader, owner and decision maker, and also have a perfect personal life, is just not correct,” she said. “We need to give each other the support and grace to know that at times business might be more demanding than family, and it’s okay to spend more time at the office than at home.” It’s not a sacrifice, she said. Her career makes her a better mom and partner.
She also believes it’s time to normalize nontraditional roles. “Business owners, including me, have husbands who are more involved with child care,” she said. “We should support and celebrate that.”
As owner of a busy agency, Blackwood doesn’t have a lot of downtime. When she does break away from the office, she spends time with family or heads to her favorite spot on the Peninsula. ”I love to put my feet in the sand at my hometown beach in Indianola, even in the winter. There’s nothing like it.”