Though men typically dominate the business world, the number of women-owned firms grew by about 20 percent from 2002 to 2007, according to data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Despite the growth, women own 28.7 percent of all businesses in the U.S. while men own about 51 percent, based on the bureau’s 2007 Survey of Business Owners, which is taken every five years. In Chicago, women run about 36 percent of the total businesses in the city.

Though figures were not available for Forest Park, many people in the business community have said women seem to be the driving force in the village’s business scene.

“They always say women are the minority, but if you go up and down the street, that’s all there are – women-owned businesses,” said Afkara Mason, owner of Afkara Shoes on Madison Street.

In fact, many of Forest Park’s entrepreneurs, including Dana Smith, owner of Chix with Stix, have said that the high number of women-owned shops is part the reason they were attracted to doing business in Forest Park in the first place.

“It was one of the things that really struck me,” Smith said. “That’s really special, I think.”

Myrza Santana, owner of M. Santana Boutique, said there are so many women business owners that they are “carving out a niche for themselves.”

“I almost come to expect it at this point,” she said. “Everywhere I go, it’s a woman business owner. I definitely think we’re progressing. And in this economy, I hope we survive.”

With the struggling economy in particular, women are in a better position now than ever before, said Eden DeGenova, owner of Baubo’s Garden. Many of the men who were in leadership roles were laid off because their salaries became too expensive, she said, which leaves room for women to rise in the ranks and fill positions.

“There are more opportunities for leadership now and so many areas that have been untapped by women,” she said. But even with the progress, she noted, “there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

The Review decided to explore some of the women-owned shops in Forest Park and get to know the women who have taken on leadership roles and started their own businesses in the village. Ranging from running a dentist’s office to an insurance agency to a cooking school, there are too many women owners in Forest Park to feature them all. Aside from the profiles below, some of the other women-owned businesses include Team Blonde, Two Fish, Flavour Cooking School, Forest Foot Care, Dedee & Edee, Platinum Dental Care, At Work Design, Jeanine A. Guncheon, Chix with Stix, Moss Modern Flowers, Camille et Famille and My Best Friend Groom and Board.

Eden DeGenova, Baubo’s Garden

Though Eden DeGenova currently runs a lingerie shop in Forest Park, she spent many years in the horticultural industry. She worked at the Botanic Garden and Garfield Park Conservatory before opening up her own horticultural landscaping business, as well as a horticultural therapy/consulting service. (Her background, though, is actually in music. She has been in bands most of her life, singing and playing guitar.)

Eventually, though, she “needed to make a clear break.”

“I was physically and mentally tired from literally digging holes,” DeGenova said. “I love being around people and needed to be around people again.”

DeGenova, who grew up in Morton Grove and now resides in Oak Park, opened Baubo’s Garden at 7234 W. Madison about four years ago. At the lingerie shop, she wants to “help women feel their best from the inside out.”

She has noticed more and more women taking on entrepreneurship roles and would love to see some sort of group form in this area for women business owners.

“Women as a group can be much more powerful,” she said. “It seems to me that women will stick together more and talk about their ups and downs more than men will. It’d be nice to have a forum for that.”

Pakdee Yu, Bua Hana

New restaurateur Pakdee Yu said as a leader, she is trying to find the right balance between being tough and being nice since she opened Bua Hana, 7330 W. Madison, last January.

“For women, you have to be stronger,” she said. “You have to deal with workers, and it’s challenging because sometimes you don’t want to be too tough.”

Most Thai restaurants, from her experience, are run by women, which was encouraging for her as she took on the new venture. Yu had been in the fast food business for more than 10 years when she decided she wanted to try something different; running her own restaurant offered a new challenge and more freedom.

Yu, 46, is originally from Thailand. She moved to Hawaii in 1984 and lived in California for a few years before moving in 1989 to Oak Park, where she currently resides.

Afkara Mason, Afkara Shoes

When Afkara Mason was first trying to break into the business nearly 15 years ago, she said there were not many boutiques in the area, and the wholesale end of retail was dominated by men.

“I thought it was almost like the mafia,” she said. “They were like, ‘What are you doing? What do you want?'”

But now, she said, things have changed dramatically, and she quite often sees women running the show. There is a greater sense of independence among women now, who seem to share the mentality “I am everywoman,” she said.

Mason, a 39-year-old Oak Park resident, opened Afkara Shoes in 1997 after working in retail. “I got tired of working for someone else, and I figured if I was going to work hard, I could do it for myself,” she said.

She moved her store to Forest Park at 7247 Madison St. roughly five years ago. 

Erika Ochoa, Pineapple Dance Studio

For the past 14 years, Erika Ochoa has been a professional dancer, specializing in Egyptian dance. For the past three and a half years, she has also been a business owner. No surprise, it’s a dance studio that she runs in Forest Park.

Ochoa never intended to open a business, but when the opportunity arose to take over Pineapple Dance Studio at 7518 W. Madison, she went for it.   

“It was kind of like a surprise,” Ochoa, 39, said. “It was not set in my mind to be an owner, but I thought, why not?”

Ochoa, who grew up in Mexico City and now resides in Melrose Park, found a great deal of help in getting the business started through a non-profit organization in Pilsen that is geared toward helping women and minorities.

“I really didn’t know what to do when it came to the copyright of the name and other legal matters, and the lawyers’ fees were very expensive,” she said. “I think I was really lucky enough to find this organization.”

Ochoa also said she was surprised, and encouraged, to recently learn that nearly 80 percent of dance studios are owned and operated by women. Her particular studio teaches Middle Eastern belly dance, hip-hop, West African and dance fitness classes.

Myrza Santana, M. Santana Boutique

For about 10 years, 49-year-old Myrza Santana was running her dad’s grocery store on Taylor Street in Chicago. At the same time, she started making jewelry and eventually began selling it to various boutiques.

After some encouragement from friends and noticing the need for contemporary women’s clothing in the Oak Park/Forest Park area, she opened M. Santana Boutique roughly eight years ago. For the past five years, she has been running the shop in Forest Park at 7247 W. Madison.

The Oak Park resident said she has always had a “passion for fashion.”

“When I was little, every weekend in those days, State Street was the place to go and I’d go there with my mom,” she said. “It was my mom’s love – clothing and shopping – and she passed it along to me.”

The hardest part for her now is the tough economy.

“I’m in a sector of a business that is about women,” she said. “Since I’m basically in a woman’s world, it hasn’t been that difficult. You have to have a business sense, though, and some of the challenges for us in this economy include finding the right pricing point.”

Joanne Mannhaupt, Flex & Pointe Dance Studio

Born and raised New Yorker Joanne Mannhaupt started dancing when she was 7 years old. Though she continued to enroll in dance classes throughout her life, she ended up studying advertising and business at New York Institute of Technology. After graduating college, she worked at an advertising agency for a number of years.

At one point Mannhaupt, 33, realized she really wanted to run her own dance studio, something she had wanted ever since she was a little girl. 

“I was at a point in my life where it seemed like the right time to do it, and dance was always a part of my life,” said the Oak Park resident. “It was the best decision of my life.”

Mannhaupt opened Flex & Pointe Dance Studio, which offers lessons in ballet, tap, jazz and funk, at 7515 W. Madison in November of 2006. She said she has faced challenges in starting a small business, but she has not encountered any issues specifically because of her gender.