CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Former attorneys Jamie Cheng, left, and Bree Kurihari opened Elements Spa & Salon across from the Hawaii Convention Center after giving up on their legal careers. The newly renovated and expanded business is providing stable income for Cheng and Kurihari and has created jobs for more than 10 people.
Courting new careers
Two attorneys leave a Honolulu law firm to pursue their dream of opening a salon
LAW SCHOOL chums Bree Kurihari and Jamie Cheng were working as attorneys in the land-use division at Imanaka, Kudo & Fujimoto in Honolulu when they decided to cut career ties with the legal community and open up their own beauty salon and day spa.
The decision to give up steady high-paying careers and take on the risk of opening a small business was so frightening to the would-be entrepreneurs that they considered abandoning their dream multiple times before giving notice, they said.
"Three times we walked toward the boss' office and then turned around," said Cheng, who sold the Oahu home she owned with her husband, Norman, to join Kurihari in purchasing a failing business in a good location. Kurihari financed her dream by using personal savings, a bank loan and investment from her family, the owners of Hawaiian Sun soft drinks.
"My family was pretty supportive but they needed to know that this was something that we had thought about and that we understood all the risks," Kurihari said. "They wanted to see that we had outlined our goals and formulated a business plan."
Nearly a year later, Elements Spa & Salon across from the Hawaii Convention Center on Kapiolani Boulevard is much more than a dream. The newly renovated and expanded business is providing stable income for Kurihari and Cheng and has created jobs for more than 10 people.
There are plenty of national stories about women like Kurihari and Cheng. The glass-ceiling effect, a desire for more flexible work hours to take care of children or aging parents and a creative need to carve out something of their own has encouraged many women to become entrepreneurs.
In recent years, the national counts of women entrepreneurs show that the rate has grown faster than the U.S. economy. From 1997 to 2002, the Center for Business Women's Research said that the number of privately held majority or 50 percent women-owned businesses grew by 11 percent, more than one and a half times the rate of all privately held firms. According to the Small Business Administration, America's 9.1 million women-owned businesses employ 27.5 million people and contribute $3.6 trillion to the economy.
It's no longer uncommon nationwide to see professional women opting to leave their high-paying professions in favor of creating their own work environment -- one that offers more flexible hours and a greater chance of making it to the top.
"If it's your own business, the sky's the limit. You can be as big as you dream," said Cherylle Morrow, project director of Hawaii Women's Business Center, which operates one of the Small Business Administration's business centers for women.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Bree Kurihari gives a massage to a client in the spa area at Elements Spa & Salon on Kapiolani Boulevard. Kurihari and Jamie Cheng said they are working longer hours than they did at the Imanaka, Kudo & Fujimoto law firm but are happy with their new career.
Entrepreneurship holds great allure for many women nationwide. Yet the story of Kurihari and Cheng is uncommon for Hawaii, where the growth in women-owned businesses has trailed. Among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., Hawaii ranked 49th in the growth in the number of privately held majority-women-owned firms between 1997 and 2004. In 2004, there were an estimated 41,280 of these firms in Hawaii, a 0.6 percent drop from the 41,516 such firms that were operating in 1997.
What gives? The climate for small business in Hawaii is already challenging. The state routinely ranks among the worst places for business owners due to the high cost of living, greater wage and benefit costs and lower incentives, said Caroline Kim, executive director of the Oahu Small Business Development Center.
"We don't have the policies or incentives that other states have put into place to grow small businesses and in turn support the economy here in Hawaii," Kim said.
In addition, many of Hawaii's women entrepreneurs face additional business challenges because of their lack of access to funding and the dual role that they play in society, Morrow said.
"The climate for women in Hawaii is improving. Women are actually starting and running very successful businesses," she said.
"However, many women are still faced with the challenge of caring for young children or aging parents and some don't have sufficient credit to obtain the loans that they need for startup capital."
Knowing the dismal odds of making a small business work, Cheng and Kurihari took the advice of successful family business people and formulated a business plan and market study before launching their new business. They said they learned from the mistake of the past owner and kept the salon at least partially open while it was undergoing renovations and even went to beauty school to learn more about their new professions.
"We really researched this market and put our plan in place before opening Elements," said Cheng, who now takes care of the front desk and works as an aesthetician at the salon she owns and manages with Kurihari. She said she was also able to draw on the advice of her husband's family who own Kin Wah Chop Suey, a landmark restaurant in Kaneohe.
Identifying the right location, defining the market and targeting clients was only the beginning for the two entrepreneurs. Now they are gaining management and marketing skills as they work to establish clientele and win back customers that were lost during a lengthy renovation period under the former owner.
"Right now, we're working longer hours than we did at the law firm," said Kurihari, who studied massage therapy after leaving her law career behind. Kurihari now helps Cheng at the front desk and works as a masseuse at the salon she owns and manages with Cheng.
"I still get home late, but I'm happy. It's a different kind of work," Kurihari said.
The women said they have traded the stress of the legal profession, long known for its grueling hours and inflexibility, for the stress of carving out a place for their salon and day spa among others in Hawaii.
"We love all the wonderful smells and environment of the salon and spa," Kurihari said. "After coming from the legal profession, we also love that everyone that walks in here is happy and ready to relax."
Coming from the high-stress world of the legal profession has given Kurihari and Cheng prospective about what clients are searching for when they come to Elements.
"Being attorneys and coming from a professional lifestyle, we understand how important it is to pay attention to your self," Kurihari said. "A day spa should be a place where clients come to look good and feel confident. It should be an experience, not just a service."
Though, the entrepreneurs have left the business of law behind, they have not left the connections. Many of their former co-workers have become clients or provided client referrals.
"We offered our services at the Downtown Decadence fundraiser for the YWCA and Hawaii Women's Lawyers, and we also have had several staff appreciation days for law firms where we've turned the lunchroom into a spa," Cheng said.
Hosting specialty events on top of their regular salon schedule have made Elements a nonstop job for the fledgling entrepreneurs.
Once the business is more established, Kurihari and Cheng say they hope to scale back their hours to make way for family. Cheng is married to kamaaina attorney Norman Cheng of Starn O'Toole Marcus & Fisher and Kurihari is planning an October wedding to Alan Komagome, who works as a public defender.
"Our firm was really good about supporting women," Kurihari said. "We felt that we could attain professionally whatever we set our hearts on, but we didn't want to have to sacrifice the family part."
These days the only baby Kurihari and Cheng is nurturing is their new business, but one day they hope to have more time to be daughters, wives and mothers.
"Right now we can devote all of our free time to building this business; later we'd like to have more time to spend with our families," Cheng said.
During the first three to five years of any new business, it takes total commitment to make it work, said Kim, who consults with more than 5,000 businesses a year,
"A new business will be your entire life until you get it up and running -- it's your baby" she said. "Women have some advantage in that they are willing to nurture this baby business through thick and thin."
If hard work and nurturing skills are the main ingredients to making a small business work in Hawaii, Kurihari's and Cheng's experience as former attorneys and now salon and day-spa owners give them a good shot at cornering Oahu's very competitive market.
Only the next several years will tell.
RESOURCES FOR WOMEN
My Biz for Women is designed to be the first step for all women business owners, providing one-stop access to information for women entrepreneurs. The Web portal provides information on starting and growing a small business, gaining access to capital and contracting opportunities and links to other government agencies and SBA resource partners.
Information from the Small Business Administration about finding financing for women-owned businesses.
Hawaii Women's Business Center
Cherylle Morrow, Project Director
1041 Nuuanu Ave., Suite A
E-mail: ExecutiveDirector@hwbc.org; firstname.lastname@example.org
Oahu Small Business Development Center
Caroline Kim, Center Director
Small Business Resource Center
1041 Nuuanu Ave., Suite A
Honolulu, HI 96817
FAX: (808) 522-0724
Source: Small Business Administration, Hawaii Women's Business Center, Oahu Small Business Development Center