Last week, I had the privilege of attending the joint National Extension Community Development Professionals and Community Development Society conference in beautiful Big Sky, Montana. One of my favorite sessions was the plenary featuring Sarah Calhoun of Red Ants Pants, a company that produces outdoor work pants for women. The session got me thinking about how entrepreneurs, especially women, have the power to positively affect a rural community.
Calhoun engaged the audience with an impassioned speech about starting her own business in small rural community of White Sulphur Springs, Montana, after struggling to find work pants suitable for women. Describing herself as very unlikely to start a business, Calhoun recalls asking herself “how hard could it be?” and she started her journey as a rural woman entrepreneur.
Why Red Ants Pants? Calhoun thinks it’s a fitting name because in an ant colony, women do all of the work. Red Ants Pants are made in the US and she sells them in one White Sulphur Springs store, on their website and during her national sales trip called “Tour de Pants”.
Calhoun has earned many accolades, including being named Montana Entrepreneur of the Year in 2011, and was invited to the White House to participate in a discussion on jobs and economic development.
Red Ants Pants does much more than cater to women’s wardrobe needs. Calhoun is committed to support rural communities, farmers and ranchers, and women entrepreneurs and leaders. The businesswoman formed a non-profit, Red Ants Foundation, that offers community grants to organizations in Montana, timber skills courses for women, and female leadership and entrepreneurship programs. Calhoun shared the story about the first year the foundation held the Red Ants Pants annual music festival in 2011. The community of 925 residents rallied together to host an event larger than the small town had ever before: ranchers offered their land, residents volunteered to prepare for and work at the festival, and musicians donated their time to play. The festival has grown substantially and the community is still supportive, now bringing over 16,000 attendees nationally to raise funds to support the foundation.
White Sulphur Springs residents consider Connecticut-born Calhoun one of their own and are proud to have Red Ants Pants in their community. The story of Red Ants Pants is inspirational, and shows how a rural entrepreneur can shape a community, state and nation.
Women Entrepreneurs Changing New Hampshire
While Calhoun has achieved celebrity status, there are many lesser known entrepreneurs here in New Hampshire making positive changes in their community every day. Jo Brown of Franklin is the owner of The Franklin Studio, a café and local gathering place ran by community volunteers. Brown has been instrumental in helping to revitalize the City of Franklin. Another New Hampshire entrepreneur is Mary Ann Kristiansen, who started a home-based soap making business in Roxbury in 1991. She also gardens and raises sheep and chickens. To help others like her, she later launched the Hannah Grimes Marketplace, a shop on Main Street that helps existing businesses market and sell their locally produced goods. She also founded the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, that supports business startups through a business incubator, workshops, networking events and co-working space. Another organization supporting rural entrepreneurs, specifically women, is the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network (WREN) located in Bethlehem. WREN is a membership driven organization with nearly 1400 members, of which half are entrepreneurs. The network boasts a business incubator program, two local marketplaces for artists to sell their goods, an art gallery, offers business classes and creative skills workshops, and hosts farmers markets for local artisans, crafters and growers.