You can tell Bellevue’s Main Street is special just by walking down it. A certain quaintness — almost a small-town feeling — makes it unique among the modern skyscrapers that dominate the downtown of this fast-growing Eastside city of 145,000.
Behind the scenes maintaining and cultivating that atmosphere are the merchants who own businesses along the 16-block stretch — a large number of whom are women.
“There is definitely a lot of female energy on Main Street,” said Randi Brazen, who co-owns 520 Bar and Grill with her husband.
This female energy is defined not only by the large volume of women-owned businesses there — a notion confirmed by locals despite a lack of data — but also by those owners’ conviction to build community in the process of running successful companies.
“I think that giving back to your community — and building community that way — is a lifestyle,” said Claire Sumadiwirya, owner of Bellden Café, a bright and cozy space on a less-busy section of Main Street.
Sumadiwirya meets the definition of a power woman. She has a small business, three young children, and serves as a sort of community pillar thanks to her huge heart and philanthropic approach to all things. She opened a business in Bellevue as a platform to give back to and welcome others. She wanted it to be a café because of an experience she had six years ago, when her first child was born.
“When my son was a baby, my husband and I moved to China, and the pollution made him really sick,” said Sumadiwirya, who is originally from China but moved to Bellevue when she was young. “We were in the hospital day and night, and all I wanted was a coffee shop. Somewhere I could decompress for 20 minutes and have some caffeine.”
One night she came into her son’s hospital room and found that the janitors had gotten her a cup of coffee from a nearby 7-Eleven. She said that the thoughtfulness had a big impact on her.
“It’s little gestures that make a difference in how other people feel,” she said. “I just felt so unconditionally cared for, and these were people I did not know. It made me feel like I was part of that community.”
After spending two years in China with her husband and her son — during which time she opened two coffee shops in two different hospitals — the family returned to Bellevue. Sumadiwirya immediately started putting together a plan to open a coffee shop that welcomes people into the fold and incorporates her passion for philanthropy. An avid volunteer, she began selecting nonprofits she loved to partner with. She wanted her business to have a bigger impact beyond serving good drinks and providing a friendly environment.
“When we partner with someone, we bring awareness to what they do,” she said. Early partners included Washington Trail Association, Jubilee Reach, and Vision House — and the list has only grown since. “They come in here for a day to tell people about themselves, and on that day 30 percent of our sales are dedicated to them.”
Sumadiwirya also pays her employees for eight hours of volunteer time per quarter. And when someone orders a specific drink — called a charity drink — 25 percent of that sale goes to the nonprofit it’s associated with.
“Giving back not only helps the community; it also helps the business itself,” she said. “I really believe that a cause-driven business is always going to be more successful than one that is only profit-driven.”
Less than three blocks down the street, another female-owned business, glassybaby, is run by a woman with an equally large heart. The company, which sells glass-blown votives and drinking glasses, was founded in 2001 by three-time cancer survivor Lee Rhodes as a way to support other cancer patients.
“During my cancer treatment, I met fellow patients who couldn’t afford basic needs associated with treatment — parking, childcare, food,” Rhodes said. “As I was recovering, I started making glass votives and selling them out of my garage to raise funds to help others living with cancer. glassybaby was founded to give back and help these people deal with the costly burden of this disease.”
The company has long since outgrown Rhodes’ garage: It now has eight store-fronts throughout Washington, Oregon, and California. In terms of the support it has provided for cancer patients, glassybaby has also gone far beyond what Rhodes ever could have envisioned when she made her first votive.
“We are about to celebrate $10 million in giving,” Rhodes said in disbelief. “It took us seven years to get to a million in giving, and suddenly after 10 more years we are at $10 million. These little votives with a motive can change the world.”
Like Rhodes and Sumadiwirya, Fran Bigelow has turned her business, Fran’s Chocolates, into a platform for giving back. Since the day she first opened her doors, Bigelow has used the power of sweets for good.
“We started out with all women in the kitchen in 1982,” Bigelow said. “It was harder back then for women to get jobs in professional kitchens, which is part of the reason I wanted to start a business.”
Bigelow said employing women, who possessed the patience and attention to detail to make the high-quality chocolate she was after, posed obstacles: Childcare could be difficult to come by, which she knew as a mother of two. Bigelow saw a need for there to be more support for these women and their children and started donating a portion of profits to schools and community organizations.
“Now it’s just a part of our culture,” she said. The chocolate business, which came to Main Street in 2003, still supports schools but has branched out into making sizeable and consistent donations to the YWCA, Neighborhood House, PeaceTrees Vietnam, Safe Crossings, and more.
Some female-owned businesses make it their mission to build a strong sense of community in the Bellevue area. Brazen of 520 Bar and Grill, for example, sees her restaurant as one of the gathering spots where Bellevue residents meet new people and loved ones.
“I do think that people seek out this area as a community,” she said. “A lot of people who live here don’t have children or are divorced or widowed. Coming to these restaurants is their sense of community. They have someplace to go and be social.”
Another Main Street community gathering hub, Jujubeet, is an organic plant-based café owned by Bianca Szyperski that encourages customers to take better care of themselves and the planet. It does so by serving healthy, sustainable food that also is delicious and filling, which Szyperski hopes will help dispel certain stereotypes about plant-based eating.
“It’s about our bodies, but it’s also about the environment,” Szyperski said. “If you just cut out meat twice a week, it can make a big difference. And yes; it can taste good, too.”
Szyperski said she has always loved coming up with business ideas, but Jujubeet is her first brick-and-mortar store. Part of what she loves about the Main Street location — the second store of four throughout Bellevue and Seattle — is the opportunity to support other small female business owners like herself on a day-to-day basis.
“I always buy my glasses from Lorali,” Szyperski said, referring to the woman who owns Lorali’s Optical on Main Street. “And the woman who owns Veritables, she’s one of our best customers and I love her store, as well. I try to support all of the businesses here.”
Brazen agreed: “Try walking by Fran’s without eating too many chocolates,” she laughed.
But being a woman in business is more than having a vision and supporting colleagues. Being a female business owner requires a thick skin, Szyperski said, and sometimes it can feel like she’s not taken as seriously as she would be if she were a man.
Despite this persistent frustration, she said that her strength as a leader lies in both her ability to learn not to do business with those who don’t respect her and to multitask at a high level.
“There’s new branding, training employees, doing taxes, hiring new people, opening new stores. There’s a lot to do, and I’m good at juggling all of that,” Szyperski said.
Sumadiwirya, a mother like Szyperski, agreed that multitasking is crucial.
“Women, especially when we have kids, tend to do really well in business because we have to multitask all the time; we’re good at it,” she said. “We’re used to having a lot of responsibilities.”
Mothers or not, the female business owners along Main Street are instrumental in creating the spirit that makes Main Street special. It’s a spirit that is built by the customers who believe in what they’re doing — fighting cancer, supporting nonprofits, bringing people together — and by each of them as they consider a purpose bigger than themselves.
And if Sumadiwirya is correct that cause-driven businesses lead to more success than profit-driven ones, these women aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.