Debra Jeff s-Grad had never sold any of her weaving pieces online prior to COVID-19. Instead, the longtime weaver had relied on local farmers’ markets throughout the Eastside to sell her hand-woven scarves and World War II fl our sack towels. Yet when Gov. Jay Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order went into effect, the 73-year-old said she wasn’t sure how she was going to keep her small business going.

Enter the WMarketplace — an e-commerce platform built for women business owners and for gender-balanced businesses. The marketplace was founded by two local women, Kate Isler and Susan Gates. During the spring, the two began to learn how women were being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and wanted to do something to help.

Gates, WMarketplace’s co-founder and chief marketing officer, was laid off from her coffee-industry job in June. She said she wanted to find a direct way to support other women being affected by the pandemic.

“We want to put money in women’s pockets. Because when they have more economic power, they have more political power — which gives them better health, gives them better representation, gives them better lives, which gives everybody better lives,” she said.

WMarketplace doesn’t just house product vendors; it also houses women-led services — ranging from financial, to legal, to real estate, and even personal coaching — and nonprofit services, including Washington Center for Women in Business, One Love Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, and more.

Similar to other e-commerce websites, there’s no membership or sign-up fees for consumers. For vendors and service providers, there is a YouTube video that helps with onboarding.

“We’ve really spent time thinking about making it easy for businesses to get on board and with little barrier to it. Because, you know, if they thrive, we thrive,” Gates said. “(What) we’re trying to do is bring us all up together.”

Since its launch last September, WMarketplace has amassed about 90 merchants and professional services (nationwide) and has more than 100 products on the site.

WMarketplace goes beyond just offering a platform for women and gender-balanced businesses to thrive. It also offers community. Through regular calls, Gates and Isler meet with vendors and service providers and discuss what they need.

“It’s an opportunity to meet them and then listen to what they need,” Isler said. “(We get to learn) what would help make their experience on the site better (and) what challenges they’re experiencing. We’ve been able to create a community within that site, where women are supporting women, and we’re already seeing some amazing results with that.”

For example, Isler noted that there have been some graphic designers who have been helping other service providers create their storefront on the site.

“Because if you are an accountant, or you’re an amazing life coach, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have great graphic design skills, right?” Isler said. “So there’s the ability for some of our merchants to actually then purchase services from our other sellers. We’re also seeing that crossing of those communities where they’re all supporting each other, which has just been such a fun thing to witness.”

Women supporting women was one of the things that drew Redmond-based professional coach Pam Dibbs, of Dibbs on Life, to WMarketplace.

“I love being a part of something bigger than myself,” she said. “It can get lonely being a solopreneur, and it’s great to collaborate with women business owners and build a network of strong, supportive women.”

The community aspect has been especially helpful for Jeff s- Grad as she navigates online selling.

“Normally, we’d be all out on our own. They’ve made a community for us. They connect us. We never would have been able to know each other without (WMarketplace),” Jeff s-Grad said.

Both Gates and Isler see WMarketplace becoming similar to Amazon.

“Our ambition really is to be a platform that combines Amazon, Etsy, LinkedIn, and the green marketplace,” Isler said. “I think people are becoming much more astute in terms of how they shop, and where they spend money becomes individual activism.”

As someone who has been working to “clean up” her life and be more conscious about what she’s purchasing and from whom, Dibbs said WMarketplace has been a great way to shop her values.

“I don’t have to do research to know I’m shopping with integrity,” she said. “It’s empowering to be purposeful, thoughtful, and discerning of what I’m bringing into my life.”

Gates said she hopes WMarketplace becomes “a place that people think of first when they think about spending their dollars.”