Hard work comes naturally to Kirsten Curry, founder of Leading Retirement Solutions.
The daughter of commercial fishermen, she joined the family business and spent more than 10 demanding years braving the elements in Alaska. “It’s an incredibly entrepreneurial profession,” she says. She headed back to the mainland to try another intense profession — law — and graduated from Seattle University of Law. Seven years ago, she started Leading Retirement Solutions to help fellow small businesses navigate the legal complexities of setting up retirement plans. She now has 800 clients in all 50 states. “If you work hard, you reap the rewards,” she says.
But while her 17-employee Seattle firm makes more than $1 million in annual revenue — a milestone less than 5 percent of women business owners reach — she is not sitting back. Instead, she’s working hard to draw more attention to that fact that many women are ill-prepared for retirement.
“Everyone talks about women not making as much as men,” Curry says. “But not as many people talk about the long-term effect of that, which is that women don’t save as much for retirement as men.”
And the situation is particularly troubling for women business owners, who disproportionately need to reinvest into their business or step back due to family demands. “Not only are they not saving as much,” she says, “they are far less apt to provide retirement benefits to employees.”
Researching the Issue
A year ago, Curry’s firm launched the Retirement Gap Study, determined to learn more about the financial-planning challenges that women business owners face. She was personally frustrated that no one else seemed to be researching the issue.
“There are tons of statistics on women in general,” she says. “But there’s none around women business owners. Why is that important? Women business owners are influencers. They’re influencing other business owners [and] their own employees.” Without data on this specific demographic, “the retirement savings industry cannot engage in constructive conversations about what is or is not working well for women business owners,” she says.
Her 2017 report based on 150 respondents nationwide found that 67 percent of women who own or lead businesses feel “ill-prepared” for retirement, compared with 38 percent of men. That matches with actuarial statistics that indicate women’s median retirement income is only 58% of men’s. Less than a quarter of women had a written retirement plan, Curry’s survey found. And while women business owners prioritize financial independence, they do not have consistent savings habits.
This year, Leading Retirement Solutions is conducting the study again to further explore the issue. The company is “doing what it can to shed light on the retirement savings gap,” says Curry, who calls the survey “a labor of love.” She has internal staff and interns from a local university run the study, mine the data and ultimately put it into presentation form. Last year’s results were shared with partners, clients and the public. “It does take a considerable amount of work,” says Curry, who also hired an outside consultant to figure out the best way to gather the research.
She hopes to one day partner with a big investment firm — say, a Charles Schwab — to share the survey and work with that firm to come up with retirement plans that would better address the problem for women business owners. But for now, “we wanted to spend the first couple of years refining and seeing what we’re getting,” she says.
[Related: Read about a successful woman entrepreneur trying to prevent a student loan crisis]
Lifting Up Other Women
Curry says she has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, which she attributes to her parents’ fishing business. “I’ve known since I was a kid that I was going to be an entrepreneur,” she says.
These days, she says she is motivated to help lift up other women because “as a woman in business, I have experienced, firsthand, the unique financial, networking and operational barriers.” Last year, for example, she was turned down by six banks when she sought a loan to expand her growing business. “It made me scratch my head,” she says, noting that research indicates that less than $1 of every $23 lent by traditional institutions goes to women-owned businesses. “I got to the point where I felt like I had to conclude a bias was involved.”
Curry has chosen to self-fund her expansion. But she has dedicated a portion of her work to educating women about another choice they have: Using retirement savings to invest in their businesses in a tax-free manner. While generally not considered a good personal-finance strategy — if your business fails, you lose your nest egg — “I know how hard it is for women business owners to get any type of financing,” she says. “Do I not move forward because I can’t get traditional financing from a bank, or do I take a risk on myself? I’ve come to learn that this is a good financial strategy to help women.”
She feels her firm’s biggest contribution, though, is starting a “long-term effect” conversation about the retirement gap. “For decades, women will be less or ill-prepared for a financially secure retirement,” she says. Instead of ignoring the problem, “we all need to be seeing it and embracing it.”
Read about the six other status-quo busting women on The Story Exchange’s 2018 Resist List