Jill Blankenship lives on Orcas Island in Washington State, a tiny summer haven for out-of-towners that’s home to fewer than 4,500 year-round residents.
A seasonal tourism economy makes winter tough for this offshore hamlet. “We needed a business in our community that didn’t rely on tourism,” she says.
About a decade ago, Blankenship decided to tackle this problem herself. Since then, she has started four thriving businesses — Frontline Call Center, Ternio,Frontline Services and Coach.Talk.Now. And in the process, she has proven that the pursuit of a social mission can be very good for business. Combined, her companies pulled in about $3.25 million in annual revenue in 2015, and today they employ 128 full-time staffers.
These numbers make Blankenship unusual among female entrepreneurs. In the United States, only 1.8 percent of women-owned businesses generate more than $1 million annually in revenue, and only 10.6 percent have any employees at all, according to a recent report from the National Women’s Business Council analyzing U.S. Census data on business ownership that was released late last year. By comparison, 61.4 percent of male-owned businesses have employees, a fact that underscores just how big a challenge scaling up is for many female entrepreneurs.
The Story Exchange’s own global research project paints a similar picture. Fewer than 2 percent of the women who participated in our campaign to collect 1,000 Stories from female entrepreneurs run companies with 50 or more workers on their payrolls.
More than just creating local jobs, Blankenship has made an effort to offer opportunities to those who need them most — while also expanding the reach of her businesses — by enabling many of her employees to work remotely.
“We have 70 percent of our workforce working from home, which is great, because we’re able to employ people from other rural communities [beyond Orcas Island] — people who may not have other employment options,” she says. She currently has employees in 10 states.
Evolving into an Entrepreneur
Blankenship first moved to Orcas Island in 1998 following a divorce. A single mother of three, she initially found work as a real estate agent and retail manager. “Personally, I had always done really well working for other people, and I was great at my work,” she says.
Yet despite securing two jobs, funds ran low whenever the weather turned colder. It was during a dinner discussion with a friend that she got the idea for Frontline Call Center, which today provides outsourced customer-support services to businesses near and far.
“This was a niche in which I was able to provide jobs for people here on the island, and it’s done really well,” she says.
The success of FrontLine Call Center, which she launched in 2005, allowed Blankenship to start and grow three more ventures: payment service Ternio in 2010; software company Frontline Services in 2012; and late last year, a coach-connection platform called Coach.Talk.Now. “I really caught the entrepreneurial spirit,” she says.
Like Frontline Call Center, her other ventures were responses to unfulfilled needs. For example, of her newest business, Blankenship says: “Coaching is one of the largest growing industries since the recession, so we want to provide a site where experienced, certified coaches are available with just the click of a button.”
In this regard, Blankenship is more like her contemporaries — 41 percent of women business owners from our 1,000 Stories project started businesses to address unmet needs in the marketplace, we found.
A Full and Prosperous Life
Blankenship says she has forged relationships with clients in 17 states and fostered loyalty within her workforce by committing to “never ask[ing] anyone to do something I haven’t done or wouldn’t do myself.”
“We’re all in this together. When there’s a challenge, it’s all hands on deck. I really believe in that type of culture,” she says.
As a result, Blankenship says her companies have low turnover rates — something “you don’t really see in the call center industry.” And her work has made an impact beyond the lives of those she has hired; she sits on the board of directors for Orcas Angels, a charitable organization helps area businesses and residents in times of need.
Blankenship was named the 2014 Nellie Cashman Woman Business Person of the Year, as well as the Washington State Small Business Administration’s 2013Person of the Year, in honor of her ability to find “the strategic competitive advantage in a rural community,” SBA Regional Administrator Calvin Goings said in a press release. She also won the 2013 Bronze Stevie Award for Women in Business.
For now, Blankenship says she won’t be starting any more ventures. “I don’t want to take on so much that I can’t do my best at everything I’m doing,” she explains. Plus, she needs some free time for family; she has 25-year-old fraternal twins (a son and daughter), a 22-year-old son and four grandchildren.
But through her four companies, and cultivation of a remotely-staffed call center model, she has created opportunities for people who previously had trouble finding work — helping not only herself, but many others like her. “It’s a win-win situation, one that’s allowed me to grow not only locally, but nationally as well.”