The 411 on Seattle’s women-owned businesses

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In honor of national Women’s History Month, recognition should be given to local women-owned businesses that not only play a critical role, but also continue to make contributions to Seattle’s economy.

Lei Ann Shiramizu, a Hawaiian native and UW alumna who graduated in 1982, owns a shop in the International District that opened at the fringe of the economic downturn in 2007. MOMO focuses on Japanese mementos while also carrying all sorts of items from local craftsmen.

Its mantra, “she: he: body: abode,” embodies exactly that. The business stocks items that share an aesthetic that is half man, half woman. For Shiramizu, it was important to create a business that would allow her husband, Tom Kleifgen, to add his own Scandinavian touch.

“I don’t know if MOMO is my dream or my mom’s, but I always wanted to own a store — but for different reasons than my mom,” Shiramizu said. “You ought to do something that fills your heart and serves your purpose.”

The most empowering part of being the owner of her own store is the number of Asian craftsmen she has been able to support by selling their products.

“It’s an amazing byproduct of my business,” Shiramizu said. “I’ve seen angry young people grow and translate their emotions into art. Being able to provide a safe place for people to rest and work is also empowering. MOMO isn’t about what’s on trend, it’s about things you will live with and love for a long time.”

From retail to food, we find ourselves in hand with Gelatiamo, a local gelato shop on Third Avenue and Union Street. The business is owned by Maria Coassin, who is Italian American. 

Coassin immigrated to the United States, leaving her family behind at a young age. Before opening the business in 1997, Coassin started out working at McDonald’s flipping burgers and worked her way up to assistant manager.

 “As a child, I knew that I wanted to own something,” Coassin said. “My father has been my biggest inspiration. I come from a family with a 200-year tradition of baking.”

She came to Seattle, when there weren’t many Italian coffee shops that served gelato, baked goods, and great coffee. She wanted to extend her culture to the United States, but felt that people did not understand her vision.

 “The truth is, it was very difficult,” Coassin said. “People thought it was overpriced with the way things were served on ceramic dishes, and English wasn’t my first language. People just didn’t understand what I was trying to do. I always try to frame [my story] in a positive manner, rather than being the victim. Everything you do, you should do your best to reflect your character.”

Her family was her biggest motivation in succeeding with Gelatiamo. Over the years, she has met women business owners who have empowered her by reconstructing how she envisioned the business.

“People would come in and see me, the owner,” Coassin said. “They asked where my husband was or if I had a partner. I thought that I wasn’t doing something right. Luckily, I met a woman who shaped my vision. She made me believe in myself. I’m not just a woman. I am a strong businesswoman.”

Gelatiamo is inspired by diversity, culture, and togetherness. “[Diversity] is the backbone of this country,” Coassin said. “When my customers come in, I want them to imagine that they are walking into my country.”

Taking it a step further, Wi-Fi isn’t installed so customers can be engaged with real life in real time. “You only die once, but you live every day,” Coassin said. “Carve out a moment for yourself.”

Seattle is a robust city with new businesses being established constantly, which makes it so much more fun to explore. Yet, it’s the same reason we tend to overlook the importance of the relationship that businesses have with their customers. By making a conscious effort to seek out women-owned businesses, we can continue to support those who are paving the way for future female entrepreneurs.

Reach contributing writer Tracy Thai at Twitter: @TracyThai3

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