When Maharba Zapata was just getting started and making salsa out of her Magna home to support her seven children, her now-husband suggested that Zapata name her business Salsa Queen.
Zapata, 49, said she remembers thinking, “That’s the stupidest name ever.”
The name stuck, though, as the business grew, and Zapata continually had to find larger office and kitchen spaces to keep up with the demand from customers.
In fact, Zapata became so well known by this title that when she became a U.S. citizen a year and a half ago, she legally changed her name to SalsaQueen Zapata — a move that reflects how meaningful her salsa brand has been in her life.
Salsa Queen is one of more than 400 women-owned businesses in Utah included in a new directory from the Women’s Business Center of Utah, where people can search by county, city and industry to find female entrepreneurs in construction, finance and the arts, among other fields.
The next time Utahns need to find a unique gift or hire a professional, Ann Marie Wallace, state director of the Women’s Business Center, said she hopes they will go to UtahWomenOwned.com.
“Using the directory just once a month can have enormous impact,” she said.
Female-owned small businesses have been hit harder during the COVID-19 pandemic than their male counterparts, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That’s partly due to women gravitating toward service-based industries, Wallace said, and because they have had trouble accessing PPP loans, while also facing child care challenges.
Even before the pandemic, “women have already been at a disadvantage because they can’t access capital like men can, and they’ve had other barriers that have been put in front of them,” according to Wallace.
This new directory can help make a difference, she said.
“Knowing which small businesses are women-owned and where to find them is critical to supporting them,” Wallace said.
Want to be added to the directory?
You can sign up UtahWomenOwned.com.
The directory is open to for-profit businesses that are women-owned and operated, including home-based businesses, solopreneurs, side businesses, brick and mortar, online, e-commerce, service-based or product-based businesses, and franchise businesses.
Business rooted in passion
Get Zapata on the phone, and she will quickly start sharing recipes about how to make guacamole with her gourmet pico salsa and creamy jalapeno dip, or how to mix her queso chipotle dip with the red chili salsa to create a delicious sauce. Just talking about it makes her hungry, she said, laughing.
Zapata currently has about 25 employees working at a West Valley City location to make the salsa and dips, which can be found online and at stores across the valley and nationwide, including Harmons, Smith’s and Sprouts Farmers Markets. During COVID-19, Zapata also added home delivery in the Salt Lake, Ogden, Provo and Park City areas.
“People have to eat,” she said.
Zapata left Mexico to come to the United States 32 years ago, and she said she started a salsa business because it fits her love for food, her culture and her family.
The sugar skull on her products’ labels comes from the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), she said, and it also honors her baby who died of leukemia.
Zapata is proud to have come from “humble beginnings,” immigrating to the U.S. without speaking English, to now living in what she calls her “dream neighborhood,” Olympus Cove.
Early last year, Zapata spoke in front of a crowd about her success with Salsa Queen as part of Utah State University’s Entrepreneurship Leadership Series. Since then, she said she has watched a recording of her talk dozens of times.
“That’s one of the highlights of my life,” Zapata said.
Aarf Dogwalking and Petsitting
Suzie Ellison wasn’t allowed to have a dog while growing up, since her dad wasn’t an animal person.
“When I moved out, one of the first things I did was to get a dog, and then I’ve had a dog ever since,” she said.
After years of working as a paralegal, Ellison started her Aarf Dogwalking and Petsitting business in Salt Lake City 13 years ago, when her son went to college. The move allowed her to combine two of her passions: dogs and being outside.
“It is so fun. It’s so rewarding,” said the 64-year-old who lives in Cottonwood Heights.
Today, Ellison oversees a team of eight people, and they take dogs on walks and hikes around the valley. That part of the business has done well during the pandemic, Ellison said, since her clients still need to get their pets outside while working from home.
Aarf House, which Ellison describes as a doggy bed and breakfast, has struggled over the past year, though, as people weren’t traveling as much and didn’t need lodging for their pets.
While the pandemic threw some unexpected curveballs, Ellison said she still feels fortunate “to do what I love.”
Lori Rawlings started with her HandyGal business, doing home repairs and maintenance for customers. A few years ago, the 54-year-old decided to also do home inspections through her HHeR Inspections business.
“I’ve always liked taking things apart and putting them back together and finding out how things work,” said Rawlings. That includes working on her Victorian home in Salt Lake City that was built in 1904, where she lives with her family.
As Utah has seen a booming housing market, Rawlings said calls for inspections have been a bit slow. It could just be that her business is fairly new, and she’s still building up a client base. But based on what she’s heard from real estate agents, Rawlings said it could also be that because the housing market is so tight, with some people offering $100,000 over asking prices to snag places, homebuyers are skipping inspections before purchasing.
That worries Rawlings, she said, because Utahns may later face expensive fixes if they don’t take the time to do an inspection.
Rawlings is excited about the publicity that the new directory will bring for women-owned businesses in Utah, she said. Personally, she’s had a couple of customers contact her for work, specifically because she is a woman.
“They said, ‘I want to hire you because I think you’ll do a better job, and I want to support women in business,” Rawlings said.
Growth in women-owned businesses
During the coronavirus pandemic, female entrepreneurs were more likely to say they were regularly worried about money and expected to lose income in the coming months, than women who worked for businesses, according to a report released in April by the Utah Women and Leadership Project at USU.
“I often work without pay to ensure I can pay others who help with our business and keep our program running,” one female business owner told the project in response to a survey about how COVID-19 has affected Utah women in the workforce. Another woman said the pandemic made her “wary” of starting her own business.
The Women’s Business Center of Utah can provide resources and help, Wallace said. Despite challenges before and during COVID-19, Utah actually does well compared to other states when it comes to women-owned businesses, she said.
The Beehive State ranked sixth in the country in economic clout for women-owned businesses, according to a 2019 report from American Express. And the number of businesses run and owned by Utah women has grown, from 77,800 in 2015 to 89,092 in 2019, a brief from the Utah Women and Leadership Project shows.
Still, information released by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute earlier this month reported that 59% of business owners in the Beehive State are male, while 16.9% are female. (The remaining 24.1% were shared male/female.)
Wallace’s organization estimates that if women-owned and controlled businesses reached parity with their male counterparts, in terms of revenue and employees, that it would create 25,000 new businesses, 162,000 jobs and $26.5 billion in new revenue in Utah.
“If that were to happen in the next year, it would grow our economy by 15.7%,” Wallace said. “It’s astronomical.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.