The Pacific Northwest is known for iconic global players such as Microsoft and Amazon, but when it comes to creating a thriving local economy, small businesses are key — and women have a vital role to play. That’s the concept driving Align, a Tacoma-based company providing services and resources to primarily women-owned businesses in the Puget Sound.
The idea came out of the Women’s Business Initiative, a nonprofit think tank that attorney Kristina Maritczak put together to explore questions related to women in business. “We came up with ideas and big-picture results,” said Maritczak. “We realized that to create an economic infrastructure in Tacoma of businesses run by women, we needed a formalized structure.”
While all entrepreneurs face hurdles, women also routinely encounter overt or covert discrimination. “There are a lot of biases,” said Tacoma City Councilmember Ryan Mello. “Some aren’t explicit or intentional, but creating this space and offering these services is really important.”
Align offers three tiers of support. In the beginning stages, entrepreneurs can get help with their startup through what Maritczak calls “a concierge process.” “We meet with clients and help them figure out their goals and a plan for launching,” she said. “Resources are hard to find for a lot of women, especially those from underserved areas.” As part of the process, clients connect with established community groups like the Women’s Business Center and Community Development Financial Institutions. “Navigating support services is not as easy as those of us in government might think,” said Mello. “Organizations like Align are more easily able to meet people where they’re at in the process of becoming entrepreneurs. That specialized, patient work they do is unique and really valuable.”
At the next level, existing businesses who want to grow but can’t yet afford full-time services like legal and accounting support can get guidance. “A common theme for our clients is that they want to grow but don’t know exactly what they need,” Maritczak said. “We help them understand what their growth goals are and serve as their part-time team to help them achieve those goals.
Through its third component, Align creates innovative structures to help businesses grow in a way that provides them with an advantage while addressing social issues and giving back to the community. One project in the startup phase, the Tacoma Food Collective, unites multiple businesses to promote economic development and environmental sustainability. Align is working with four anchor tenants: a commissary kitchen, farm hub, hydroponic farm, and marketplace to create a collaborative business environment that spurs growth for each company. In turn, these companies would work together to help Align supply children and families in underserved neighborhoods with fresh local food.
Align’s office is based at the University of Washington-Tacoma, and two staff members are students/alumnae. As the business grows, Maritczak plans to hire more students to provide business-consulting services. “It’s exciting that there’s an opportunity for younger students to be involved,” said Holly Bamford Hunt, director of the Bamford Foundation and a member of the Women’s Business Initiative. “They can understand how business can play a role in addressing social issues in the community.”
Joe Sky-Tucker, executive director of Business Impact NW, believes Align fills a critical void in the South Sound area. “Women business owners have such a regional impact,” he said. “It’s those small businesses that make the community you want to live in — not the huge corporations but the companies that provide a living wage for their employees. If we can support enough of these, we create a local economy that supports everyone from the bottom up.”
Meanwhile, Maritczak already has plans to expand Align’s impact beyond the Pacific Northwest. “We’re building a foundation for how we’re going to grow,” she said. “We’re focused in Tacoma, but we’re creating a model of how to effectuate economic opportunities for women around the world. We’re already talking with groups in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Ukraine.”