Businesswomen gather in Hamilton for conference

Attendees of the Women in Business Conference laugh during keynote speaker Sarah Calhoun's speech.

“Women by nature are curvy,” Sarah Calhoun told her audience. “Squeezing curvy women into square men’s pants comes with a lot of problems.”

Calhoun proceeded to share a photo of said pants riding a bit too low on a woman, to the amusement – and applause – of attendees at the 2012 Women in Business Conference.

Calhoun was the keynote speaker for the biannual conference, held at the Bitterroot River Inn in Hamilton Thursday. She shared the story of starting her business, Red Ants Pants, as well as some of the ups and downs she’s faced along the way.

“At 25, I very naively said, ‘Start a business? How hard could that be?’” Calhoun said. The audience laughed again. “I had a lot to learn and made a lot of mistakes.”

But with her mistakes came some moments of serendipity. Calhoun said once she’d decided to start her business, she bought a “How to start a business for dummies” book. Upon reading it in a coffee shop, she started chatting with a man there about her idea to create work pants for women.

That man happened to be Richard Siberell, Patagonia’s product designer.

Siberell helped in Calhoun’s design process and remains involved in the company.

Calhoun became the model of what many speakers at the conference referred to as a successful entrepreneur: She had a vision, the confidence to take it on and the drive to succeed as a new business owner.

“I thought she was great,” said attendee and doTerra vendor Joan Kauffman. “It’s so good to see women step out and take a chance.”

The conference also had messages from all the state representatives, speakers from several businesses and business advancement advocates like Income 180, who offered tips on getting ahead.

The co-founder of Income 180, Chris Kenney, said it was particularly important to remember that “selling is not something you do to someone. It’s something you do for someone.”

Representing Sen. Max Baucus, J.J. Adams shared a story about his wife – who had to handle a lot of the snowplowing after this year’s “snow-mageddon.”

Adams said his wife helped tow plows out of snowbanks with her truck and helped employees put chains on their tires, among other things. When asked how things were going, she said everything was great.

“Sounds like we need more women for Montana,” Adams’ wife’s employer said.

Inspirational stories like these were scattered throughout the conference. Some made people laugh, while others made them in awe. But the goal of the conference was to give businesswomen a boost, both in the business sense as well as the emotional sense.

“On paper, I’m an unlikely candidate to be an entrepreneur,” Calhoun said. “Give yourself a chance and see what you’re made of.”

Reach reporter Lindsey Galipeau at 363-3300 or lindsey.galipeau@ravallirepublic.com.