When Elizabeth McCleary decided to open an Italian-style gelateria in midtown Sacramento, she knew it wouldn't be as simple as scooping up creamy confections all day long.
For the former advertising sales rep, her midlife career change was a complicated, two-year recipe. It entailed concocting a business plan, buying equipment, securing leases and loans, nailing down city, county and state permits, and flying to Italy for a monthlong gelato-making class.
It also required a huge leap of faith.
"Nobody knows how hard it can be until you do it," says the energetic, youthful-looking McCleary, 49, who opened her Devine Gelateria & Cafe in August 2011 amid the recession's still-rocky aftermath.
With husband Brian's support, she cashed out her 401(k) and IRA retirement savings, bought about $65,000 of equipment and took out a $70,000 small business loan.
For the latter, she turned to the California Capital Financial Development Corp., a longtime nonprofit that provides loans, classes and mentoring to small-business owners in Northern California.
Later this month, California Capital will officially open the region's first federally funded Women's Business Center. Backed by a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, it serves entrepreneurs in the seven-county area, from Stockton to Placerville. Until now, the closest SBA women's center was in Concord.
On May 30, Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, will attend the center's official ribbon-cutting.
It's a natural fit for California Capital, which says it provided $3.6 million in loan guarantees to 72 women-owned businesses - including Devine Gelateria - in the last two years.
In the last 15 years, the number of U.S. women-owned businesses has jumped 54 percent - to an estimated 8.3 million in 2012 - according to an American Express OPEN survey.
But despite the inroads made by women entrepreneurs, they still face unique challenges, said Stephanie Cardenas, manager of the new women's business center.
In some cases, "They have a lot less knowledge than men on business practices," she said. "A lot of research shows they tend to be more family-focused, as far as juggling their work and family."
Although the center caters to women, all of its classes and events are open to men.
Even for well-prepared entrepreneurs like McCleary, launching a small business is daunting.
Her first year in business, the avid cyclist and runner gave up exercise and worked 16 hours a day, six days a week. "And on our seventh day, we did paperwork." Her husband, who works full time as an inventory manager for an Elk Grove auto dealership, put in a daily second shift at Devine.
"We've been very conservative with everything," said McCleary, who didn't take a salary until last year.
For equipment, the couple purchased more than $50,000 of used gelato-making machinery - at roughly an 80 percent discount - from a Southern California chain that was closing locations. They took out a seven-year lease on their 19th Street building, a former French bistro and boutique, then sublet half the space to La Tavola, a linen rental firm. They landscaped the back patio themselves, bought bistro tables on Craigslist and found recycled lighting fixtures online.
McCleary's hard work and long hours appear to be paying off. She said Devine has been profitable since it opened.
Working from a tiny, spotless kitchen smaller than in many apartments, McCleary oversees a daily production of 20 to 30 flavors of gelato and sorbetto, as well as made-from-scratch desserts and pastries, such as Meyer Lemon cheesecake and Chocolate Irish Whiskey cake. To stay financially afloat in winter months, she added salads and panini sandwiches, now served year-round.
Today, Devine Gelateria has 1,000 followers on Facebook, a steady crowd of daily customers and often a line out the door on weekends.
An advocate of Sacramento's farm-to-fork movement, McCleary buys nearly all her ingredients locally: nectarines from Newcastle, cherries from Lodi, pistachios from Lincoln. The notable exception: specialty purées imported from Italy.
With nine employees, including her mother, McCleary acknowledges that being a small-business owner is not for the fainthearted. "In winter I worry that we won't have enough customers. In summer, I worry we'll run out of product."
But her payback comes from her customers. "People are so happy when they come in," she says. "The secret ingredients are a lot of hard work and a good product."
CALIFORNIA CAPITAL WOMEN'S BUSINESS CENTER
What it is: Funded by a five-year federal SBA grant, the center offers services for women - and men - entrepreneurs on how to start or expand a small business.
What's offered: Business education classes, one-on-one mentoring, microloans up to $50,000, small-business loan guarantees to banks.
To whom: Residents of the seven-county region, including Sacramento, Yolo, Placer and El Dorado.
UPCOMING FREE CLASSES
"How to Decide if Business is Right for You," covers common pitfalls and challenges of business startups.
When: May 29, 6-7:30 p.m.
Where: California Capital Women's Business Center, 2000 O St., Suite 250, Sacramento.
Who: Co-sponsored by SCORE, mentoring group of retired business executives.
"Small Business Loan Readiness," covers loan types and terms; preparing a loan package; what lenders look for in borrowers.
When: June 10, 9:30-11:30 a.m.
Where: Stockton Boulevard Business Information Center, 4990 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento.
Who: Co-sponsored by Stockton Boulevard BIC.
Call The Bee's Claudia Buck, (916) 321-1968. Read her Personal Finance blog, www.sacbee.com/personalfinanceblog.