When a contingent of Cape Cod’s movers and shakers gathered at the historic Hyannisport Club on September 20, they rolled out the red carpet for Jen Villa, guest of honor.
Selected as the 2023 Woman of Impact by Women United of the Cape and Islands United Way, Villa joined a prestigious list of local women who earned the award in previous years.
Among them are Dorothy Savarese, the recently retired banking executive who led Cape Cod 5 Cents Savings Bank for many years, and Trish Kennedy, the entrepreneur and philanthropist known for developing technology systems and platforms.
The Women United award is bestowed on women leaders who do “extraordinary work to positively impact the lives of others in the community, business, cultural or political sectors.”
With her far-reaching community advocacy projects and entrepreneurial successes, Villa’s accomplishments surely exceed the award criteria. A business woman, yes she is; however, Villa’s achievements seem most closely tied to forging the personal relationships and community connections that bind Cape Codders to each other.
A Blending of Projects and Passions
This year’s Woman of Impact has a long list of triumphs, including as co-owner with her husband, Blane Toedt, of The West End, a prominent Hyannis restaurant that formerly operated as The Paddock. Villa also is a co-founder and the marketing director of Love Live Local, the small business advocacy organization created in 2013.
Villa also launched and operated The Local Juice, another Hyannis eatery, for seven years, and serves as an active, founding board member of the Cape Wellness Collaborative, a nonprofit that provides free therapies and services for cancer patients, and as a board member of the Hyannis Main Street Business Improvement District.
Within each of these initiatives, Villa finds novel ways to reach out and make positive impacts on the lives of others. At Love Live Local, efforts are centered around uplifting Cape Cod’s small, local businesses, still the backbone of the regional economy.
At The West End, local people find year-round employment and nonprofits have access to a welcoming space to collaborate and hold their fundraising events.
At the Cape Wellness Collaborative, founded by local musician Sarah Swain in honor of her mother, the group’s free meals for cancer patients are prepared by the chef and staff in, you guessed it, The West End’s kitchen.
Villa was keen to join Swain’s mission to provide meaningful services for local people suffering from cancer. Helping with the food program was a perfect fit.
“We’re always trying to figure out ways to make The West End of value to the community. It’s not just a business, it has to feel like we’re doing something important for our community,” she says.
Finding the Time to Do it All
With Villa’s myriad projects and passions, it’s hard to imagine there are enough hours in her days.
“I don’t clock in and clock out. I embody my work, and I’m driven by creativity and creative problem solving,” says Villa, who moved to the Cape in 2009 from California. Her first business here was Little Beach Gallery, in Hyannis, where she exhibited her photography and collage artwork, and the artworks of others — yes, she is an artist, too.
“We have no kids and no pets, so no living beings are relying on us at home. Our days start later and end later than most, but our schedules are compatible,” she says of the couple’s daily routine.
Villa says her days are mostly spent at the Love Live Local retail store and headquarters, in Hyannis, and her nights at The West End, greeting guests.
She says that her commitment to supporting small businesses extends beyond her work with Love Live Local and is a part of every choice she makes.
“I think ‘local first’ in everything I do and my life is exponentially more fulfilling because of that. My love for Cape Cod is immeasurable. To serve as a local champion, employer and entrepreneur is a true honor and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to make a difference and help our community be the best it can be,” she adds.
Tapping Into Cape’s Small Business Community
Focusing on the Cape’s small businesses for the last decade, and being a local entrepreneur herself, has given Villa insights into the obstacles Cape Cod business owners face.
She identifies three tactical challenges. First and foremost is the lack of sufficient staffing.
“Being in the restaurant business I can see the depths of the staffing problem — finding people who are here year-round and want to work is difficult. The pandemic was a huge challenge and some businesses still have reduced hours,” notes Villa.
The seasonality of the Cape’s business landscape brings more issues. With the influx of the summer tourists, she says, it can be tough to consistently give visitors what they expect. The seasonal economy brings with it mental challenges, as well, Villa adds, with the booming summer seasons requiring a wholly different mindset than the subdued winters.
And then there are unique financial concerns.
“Access to capital is a big issue for local, small businesses on the Cape. There’s the ever-increasing cost of doing business, paying for insurances, supplies, and all of the things you need to operate. It can be hard to meet that bottom line,” Villa says.
A Series of Festivals Highlights Local Businesses
Love Live Local hones in on the needs of Cape Cod’s small business owners with a variety of programs, and there’s a deep connection among the region’s business owners, too. One of the projects that the nonprofit sponsors is a small business festival, held three times a year.
It’s called the Love Local Fest, where folks gather to show their support for the Cape’s business community. Held on the last Sundays in July and September and the first weekend in December, the festivals are free to attend and feature the products and works of some 100 Cape Cod artists, farmers, and local businesses.
There’s also local entertainment and opportunities to connect. The latest fest was held on Sept. 24 at Aselton Park on South Street in Hyannis. Villa, of course, was there.
The award ceremony at Hyannisport Club, where Villa received recognition from the community, is the centerpiece of Women United’s annual Power of the Purse event.
“It’s an amazing experience for me to see myself through the eyes of the community, as a local champion and community advocate,” says Villa. “I’m so madly in love with the Cape and the people who live here.”