PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It was not a surprise that Sarah Shaoul wanted to meet KOIN 6 News at Cargo, a small business on Portland’s central east side. Shaoul advocates for small businesses and founded organizations that help small business owners in ways large and small.

Nominated as a KOIN 6 Remarkable Woman, she set up PDXSOS when the pandemic hit. It created a network of local small businesses where shoppers could buy gift certificates to help keep the hard-hit economy going.

She also founded Bricks Need Mortar, a membership organization that offers guidance partnerships and solutions for small businesses.

Remarkable Woman nominee Sarah Shaoul works with small business owners, March 2023 (KOIN)
Remarkable Woman finalist Sarah Shaoul works with small business owners, March 2023 (KOIN)

Her advocacy for small businesses is a trait that stems from her childhood and her decades as a small business owner.

“I’m the first generation American. All of my family, both sides, are immigrant refugees. They came here and they worked, most of them worked many jobs. My parents, both of them did,” Shaoul said. “My father immigrated from Iraq and my mother immigrated from Romania.”

While her parents worked several jobs, she often spent time with her grandfather, Bela, in his frame shop. He was a Holocaust survivor who lost his wife and 2 children in concentration camps. Later he married the woman who became Sarah’s grandmother.

She became a small business owner when she was just 21.

Remarkable Woman nominee Sarah Shaoul works with small business owners, March 2023 (KOIN)
Remarkable Woman finalist Sarah Shaoul works with small business owners, March 2023 (KOIN)

“I scraped together $2,500 and I opened up my first business, a retail shop selling resale clothing” called Retread Threads, she said. “I learned a lot about being a small business owner. I mean it’s a lot of work and it’s a big struggle to make ends meet. I was a small business owner in Portland for over about 30 years. And so I saw how much more difficult it became as rents go up, as employees, you know, the cost of living goes up.”

A few years before she sold her store, she began doing advocacy work for small businesses, including being a small business coach, consultant and connector.

“I sat on, like, the small business advisory council for a number of years too, so I could be a conduit between our policymakers and our small businesses about, like, really what it’s like to be a boots-on-the-ground business and what the challenges are,” Shaoul said.

PDXSOS, she said, “was like putting a garden hose on a forest fire, like, this call to action, to buy gift certificates from small businesses,” she said.

Katherine Sealy, who owns Event Cosmetics in downtown Portland, said she — like many businesses — felt helpless until she found out about Sarah’s site.

Katherine Sealy is one of the small business owners Remarkable Woman nominee Sarah Shaoul works, March 2023 (KOIN)
Katherine Sealy is one of the small business owners Remarkable Woman finalist Sarah Shaoul works with, March 2023 (KOIN)

“It was heart-wrenching. First of all, the loss of doing what you love on a daily basis and your purpose for getting up every day and making someone’s day better, make them look better, feel better. All of that just disappeared,” Sealy said. “Then there were the additional challenges of worrying about all the freelance artists that I work with and provide work for.”

Until that point, Sealy didn’t even have a website but got help to make one so that her customers could use the gift certificates.

That really made a difference, she said. “It helped us hold on long enough until we could figure out some other revenue.”

PDXSOS is now called Small Shops Big Hearts and it serves as a directory and resource for hundreds of small businesses.

Shop Small Win Big Portland
Sarah Shaoul, founder of Small Shops Big Hearts, holds up the Kuto app showing how people can participate in the Shop Small Win Big local shopping raffle event, Nov. 23, 2021 (KOIN)

Shaoul is shy about taking credit for her work. She said it simply makes sense for all communities.

“What a lot of people miss out on is the fact, the real, real fact that small businesses are the economic engine of our state and ‘where we live.’ And if we don’t save these businesses, it’s not going to be good for us as Oregonians or Portlanders,” she said. “Every dollar you spend in a business, of all that money, the majority of that money recycles back in into our community. So it’s just a necessary thing.”

KOIN 6 and Portland’s CW looks forward to recognizing the great contributions women have made in our nation and local communities. Remarkable Women is part of a nationwide Nexstar Media initiative to honor the influence women have had on public policy, social progress and the quality of life.

Four local women will be considered for Nexstar’s nationwide 2023 Woman of the Year Award. One local winner will be selected to earn a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Los Angeles.