The University Record, November 23, 1998

Women entrepreneurs ‘Put it all together’

By Rebecca A. Doyle

From homemade cherry chutney to devices that work within ultracapacitors, women entrepreneurs can be successful if they have the courage to pursue their own business interests.

That message was given to women interested in becoming entrepreneurs themselves during a panel discussion on personal success stories at “Women in Business: Your Path to Entrepreneurship,” a day-long conference Nov. 18 hosted by the Alumni Career Center and sponsored by the Center for the Education of Women.

“Putting it All Together” panelists Amy Holden, Pamela Rodgers, Linda Smith and Maria Thompson talked about their own businesses, how they got started, where their support originated, how they balance work and family and having businesses in the home.

Linda Smith, president of Unique Diploma Displays, “did it just to see if I could,” she says. Her basement was her first manufacturing center, where she put together in a frame unique photographs of campus landmarks from the U-M and Michigan State and Eastern Michigan universities with individual diplomas to sell at shows and as a hobby. Her business has expanded to produce diploma frames for more than 30 schools, and her products are now sold in bookstores, a department store chain and through alumni organizations.

Thompson began her business with her husband, Levi Thompson, associate professor of chemical engineering, because they both wanted her to “have a company where I didn’t have to leave the house every day.” Thompson has two children, and she says the business and the children are both “growing fast.”

“When you start your own business, even with an M.B.A.,” she warned the audience, “it doesn’t take long to realize you really don’t know what you’re doing.” Despite her M.B.A. from the U-M, Thompson found that negotiating the patent process, finding funds to enlarge a business or move to a new building, and handling employees—T/J Technologies now employs 20—was different in real life than it had been in school.

“The difference between people who have businesses and those who do not is courage,” she maintains. “You just have to jump in and do it.”

Holden, who owns Amy & Company Specialty Foods, began her career in the kitchen. Trying new recipes has always been fun for her, she says, and after friends said the traditional, “Gee, Amy, you should bottle this and sell it,” she did. Holden has worked with numerous organizations in the area to get her business off the ground, as well as with the National Cherry Market Institute. Her products feature the tart cherries grown in northern Michigan.

“There are many resources women can and should use,” Holden notes. “You just have to get out there and do it.”

Rodgers is president of Rodgers Chevrolet in Woodhaven and was the first African American female to represent the Chevrolet nameplate in Michigan. She is responsible for growth and success that show in the company’s annual sales of $34 million and 34 employees.

Rodgers’ story was unique among the four panelists because she is successful after having one failure—her previous dealership declared bankruptcy. In order to overcome that stigma and the stigma of being a woman in a man’s business, she carefully developed a business plan and credentials that showed she could be successful.

In looking for financing for your efforts, Rodgers said, “you must go in well prepared with a strong business plan.” That plan and her confidence that she could succeed were responsible for her current success. “Failure is O.K.,” she notes, “but what is not O.K. is not getting back up and trying again.”

The rewards for owning your own business are great, panelists agreed. Being able to set your own hours, be at home when children are young and being in control of your own success were just a few they listed.

But, they cautioned, it takes courage and persistence to succeed and continue what you have started.

“Sometimes,” Rodgers said, “it’s a matter of just staying in the game.”

The conference also featured Florine Mark, president and CEO of Weight Watchers, as the keynote speaker, and presentations by Shawn Mason Spence and Michelle Richards. Spence, owner of CompuPro Business Solutions, spoke on developing a business plan, and Richards talked about access to capital.

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