Women in Business

Judy Faulkner, Laurie Benson, Toni Sikes, Sharon Chamberlain, Jan Eddy, Gail Ambrosius … Madison's roster of female business success stories would be the envy of many communities, and there are, no doubt, many more chapters to be written.

In this look at Women in Business, we asked several prominent women executives to tell us their business stories to illustrate the many ways business success can be achieved, and to offer advice to women who are thinking of following in their footsteps — especially in an economy with sluggish job creation. Many of them have "paid it forward" by serving as mentors for aspiring business women, just as others were available to mentor them.

The important thing for budding entrepreneurs to remember is that you're not alone, nor are you devoid of valuable business resources. With programs like Make Mine A Million, Springboard, WWBIC, SCORE, and LEAP, there are plenty of knowledgeable people willing to help. Business attorney Anne Ross, managing partner of the Madison office of Foley & Lardner, said these programs are part of a complete entrepreneurial infrastructure. "In Madison, we have a convergence of resources," she noted. "We've built layer upon layer of resources for women-run businesses, particularly for entrepreneurial women in high-tech companies."

Cheryl DeMars — President-CEO, The Alliance

Given the changes going on the health care industry, Cheryl DeMars has a lot of employers counting on her. As chief executive for The Alliance, a not-for-profit cooperative primarily owned by employers in 13 south central Wisconsin counties, her "bosses" are the roughly 160 employers that count themselves as Alliance members.

The uncertainty surrounding national health care reform is weighing on their minds, and sorting through its ramifications has become a key priority for the 20-year-old organization. DeMars, who has been with the Alliance for 18 of those years, succeeding former CEO Chris Queram three-and-a-half years ago, is seeking to influence how the reform plays out at the national and state level. The Alliance took a serendipitous step toward that two years ago, when health care reform wasn't really on the radar, by establishing a formal health policy function. Specifically, Alliance members are looking at what the law will mean in terms of cost, regulations, and reporting requirements. "We're working with members to help them understand the implications of health care reform, what it will mean to their organizations, and how to navigate those changes most effectively," she said. "Where there are things we feel need to be changed, we'll be advocating for those changes to occur.

"Ultimately, employers will need to decide whether to provide health benefits or pay the penalty and have their employees buy health care through the [state] exchanges."

The Alliance has come through for them before, convincing 47 hospitals that are part of its provider network to publicly report on certain quality metrics, and report cost information on 15 common elective outpatient procedures and tests. As DeMars explains, change does not come without risk-taking: "I don't think there is much you can't undo or recover from, or move forward from, so once you except that and acknowledge that, it frees you up to take risks."

Sharon Chamberlain — CEO-Owner, Chamberlain Research

These days, Sharon Chamberlain fields a lot of questions from women who have been downsized, are tired of waiting for the job market to surge back, and are contemplating their own business. The reason they seek Chamberlain out is because she has been there, although not as the result of downsizing.

It was 1988, and Chamberlain was director of consumer affairs with Wisconsin Gas, [now part of WE Energies]. She had been brought in to make the company more customer service-oriented, which was a challenge in a large bureaucracy that was, as she described, "laden with layers." Chamberlain, who came to Wisconsin Gas from the consumer-oriented Citizens Utility Board — "They really hired the enemy?" she joked — also was puzzled as to why, from the standpoint of pay raises, creative, and well-educated employees were lumped in with people who did rote work. She set out to launch a research company, and make it a flat organization filled with bright people who could solve problems in a creative fashion. "This was 22 years ago, long before Good to Great was written," she recalled. "Much of what was in that book was in my head about this company."

In the early days, Chamberlain Research gained credibility with precise political polling — in 1992, it pretty much nailed Russ Feingold's margin of victory — but Chamberlain eventually realized that an old skill of hers, measuring customer satisfaction through market research, was changing the business world. "I was sure that if we could help businesses make good decisions based on robust research, it would pay for itself many times over."

Today, when budding female entrepreneurs pick Chamberlain's brain, her counsel is part emotional, part practical: "Do something you love, do something you're good at, and do something you can do without a lot of overhead."

Georgia Roeming — Owner, The Geo Group Corp.

Georgia Roeming can relate to people who've been downsized, and given the growth of her business, The Geo Group Corp., over the ensuing 20 years, she also provides some inspiration for professional people down on their luck. After being laid off in 1991, she started the GEO Group as an advertising agency with a focus on video production. She spent four months looking to make her next move, fielding an average of seven calls a day from people interested in hiring her, but has never regretted having the patience to launch her own business.

Given technological advances, it feels as though computers hadn't even been invented when she set up shop, but those changes have enabled Geo Group to transition into an international language translation agency. The Geo Group also took advantage of some fortuitous events, like the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA opened up a world of business for foreign language translation, as have other trade agreements, and Geo Group has never looked back.

Roeming admits to making one of the most common mistakes that entrepreneurs make — namely, trying to do everything herself — but that changed, too. She didn't reach that Aha! moment (the sign that told her the business would survive the start-up phase) until her fourth year in business. Her sign: "I was able to take a one-week vacation and have the business run by itself without me."

Now, with 200 active clients, her staff of 38 makes sure the business runs smoothly, including sales. The personable Roeming, who majored in communications, believes sales is in her people-friendly DNA, but admits that some folks have given salespeople a bad rep for being pushy. That perception hasn't prevented her from pursuing the next big growth area, e-learning and training for business professionals, which will no doubt require some push from sales.

Sue Ann Kaestner — President, The Widget Source

Sue Ann Kaestner understood what all the fuss was about with those red-vested lapel pins, but little did she know it would be the inspiration for a business that would stand the test of time. Those pins, which featured the famous Lee Dreyfus brand, became a prized possession for campaign and administration staffers and many others, and led to the founding of Kaestner Bodway, which later became the Widget Source.

A graduate of UW-Stevens Point, where Dreyfus served as Chancellor, Kaestner was part of his administration from 1979-1983, and campaigned for him when he ran for Governor. Kaestner, herself, was transformed by the experience of working with the former governor, who taught her this about communication: "Unless you can capture your message to fit the headline of a newspaper, you will never get it across." It was an early version of "Keep It Simple Stupid," but today's greatest challenge is keeping her advertising specialties business up-to-date with the times — not always simple.

Kaestner said entrepreneurs must find ways to identify themselves, which is what she and former business partner Noami Bodway did in the mid 1980s, when they entered the Madison Advertising Federation's Addy Awards competition. They entered as relative unknowns and walked away winners in five of the six categories they entered. "It was like 'who are these guys?'" Kaestner recalled. "But that type of recognition really did have a major impact."

So major, that it became the point where the company was viewed as an actual business. Her advice to women thinking of taking the entrepreneurial plunge today? "If being in an unstructured environment is uncomfortable for you, then the entrepreneurial arena is not the right arena for you. If you are interested in putting your heart, soul, mind, and family and friends into it, then it makes a lot of sense. It truly is not like any other job."

Cheryl Rosen Weston — CEO-Chair, The Douglas Stewart Co.

Her story is that of a reluctant business woman, but Cheryl Rosen Weston believes an early lack of confidence worked in her favor when she acquired The Douglas Stewart Company at the request of ex-husband Craig Stewart, whose parents founded it.

An attorney by training, she didn't approach the executive suite with a know-it-all attitude. She did her homework, took nothing for granted and, applying lessons in civility learned while clerking for the late Judge James Doyle, tried to gain perspective from all sides. "I liken it to being a young lawyer all over again," she said. "People who are very confident often make mistakes, and people who aren't confident put in the extra effort."

If you had told Rosen Weston that she someday would be named "Entrepreneurial Woman of the Year" by the National Association of Women Business Owners, an honor she earned in 2005, she might have laughed you out of her office. But her intellectual curiosity has served her well in building Douglas Stewart, a wholesale distributor of computer and school and dorm supplies, into a $300 million company with 150 employees. During her tenure, Douglas Stewart has doubled sales and transitioned from a supplier to U.S. college bookstores to a global entity whose partners now include the likes of Apple Computers.

In a rapidly changing business environment, Rosen Weston knows what happened in the past matters very little, and is planning a move into the K-12 space. As she begins to contemplate a partial ownership transition, she'd love to find community investors, especially women, whose goal is to continue to build the company, not slice it apart or move it away.

Weston, a cancer survivor, remains connected to the law, teaching at the UW Law School, but her real lessons are directed toward women entrepreneurs. "My advice is, spend a lot of time on the front end thinking about what you hope to do, and develop a plan, even though things never work out exactly as you had anticipated. Above all, take the long view."

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