Who hasn’t dreamed of owning their own business? Increasingly, that dream is being pursued by women who report more satisfaction and, according to Inc. magazine, three times as much happiness as their workaday sisters. Thirty-eight percent of all businesses — 11.3 million — are owned by women and employ almost 9 million workers.
Three successful women entrepreneurs admit it’s not always wine and roses. But all say with the right business idea, motivation and drive — plus some financial cushion and a dash of luck — becoming your own boss can be the best move a woman, or anyone, ever makes.
The entrepreneurial spirit is in Lisa Bair’s DNA. As she grew up in York, her father ran businesses ranging from selling popcorn to commercial laundry equipment. When Bair attended Bloomsburg University, graduating in 1987 with a marketing degree, she knew she wanted to have her own advertising agency one day.
“I was always a salesperson,” Bair says. “I sold media space and I helped my dad sell laundry equipment. It’s interesting that I ended up in pharmaceutical sales because I took biology class pass/fail and do not have a science background.”
But Bair knew how to connect with her audience and eventually started working for a New York ad agency, where she was surprised to learn there was a whole field in advertising dedicated to the marketing of prescription drugs to prescribers.
“I always felt I could do a better job at running an agency — treat people like the true assets they are — versus the large firms I worked for in New York City,” Bair says of her decision to become a consultant, starting The Hobart Group in 2003. As before, Bair was helping Big Pharma convince health insurers to reimburse her clients’ drugs. By the time she sold Hobart in 2013, it was doing $30 million in annual sales and managed accounts for 12 of the world’s top 20 pharmaceutical companies.
While still Hobart’s CEO, Bair started pursuing an idea for a new company. As health insurers compare the drug cost of treating various conditions, they send proposals to pharmaceutical companies, allowing them to bid on the opportunity to provide specific drugs that will be covered by insurance. Bair developed software to streamline the process. Her current company, Quantuvis — Latin for “as you like it” — was born.
“I am a risk taker — any entrepreneur has to have a high tolerance for risk,” she says. “Someone once said that women create the companies they want to work for: we see what we could be doing better and that’s what we strive to create. Therein lies the happiness quotient.”
Devoted to her 11-year-old daughter, Regan, and an avid equestrian who show jumps, Bair says it’s important to have things outside of business to “keep you happy and balanced.”
She cautions would-be entre-preneurs to be ready to overcome challenges. “You are only a true entrepreneur if you hear a lot of noes before you hear yeses.”
Karen Griffin Tate’s engineering career has taken her from her native Kentucky to the Bloomsburg area to her current home in Cincinnati. Though she didn’t realize it at first, her path set the groundwork for her project management company, The Griffin Tate Group.
She left Vanderbilt University to take an industrial engineering job with Bechtel Corp., where she met her husband, Andy Tate. The couple worked together on a variety of projects, including the construction of a steam-run electric plant near Bloomsburg, which gave her the chance to earn a finance degree from BU in 1985. She also holds an MBA from Xavier University.
While working for a small Cincinnati engineering firm, she recalls listening to a consultant and thinking: “ ‘That’s what I’d like to do when I get a chance.’ I was waking up at 6 in the morning and getting the kids off to daycare. My husband and I both worked and it was getting quite demanding.”
She planned carefully before making her move in 1994, earning a professional certification in project management, teaching university classes and conducting training for NASA while working for the Cincinnati firm. There was some trepidation as she struck out on her own — and then NASA hired her to teach classes and other clients started calling.
Today, her company advises about 10 companies at a time and provides management training. With a half-dozen full-time employees and a host of subcontracted trainers, Tate’s firm does just under $1 million annually.
Because her husband was employed, it wasn’t as scary making her move as it could have been, Tate acknowledges. But regardless of what cushion you may have, successful entrepreneurs need a well thought-out plan.
“A woman who had a good job told me that she wanted to make frames with sea shells. I said, ‘Seriously? They can make that in China and you are really going to spend your time gluing shells on frames?’ ” she recalls, laughing. “You have to have an idea and know it’s viable.”
When Mary Metallo Tellie was planning her career, coffee was the last thing on her mind. The 1987 Bloomsburg graduate with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and concentration in finance had one goal: becoming a banker.
But after working in banking and then advising high-net worth clients on the East Coast for a San Francisco money management firm, the travel became too much and she retired to spend more time with her husband at their home outside Scranton.
Bored with retirement and remembering the great brews she had in San Francisco, Tellie started roasting coffee with a heat gun in her basement, making about an ounce at a time and giving it to moms at her 7-year-old stepson’s basketball games. One time when she didn’t have any to take to the game, she promised to leave some on her porch. When she came home, the coffee was gone, replaced by $15.
“Getting that $15 was one of the proudest days of my life,” she says. “My whole life changed. I carried that $15 around and said, ‘Baby, this is it. Maybe I’ll start a business.’ ”
In 2004, she bought a small candy store as her first coffee café and a year later had an eye-opening experience when she met a Panamanian grower recognized for producing the world’s best coffee. She soon was visiting coffee farms every year and bought a larger building to house her newly named business: Electric City Roasting.
Tellie, a certified coffee taster, is passionate about finding great coffee beans and creating that perfect cup. Today, Electric City Roasting Co. features tasting labs and courses on coffee making. Her coffee is sold online and commercially, including to Wegmans and Weis Markets.
Her company’s logo underscores another passion: fair treatment for coffee growers. The coffee bean with antlers symbolizes her Blue Moose blend and the surrounding partial circle represents the work yet needed to help growers.
“Find out what you are most passionate about. If your passion is economically viable and you really love it and believe in it, then you should go for it,” she says.
Tellie laughs when she thinks about the how she became an entrepreneur. “I just couldn’t find a good cup of coffee in Scranton, period,” she says. “I changed that.” •
Jack Sherzer is a professional writer and principal partner with Message Prose, a communications and public relations firm in Harrisburg.