Nichole Montoya: “Nacho” Ordinary Payment System

Nichole Montoya and Molly DiCarlo at National PTA EventAccording to the Urban Dictionary, the go-to source for the definition of all terms hip and cool (or in our case, slang we hear our kids using) to “Cheddar Up” is “to gain money through legal or illegal means.” As in “Man, I gotta get my hustle on and cheddar-up.” No small irony then that two moms in Colorado, by way of the Iowa and Nebraska plains, should settle on Cheddar Up for the name of their venture, the latest and most innovative arrival to the stage of group payments.

“Every time she hears me explain that ‘cheddar’ is slang for money, my co-founder Molly can’t keep a straight face. There is just something about two moms, handing out cheese cubes and company flyers at a school carnival that doesn’t scream Jay-Z,” laughs Nichole Montoya. (more…)

Marlo Scott: The Sweetest Revenge is Just Being Happy

Marlo Scott

Everyone’s job stinks from time to time, but if you find absolutely no joy in what you do then it’s time to get out. Some of us are lucky and can do this sooner rather than later but others, like Marlo Scott, bide their time, planning and preparing for the day when they can bust out of the toxic work environment once and for all.

“I spent seven years in a hostile industry. The media business is full of bully bosses, but this was only fuel for me to figure out how to work for myself. When I was passed over for a promotion that I should have gotten, I swore I would get my sweet revenge on my bad boss. It was only a matter of when.” (more…)

Michele Glaze: Taking the Plunge, For Better or Worse

MicheleGlaze-headshotFor as long as she can remember, Michele Glaze has wanted to move to California. Not because the Saskatchewan native had visions of being a Hollywood starlet but because she wanted to work behind the scenes where the drama was real. While she hasn’t (yet) made it to California, Glaze did leave behind a well-paid, secure corporate position for a career in the non-profit world of performance arts where she got to fulfill her dream of working in music and staging live events.

Unfortunately, things just didn’t work out and today the 48-year-old Glaze is seeking new opportunities.

But be warned: This is not a cautionary tale about the perils of taking a risk, leaving your comfort zone and following your passion. While the job may not have been a good fit, Glaze is adamant she made the right decision in taking the plunge and is confident she will find something in the field which she really loves.

“I have absolutely no regrets. Even in my position of having to look for a new job, I would do it all over again. If I hadn’t left my secure job and taken the risk, I would always have wondered. I’ve never been comfortable with the what ifs in life.” (more…)

Lisa Becker: The Accidental Author

Headshot 2.jpgWe’re a dime a dozen….those of us who dream about writing The Great American Novel, or a children’s book or even a magazine article for that matter. But few do, and even fewer find a way to repeat the success of one book and turn it into a career as a writer. But Lisa Willet Becker did it even though she never actually fantasized about being a writer. “I do remember writing short stories and poems as a little girl, and I remember telling myself I’d write a book one day but never really knew what that would be.”

All through her time at the University of California, San Diego, the practical California native had her sights set on becoming a lawyer. She majored in English and American Literature, applied to law school, got accepted but then decided to defer for a year. She took a one-year position as a field representative with her college sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma.  During that year, she traveled to 30 universities across North America, meeting with students, school administrators and alumni, to help further the scholastic and philanthropic goals of the overall organization. It was a year of introspection and growth which enabled Becker to make some career changes.

“I decided I would make an awful lawyer. I didn’t think I would be disciplined enough and I didn’t think I would enjoy the work. And I really enjoyed what I was doing in the moment.”

What she was doing in the moment she defined as public relations. Years later she realized it wasn’t really “PR” but it still turned out to be a fortuitous decision. “Never mind that PR turned out to be a lot more writing and strategizing and media relations than what I was doing which was more interpersonal communications. But it still turned out to be what I really enjoyed doing and what I think I was meant to do.”

So, again, always the practical one, she decided to hone her skills and back them up with a degree. Heading East, Becker applied for and secured a spot in Boston University’s College of Communications where she earned a Master’s  in PR. She reveled in the coursework and her part-time job as a writing fellow and graduate teaching assistant. She loved Boston as well, but when it came time to graduating and looking for a job, she knew she had to look elsewhere.

“Boston is full of great PR firms, but it’s also full of talented graduates looking for local jobs. There just are not enough jobs for everyone.”

A professor of Becker’s suggested, “Hey, why don’t you move to New York and get a job at Burson-Marsteller? They’ll work you to the bone for two years, but then you can write your ticket.” Becker remembers thinking, “Gosh, I’ll never work for a big firm like Burson-Marsteller.”

Although the professor’s suggestion would prove to be prophetic, at the time Becker had no interest in living in New York or working for a big agency. “I was from California and I loved Boston, and while I didn’t need to go back to California right away, I didn’t really have any interested in New York.”

It was 1995 and the Olympics were heading to Atlanta, Georgia, that year. Becker smartly assumed that the city would be ripe with marketing jobs in advance of the events. So despite knowing just one person in the city, she moved there, crashed on a couch for two weeks and networked nonstop. Within three weeks she had a job and an apartment: “I wound up working for a small boutique PR firm called Cookerly and Company. It was just six people at the time so I got a lot of experience in the three years I was there.”

Becker believed she did everything at a small agency that would have taken her twice as long to learn at a large one. Responsible for everything from making copies to figuring out how to dial up to AOL (1996 remember), Becker also was responsible for managing client budgets, strategizing and writing communication’s plans for the year, and managing client relationships.

After three years, when Becker was feeling the pull of her native California, she felt equipped to go after jobs at bigger agencies that once turned her off. “My professor was right after all. I decided I really needed something different, and I wound up working in the Los Angeles office of Burson-Marsteller.”

Becker settled nicely into her career at Burson. She loved the people, the work and despite it being the boom years in California where job offers were aplenty, she stayed put for about 14 years.

During that time, Becker also met her future husband during the nascent days of online dating. “I figured people were married to their cell phones and laptops, so why not really use that technology to get married, right?”

After the wedding, she began to jot down funny stories from their courtship as well as stories from friends.  For a while the stories seemed to be working themselves nicely into a novel, but with a full time job and two children they sat on her computer, mostly untouched for years.

But when Becker turned 40, she had a novel idea. “I decided that instead of buying a red convertible to symbolize my midlife crisis, I would quit my job.”

Although she stayed on for an additional two years as an on-call employee with Burson, Becker relished the idea of more time with her children and more time for projects that she had set aside in the crazy days of working and child rearing.

When she was cleaning out her files at work, she stumbled upon her old draft of a manuscript, called Click: An Online Love Story. The story is told entirely in Click cover photoemails between the heroine, her friends and the dates she goes on. She took it home and made the commitment to work on it a little bit each day. “I wrote at night or while the kids were napping. I like to say it was a year’s worth of writing spread out over the course of eight years.”

When the book was done, she shopped for an agent but found the process discouraging. “It’s a lot of waiting and a lot of rejection.”

But one person who read it suggested she self-publish and Becker decided she was ok with that. “I thought, I’m not planning on being a writer anyway. This way I can get my book out there, and my mom and dad can say their daughter wrote a book.”

Oh how silly she was.

Unlike many authors, Becker wasn’t intimidated by the idea of self-publishing because she felt her marketing background gave her an advantage in the competitive world of self-publishing. So with no agent or publisher biting, Becker went ahead and published Click, her fictional account of an online romance. She put a marketing plan together just like she would have for one of her clients and started promoting it.

“Surprisingly people started reading it and then people I didn’t know started reading it.” The readers came in droves, and they liked what they read. In fact, they liked it so much, and grew so attached to the characters that they wanted to know, “What happens next? When’s the sequel coming out?”

cover double clickBecker responded and started work on a sequel, Double Click.  When she completed the sequel, she assumed correctly that she might have an easier time landing an agent already having one book with great reviews under her belt. But after letting the agent shop the book for a year unsuccessfully, Becker decided again to self-publish. The second one did well enough that she wrote a third, at which point, Becker didn’t even look for an agent and went straight to self-publishing.

Becker’s third Book Right Click came out this past summer. And Becker made it clear to her fans that it was a trilogy, and that was the end.

But it wasn’t the end of her creativity.

“As the third book was being edited I had an idea for another book but when I started writing it, it seemed more like a screenplay to me.”

So Becker bought some software to coach herself through the screenwriting process for what became, Clutch, the story of a handbagfront cover final copy designer searching for true love told by comparing men to handbags, i.e. “the Hobo bag” (the loser boyfriend who steals money from you) and “the Wallet” (the one who lavishes you with expensive gifts but nothing else.)

As she was wrapping up her screenplay, Becker got a call from a family friend who asked if she’d be interested in optioning her first book.

“I said yes of course, and sent him Clutch as well.”

The ink is still drying on the deal, but as of last month, Becker’s first book and first screenplay have been optioned by a production company housed at Sony. She is now working on her fifth screenplay and pursuing a career as a screenwriter. See you at the movies.

Some personal words from Becker on getting published:

As a graduate student studying public relations at Boston University, I was asked to interview Charles Rosen, a producer for the original “Beverly Hills 90210,” for an article in the alumni magazine. During our chat, he said, “Don’t fall in love with your words, because somebody above will probably change them.”

During my 18+ year public relations career, I’ve worked with some of the biggest consumer companies in the world including McDonald’s, Ford, Sony, and Gatorade.  And, I’ve spent countless hours writing news releases, bylined articles, marketing proposals, brochures, advertising copy, public service announcements, radio copy, mat columns, fact sheets, photo captions, media alerts, pitch letters, letters to the editor, video news releases, etc.

I carried Mr. Rosen’s words with me every day as colleagues, bosses and clients have “changed my words” sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

When it came time for me to write something personal, based on my own experiences and initially for my own pleasure, I relished the opportunity to write what I wanted, how I wanted and when I wanted.  It was only after I considered publishing the book that I nervously harkened back to Mr. Rosen’s advice.

But, I took the plunge and explored the traditional publishing route, getting feedback from multiple literary agents.  One suggested that I rewrite the book into a typical format with just a few emails here and there.  But, I wanted to stay true to the narrative that I thought worked best.

Another agent explained the current economic state of the publishing industry to me.  Due to the large investment to edit, produce, distribute and market a work by an unknown author, many large publishers won’t take the risk.  She recommended self-publishing as a way to get my work out there and allow me to control the process.

And, so, I decided to self-publish my novels.  And honestly, I couldn’t be happier.  For better or worse, this is the story I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it.  Thankfully, readers and reviewers seem to be enjoying it.  And so, thanks to the popularity and ease of self publishing, I say to all of the aspiring writers out there, “Go ahead and fall in love with your words.”

Find Lisa: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Pinterest  | Web

Linda Picard: Film Distribution Phenom to Immigration Specialist

Linda2Born into a French-Italian family in Budapest, Hungary, Linda Picard was left to her own devices at the tender age of 16 when both of her parents walked out of her life. “It was a volatile marriage, a romantic drama. They had wed and divorced twice, and there was a lot of blame. When my father moved with his new family to the countryside, my mother left without me as I reminded her too much of what had passed between them.”

Staying in the family home alone with some money her father left her, Picard survived by teaching English and drawing to school children until she finished high school. It wasn’t easy, especially as she was unknowingly suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome, which causes infertility, compromises energy levels, and generally slows down metabolism. On turning 18, a time when most of us are dreaming of college, she was able to sell the apartment and invest in a small studio where she lived while she worked as a media planner at MindShare, the global media agency. From there she did a brief stint as a researcher manager for a music TV channel until McCann Erikson hired her.

Twenty years of age at the time, the independent Picard knew she needed to secure a degree if she was going to make a go of it so she enrolled in Kodolányi János University of Applied Sciences to study economics while she mastered marketing by day at McCann. “It’s all a blur. I don’t think I really slept for five years. I went to work at 9am, worked 12 hours and then hit the books until about 3am every morning. Somehow, I did it but it’s not an experience I would like to repeat.”

While still in university, the perfectly English-accented Picard headed to InterCom Ltd where she managed overall marketing communication for Fox, Sony, Warner and Disney titles in Hungary. After three years in film distribution, she moved to London as a freelance producer in the entertainment industry organizing music and film events. Discovery Networks recruited her as an on-air marketing planner. “It was a brilliant opportunity for me, but I just got a bit depressed with the weather and the mentality.”

An invitation to an international film festival in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), became a turning point for her. Picard was surprised at how at home she felt. “It’s a beautiful here. People are very friendly and it’s all so new.” That newness wound up speaking to Picard in ways beyond the shiny modern high rises of Dubai. “I got the feeling I could start over and do something completely different and interesting.” On her return to the UK, she sent her CV to a local film distributor, Empire International, which represents the biggest Hollywood studios in the region. After a second visit to Dubai for an interview, Picard joined the family-owned business as their marketing manager for the UAE, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Syria, and Ethiopia. “In the beginning it was a bit tough. Upper and mid-management were very welcoming, but there were a lot of challenges for me especially being a woman. I disrupted the equilibrium somewhat. While women are respected in the region, they are not taken that seriously although things are rapidly changing for the better in the UAE today.”

After three years and a few marketing awards, she felt it was time to move on: “Dubai is such an exciting place to be. Everything is developing, growing out of the desert. But at the same time, because so much is new, the employment legislation and contract law is evolving. So career moves always come with potential risk but nevertheless, I decided it was time to jump to a new opportunity. Unfortunately I jumped into a big hole.”

Picard signed on with a licensing agency that had a contract with some major studios. At the time, licensing was not well established in countries like the UAE and the dynamic Picard felt she could make her mark in the up-and-coming field. By three months, she realized something was seriously wrong. Despite having closed a $100K deal with a large local company, she failed to receive any commission and her salary was not forthcoming. With her employer holding her passport, which he needed to apply for her work visa, Picard had had no alternative but to wait the situation out. It turned out the agency was not processing her visa but rather holding her passport as collateral. “It’s hard to say why I waited so long before acting when it felt fishy from day one. I guess I thought I was just being paranoid. After all, the visa process can take up to two months so I just hoped it would all be fine.”

With no other recourse, Picard reported her employer to the Ministry of Labor. Although the authorities were helpful, there was a language barrie2014-07-01 17.10.32r and misunderstandings on both sides. “Everyone was following procedure, but I couldn’t decipher what was happening around me. In the end, the authorities invited me to the Ministry eight times for mediation to resolve the situation, but each time my employer failed to show.”

After eight weeks, the Ministry finally launched an investigation and uncovered the extent of the agency’s fraudulent activities. Picard was not the only employee to be deceived. She ended up filing two cases with the courts, one to recoup the owed salary and fees and another to get her passport back. “I couldn’t leave the country without a passport. I couldn’t work as I had no visa. I didn’t have any income. I had not done anything wrong. I had simply signed a contract and became a victim of the system.”

It took ten court hearings over the course of a year for Picard to see justice. She drained her savings, resorted to freelance marketing work, and finally ended up sleeping on friends’ sofas. A Latin and Oriental dancer of more than ten years, dancing helped see her through the tough times. She won her case with the help of an Emirati lawyer and – despite not receiving back-pay from her bankrupt employer – got the recognition that she had been wronged.

The damage was done, however. Any potential employers in the film and entertainment industry were nervous about her status and so she found it difficult to find a job. As luck would have it, a friend put in a word for her at a well-established British law firm, which was looking for someone to manage a visa and immigration system they were establishing. “They were interested in my experience as I had been through the ringer so to speak. The good part was that they understood my situation and where I was legally so it worked out well. As I had gone through a terrible year, struggling to understand with the legal system, I really felt I was in a good position to help others navigate the process. Unfortunately, the only way to learn the legal system here is to experience it.”

Despite all she has been through, Picard is keen to stay on in Dubai for now although she has images of Singapore in her future. Ever the optimist, she sees her experience as just that – experience. “My life would have been a lot easier if I had stayed where I was but I’ve learned a lot from the highs and lows. I never expected to end up as a specialist in visa and immigration policy but things have a funny way of working out. What might seem like a blow at the time, can turn out to be a pivot point from which many new opportunities become available once you open yourself to the possibilities. Just don’t give up. I’ve worked hard to get where I am today and, for the most part, I’ve done it on my own, more by necessity than choice.”

It’s been an interesting ride so far, let’s hope those possibilities are a little smoother in Picard’s future.

Tips from Linda Picard

  • Never take anything for granted!
  • Fight for your rights and whatever you believe is right.
  • Find the time and place to give back, there is always a need and a cause.
  • Don’t forget to be grateful and thank everyone who has ever helped you. If there is no one to thank, then don’t forget to be grateful to yourself and the universe.
  • There is no such thing as impossible, never accept it as an option.
  • Dance and sing as much as you can…

Tracey Pontarelli: Honing Messages and Muscles – From Bold Brands to Buff Bodies

Tracey PonterelliTracey Pontarelli sweat her way through college – not because she was anxious over grades, but because she realized early on in life that working out was key to her happiness and overall well-being. “My husband jokes that I’m nicer when I’m working out, and I am.”

Despite her love of the gym and devotion to a healthy lifestyle, her desire to put her Seton Hall University joint degree in journalism and business to use was stronger than the call to make a career in fitness. And inspired by a fortuitous meeting with a PR big wig when she was in high school, she was led down a path to a career in Public Relations.

Pontarelli, a native of Coventry, Rhode Island, was awarded the prestigious Horatio Alger award during her senior year of high school. The award, which honors students who excel in spite of adversity, matched Pontarelli with Harold Burson, the founder of global PR giant, Burson Marsteller, as her mentor, a friendship that continues today. Known as the Godfather of modern PR, Burson looked at the practice almost as a science, coaching his staff to analyze how to influence their client’s target customers through a carefully constructed process.

Throughout college, Pontarelli maintained contact with Burson, and while he surely helped illustrate what a career in PR would look like, he never offered her a job upon graduation and – true to the spirit of Horatio Alger – she never asked for one. She wanted to earn her own way.

“I thought I wanted to go into PR, but I didn’t fully know what it was until I got into it.  Luckily it played to a lot of my strengths and I think I was meant to do it,” says Pontarelli. She landed her job first in New York City at Golin Harris and then at Ketchum PR first working on clients such as Nintendo, Evian, and Wisk Laundry Detergent.

As a counterbalance to the stressful working pace, Pontarelli continued her love affair with fitness and – spurred on by a YMCA director who was impressed with her natural ability to lead others – she got certified and taught fitness classes at the Hoboken, NJ, YMCA. By day, Pontarelli wrote corporate messaging and pitched reporters and led step classes by night. It was a balance that worked.

When her then boyfriend, now husband, moved to Boston, the moonlighting fitness instructor made another jump. This time she landed at Mullen PR and continued teaching at several gyms in the Boston area. Burson was there throughout as a sounding board. “He was just so amazing and told me to keep in touch, so I did, but neither of us ever discussed a job until I was ready to move back to NYC.”

At 26, the newly engaged Pontarelli returned to NYC, and now, with four years of PR experience under her belt, she was ready to show off her skills at her mentor’s namesake firm. Burson sent Pontarelli’s resume to the human resources department and Pontarelli did the rest. “Obviously it helps when Harold Burson calls you his protégé in public, but at that point in my career, I knew I would make him proud.”

She landed a position as a manager in the Consumer Brands division and started managing accounts ranging from Kellogg’s to Fidelity Investments.

Those who worked with Pontarelli understood that indeed she was destined for a career in PR – she thrived in the environment where she was able to creatively help clients through their communications’ challenges, while mentoring and training younger staff all while working towards the agency’s goals. The job was exciting and, at times, all consuming. Pontarelli worked her up way from Manager to Director and finally Managing Director.

Seven years, and two children later, Pontarelli got a wake-up call. It was a Saturday and she was heading into the office to finish a global new business proposal. “I got ready to hop out of the car, and my three year old said to me, ‘Happy Valentines Day, Mommy.’”

For Pontarelli, who loved her job, that was it. “You know that saying, ‘You can do it all, just not all at the same time’?  That was the moment I realized something had to give.”

She resigned from Burson, but continued to use her skills by launching a consulting business. She did PR and branding strategies for friends who were starting small businesses and for a group of former colleagues who needed outside help with bigger clients.

“The nice thing about working in PR is that your skills are really useful for a lot of things, so I was able to pick up a lot of work.”

In 2012, one of those friends, Catherine Goodwin, came to her for PR help for the new gym she was opening, Exceed Physical Culture. Pontarelli had long ago let her fitness certification expire, but she dove into the project helping with branding and media relations. Much like the YMCA Director 20 years earlier, Catherine recognized talent and encouraged the 41-year-old to get re-certified which she did, this time in group fitness and personal training.

“Even when I wasn’t teaching classes, I was sort of a ‘half teaching’ because I just naturally want to help other people through things … I’ve always loved group fitness because it’s motivating to be in settings with people who are struggling along with you, but I also find working one-on-one to be motivating.”

In addition to maintaining her PR consultancy, she now teaches at least two group fitness classes a week and coaches a set of at least six personal training clients at Exceed on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

While Pontarelli came full circle to fitness, this time around she’s using her PR skills to guide her through the process.

“One of the  first steps in PR is understanding your audience and getting to what someone’s true underlying motivations are – their anxieties and their desires.  That’s how we started every assignment at the agency, and that’s how I come at every single person I work with – what caused them to come in the first place and how do we get them to a place we want to be?”

Pontarelli, now a 44-year old mother of three, finds the work particularly gratifying when she’s coaching midlife women. “We’re really hard on ourselves as a gender, and I am passionate about the fact that women should focus on being strong, happy and supportive of each other. That’s what’s really important.”

Citing an email she had received that morning that boasted proven methods to shrink thigh fat, Pontarelli, not a fan of spot reduction, practically shrieks. “You are never going to have someone else’s body, but what you can have is a strong and healthy body and be proud of your workout. I try to get people to focus on that, and then the other stuff tends to fall into place.”

For women trying to get into the habit, Pontarelli suggests a fascinating book she read this year, The Power of Habit, which unlocks the secret of how habits are formed and broken… hint:  you have to replace a bad habit with something else to truly break it. But the upside to exercise? “The book has a whole section on it – exercise is a “keystone habit,” so when you exercise regularly, it creates other positive habits like eating better and working harder.”

The best part of Pontarelli’s Career 2.0? “I’m helping people, one on one. In consumer PR, I didn’t always feel this way – I was doing things that were fun and interesting, but now I feel like I’m really helping people and it’s very gratifying.”

While she continues to bring out the best in her clients, she’s working ceaselessly on herself as well. Next stop? Her first New York City Marathon.

Tips from Tracey Pontarelli

  • Do what you like and be open to where it leads you.  There are endless possibilities for you out there, but the right ones can be found where your passions lie.
  • Get out of your comfort zone. That is where Career 1.0 was. Career 2.0 is probably going to require a bit of a leap!
  • Believe in yourself. You are a capable, smart woman.  As one of my favorite instructors says, “Why not be this amazing?”  Why not indeed!

Aud Melås: Banking, Bulldozers, and Brewing Beer

Aud-1 2 (2) There are not many successful business women who would give up a well-paid and prestigious position at a successful start-up to move to a small Norwegian town – population 350 – to run a hotel. You might even call Aud Melås crazy, as she thought she was at the time, but there is a method to this ambitious woman’s madness: “I’ve lived in this role of change for so long it’s natural to me. It’s something I just do because I’m a very curious person. I love to learn new things. I hate to get stuck.”

While studying for her degree in business economics at the Norwegian Institute of Banking & Insurance and the Norwegian School of Business, Melås was working at Sparebanken Hedmark (a savings and loan bank) in the town of Hamar, Norway. Upon graduation, she took up a full-time position as a mortgage and tax advisor at the bank, and, by age 24, her career path in the banking sector lay solidly before her, but she wasn’t sure she liked what she saw. When they offered her a promotion to a management position, she thought, “If I say yes to this, I’m most likely going to stick with banking for the rest of my life. So I asked myself ‘What are you going to look back at when you are 50?’ Are you going to say ‘I wish I had’ or are you going to say, ‘wow! I’ve done a lot of interesting things in my life, not all of them went well, but at least I tried,’ So, I chose the latter, declined the promotion, and decided to return to school.”

Melås informed her (very supportive) employer of her decision and left with a “four year leave of absence” instead of a termination and even a scholarship to help pay school fees.

Looking for an English-speaking environment coupled with warm weather, she followed her life-long dream of moving to California. She did some undergrad work at the University of San Diego and started the MBA program there. On moving to San Francisco, she finished the MBA with the University of Phoenix and – in order to remain in the US – took a position at Civic Bank of Commerce outside San Francisco as a credit manager and later VP & Manager of commercial lending at California Bank & Trust. Despite earlier misgivings about staying in banking and finance, altogether Melås spent 15 years in the sector.

One day she got a call from a former employer’s HR Manager about an opportunity to work with an online auction start-up for heavy construction equipment. They were seeking people with talent to build up the business. “I said to her ‘Are you crazy? I don’t know anything about backhoes or bulldozers!’” Melås laughs. The woman agreed but added, “But you do know about finance and building networks.” Melås declined the high risk venture but the woman was persistent, calling her for three months.

After some reflection and on hearing the company’s new name, Ironplanet, she decided to go for it. “I knew the company was going to be a success. It was the right name. Building business is something I really like to do. I believe the name tells you a lot. And besides, the business plan was excellent,” she reassures.

In the meantime, the business-savvy Norwegian had negotiated a good package in terms of options and severance so she felt confident to change tracks. “Once I took the decision, I moved very fast. I didn’t hesitate. Clearly it was a life-changing move because if I had not left, I would have stayed in the banking industry.”

And so there she was, co-founder responsible for risk assessment, supported by a staff of only ten, with the goal of selling excavators and the like online. It was overwhelming starting from scratch to build the behind-the-scenes infrastructure, but Melås saw the potential in the online auction business and stuck with it. It was a good call. E-bay tried unsuccessfully to buy Ironplanet in 2002 and today it’s the world’ largest online auction platform for heavy construction equipment.

After 4 years at Ironplanet, Melås got her second interesting phone call. This time from her brother, a psychologist based in Norway, with the “opportunity of a lifetime” for his sister and her American husband, Evan. He had found a small 8-room inn with an indoor/outdoor café situated in an ideal location — Sognefjorden, Norway. “Frankly, I thought he was off his rocker. I could not believe he would seriously think I would want to leave this fantastic company that I love so much to start working in the hospitality sector.”

That evening she recounted the story to Evan, laughing as she imagined herself running a B&B at the end of fjord in Flåm, almost 5 hours by car from Oslo, the capital of Norway. Her husband’s response nearly knocked her off her feet. “Well, I might be interested,” he said. Evan’s Silicon-Valley- based graphic design company had suffered during the 2002 crash and in the meantime he was making ends meet as a carpenter and a mortgage officer. “Basically he was miserable,” Melås recalls. “Norway has always been a fairytale country for Evan. So naturally he jumped at the chance to start over and do something new. But I remained unconvinced.”

Knowing that his wife was the key, together with Melås’ brother, Evan starting plotting how he could change her mind. They called in the big guns with comments like, “your mother is not getting any younger”. It took three long months but she finally agreed to visit the inn, examine the balance sheets, and talk with the accountant about the health of the business. In early January 2004, Melås met the owners. At 5pm, it was already pitch black. But not dark enough that she couldn’t read the look of distrust on the owners’ faces: “I knew they were thinking … ‘oh this American woman will ruin everything.’”

But Melås was impressed with the figures put before her. Although there are only 350 inhabitants in Flåm, she learned that 1.3 million tourists come through each year and all of them have to pass the inn when they get off the cruise ships and boats. There was clearly more to the place than met the eyes. The next morning with the sun resting on the snow-capped mountains, she saw for herself: “It is an incredibly beautiful place. The inn is situated right on the water in idyllic surroundings. The potential was palpable. It would seem my brother was not crazy after all.”

Copy of R. Sørensen Bilder Hotellet 050 (1)Dazzled by the scenery, business potential, and plans for expansion, Melås agreed to give it five years on the condition she would keep the house in California and they would return if it didn’t work out. A key decision-making factor was her ability to maintain the current staff. She signed on the dotted line and got on a plane to San Francisco to pack up her life. Midway over the Atlantic, panic set in. “I thought ‘Oh my god, what have I done?’ It was almost like it wasn’t me who had been to Norway. The numbers had looked great but in reality I had no idea how I was going to do it.”

The next few weeks were difficult. She had to face the fact she was leaving Ironplanet, a company she had helped build from scratch. “That was tough. It was my baby. But I had made a decision and needed to move forward. Evan had no such doubts. He was over the moon!” she laughs.

Melås had no romantic illusions about running an inn. “My aunt and uncle owned a small hotel and worked themselves into the ground…literally, as they both died before turning 70. I learned an important lesson from that. I would not want to build a business in such way that it would stop functioning without me being present.”

While her previous experience was clearly a bonus in terms of organizing, planning, putting start-up strategies and infrastructure in place, and dealing with the local bank, the first two and half years were hard going (to put it mildly). Legal issues put the plans for upgrading the hotel and building a micro-brewery on hold, but also it was difficult for Melås to return to Norway after so many years abroad. She recalls: “I don’t remember how many times I almost packed my bags to go back to California. I loved my life in the US. I had great friends, a wonderful job. The culture here was so foreign to me even though I visited every summer. Being the boss was hard as I tried to navigate the labor laws. It was much easier for Evan. He adjusted really well and picked up the language. He was adopted right away. Me? I was known as ‘Iron Woman’… let’s just leave it at that.”Aud & Evan ved Ægir ute

Once they got past the legal wrangling, the couple renovated and expanded Flåmsbrygga Hotel and went ahead with their plans to open a Viking-themed brewpub (a pub that brews its own beer), on the premises. They were only the second brewpub in Norway at the time and the 9th micro-brewery overall. Eight years after taking over the inn, a brand new production brewery and a 15-room staff house were installed.

Named after Ægir, the Norse giant who lived where the river and the ocean met and brewed beers for the gods of Åsgard, Ægir Brewery boasts 40 varieties of beer, has won the accolade of ‘Best Beer’ in Norway, and taken home three silver medals at the Australian “Olympics of Beer Brewing”. “Norwegians are usually quite modest, but if I am allowed to brag a little, we are number one in Norway in our category,” Melås says. “Unlike the US, the brewpub is a unique experience here. We are investigating franchising opportunities and looking to increase exports to the US market. Our unofficial slogan has become ‘Why not?’ as this has proven to be an effective approach up to now,” she laughs.

The five-year self-imposed re-evaluation deadline came and went unnoticed. In year six, they knew they were staying. Now, in their tenth year of operation, Melås and her husband have grown the business from a small B&B to a multi-million-dollar venture. “I would never have seen myself here. Everyone thought we were going to fail … many were eagerly awaiting a big bankruptcy when we started investing in brewing. But Evan and I believed in our dreams and in the end, it’s been a wonderful ride. We had one goal: one day we would make money while we were sleeping!  We reached that goal some years back and now we sleep very well indeed.”

Tips from Aud Melås

  • Follow your gut and dare to be different. You don’t have to be a sheep.
  • Don’t fool yourself. Running an inn is like any other business – to get to the stage where you make money you, you must work really hard. You are always working when  your friends are on holidays, you work weekends, etc. There are no short-cuts!
  • When you open yourself to change, the most unexpected things can happen.

Questions for Aud? Post them in the Comments section and we’ll be sure she sees them.

Lisa Allen and Trish Drennan: Friends, Partners, and Sweat Gurus

BBF co-ownersFor Lisa and Allen and Trish Drennan, it took a dramatic life event to make them recognize it was time for a change in their personal and professional lives. For both, the death of a mutual friend was a wake-up call that brought them together to support each other in becoming healthy and strong and to make it their lives’ work to help others to do the same.

A graduate of the University of Delaware, Lisa Allen had had a long-term career in communications, representing various trade associations in D.C. The work was interesting – everything from issues management to crisis communications – but when she had her first child at age 31, she decided it was time to work for herself and “own” her time a bit more. For years after she hung her own PR shingle, she found herself being able to devote more time to working out, something that had played an important role in her life since graduating from college.

Allen remembers herself as a chubby kid, who put on even more weight in college. “I had an “a-ha” moment soon after I graduated and realized I needed to do something different. I started running a lot and lost the college weight and was actually pretty proud of the fact that I got and stayed fit. Ever since then, exercise has become a real passion of mine.”

But Allen never really intended to make a career out of her love of health and fitness until she met Trish Drennan.

Drennan also worked in the field of communications after an unexpected detour as an engineer. After graduating from Wittenberg University with a degree in international relations, she thought she would pursue a career on Capitol Hill.  But when she found herself jobless between election cycles, a temporary job launched her into a new career as a wireless technology expert.

“I got placed at this technical engineering company, and it was at the time when wireless was really booming. It was a brand new trade so the company invested in training us. Within a year, I went from being a liberal arts girl to a wireless engineer trainee at George Washington University.”

Soon, Drennan was shipped off to Germany and found herself designing wireless networks for LCC International. She stayed there for almost five years but when the company decided to go public, they looked internally for people who understood good communications in addition to the technical side of the business. Drennan found herself tapping into those liberal arts skills in the sales and marketing department and later in investor relations.

In all, she spent nearly 22 years at LCC, eventually managing a team of 300 communications professionals around the world.

But with each promotion, the former college athlete found her commitment to fitness woefully waning.

“Once I started working, I went hard and heavy into my career. Unlike Lisa, I never had a weight problem until I had kids. By the time my third child was a year old, I was 45–50 pounds overweight. I was travelling internationally, juggling the needs of three kids and had a husband who also had a big job. It was a crazy time in my life and I was really soul-searching.’”

Although she was coaxed into contracting with the company to help them through another transition, Drennan, like Allen, decided to go out on her own. Now that she too owned her time, she started working out on a regular basis with her new friend.

In the Fall of 2009, for Drennan’s 40th birthday, the two decided to train for a marathon.  With loads of time to chat during long training runs, the “what if” conversations intensified as the pair discussed how they might make a go of it in the fitness industry.

During that time, a friend who ran a local boot camp in Ashburn invited Allen and Drennan to help her run the boot camp a couple mornings a week.  This was the opportunity they had been looking for – running an already established fitness class and seeing how it went.  At this point, the two friends had become such health and fitness junkies that they not only ran marathons but also competed in triathalons and spent the rest of their spare time reading up on the latest health, nutrition, and fitness trends. Drennan had lost forty pounds and was feeling fabulous, and Allen was determined to continue to help other people meet their fitness goals.

So donning their marketing hats again, the pair branded their own boot camp, Motiv8Me, and launched a new program.

“My husband joked that I went from an expensive clothing habit to an expensive equipment habit,” said Drennan.

In March of 2010, they launched the business with eight clients, each of whom had to commit to an eight-week session. It was important to them that their customers follow through with their commitment to the program and their own personal goals. The closer they worked with their clients and researched what was out there, they more realized they had hit on an idea that added value in the fitness world. “As students in lots of fitness classes ourselves, we were really frustrated with the fact that you could be doing moves wrong to the point of hurting yourself, but no one would tell you because the group fitness instructor was incentivized to come in and teach, not to take care of the people.”

Allen and Drennan took their plan a step further and became certified fitness instructors, quickly realizing what they really wanted was not just a boot camp, but a full-service gym that was different from any of the other fitness offerings available. Something that would offer everything they had learned and believed was critical to a lifetime of fitness – high intensity interval training, core work, strength training, and yoga. On top of that, they wanted a gym that didn’t sell shakes or powders or any hint that weight could fall off easily with short cuts. “Although we are not certified nutritionists, we wanted a gym where we could talk with clients about the importance of long-term good nutrition habits, and where we would commit to them if they would commit to the program,” explains Drennan.

With those goals, the pair came up with a tagline that would be the centerpiece of their gym:  Sweat. Nourish. Commit.

Again, the fitness junkies found themselves leaning on the skills they honed in their former lives to ensure their new venture was a success. “We really come into this industry from a very different perspective. Most people who want to open gyms are former trainers, but we take a business perspective. We wrote a business plan, we did a competitive analysis, we knew how much money we had to raise to make it work.”

They opted to turn to their own families to borrow the money rather than taking out a small business loan.  Each side put in equal amounts, and Allen and Drennan have opted not to take a salary until the loans are mostly paid back. They also decided to rebrand the company to something stronger and came up with BlackBench Fit, in reference to the eight black workout benches they purchased during their earlier outdoor bootcamp days.

Three years later, and BlackBench Fit is humming along and the two are ahead of schedule based on the original projections in their business plan.  “We were able to make a small dent into loan repayment this year, AND put a little bit of money each into our 401ks.”

But more than feeling satisfied at their business savvy, Allen and Drennan count it a blessing that they’ve been able to launch careers in a field that is so meaningful to them.

“One of the most rewarding parts of our job is also the most surprising,” shares Trish. “I had no idea I had a teacher or a therapist in me, but I love that part of the job.”

“I feel like what we’re doing now is a real calling for me,” adds Lisa. “It’s so gratifying to help people reclaim their bodies because I’ve been there and know what it’s like.”

Have questions for the owners of BlackBench Fit on their success to date? Write a comment and we’ll be sure they see it.

Mary Lou Quinlan: From Madison Avenue Maven to Broadway Bound

Mary Lou Quinlan headshot_MLQ CoLooking back at her younger self, Mary Lou Quinlan recognizes she was a Type A girl from the get-go – an all-around over-achiever and people-pleaser: “My parents always encouraged me and told me I could do everything I put my mind to. I guess I took them a little too literally.” Her industrious nature has led Quinlan to achieve a great deal of professional success, but she has also been lucky enough to understand the important things in life, “At this point in my career, looking back to where I started and where my biggest transition has been, it has been as a daughter. It has given voice to this whole new life for me.”

Many of Quinlan’s careers moves were firsts … the first woman, the only woman, the youngest woman. She started her career at Avon where she worked her way up to (the youngest) Director of Advertising after seven years on the job. With an additional three years under her belt at Avon, she moved to the advertising agency world working for NW Ayer & Partners, where she eventually achieved another first becoming the big account ad agency’s first female CEO.

But after 20 years of performing full on, the cracks were starting to show. “I kept thinking, ‘Yes, you are successful but how happy are you?’ I was working a gazzilion hours. The type A over-achiever was in overdrive. It got to the point where I used to wish I would step off a curb and get hit by a bus just so I could be laid up for a while and no one would bother me.”

In a radical (by-corporate-America-CEO-standards) move, Quinlan took five weeks off. The first day of her leave was her 45th birthday. “Five weeks is a lifetime when you are CEO. I just hung out in my neighborhood, met my friends and de-caffed myself. It was a wonderful pause button in my life and a life-changing time because in daring to go cold turkey from the office and live in my life, I started to gain a sense of self-awareness and identify what was important to me and how I wanted to move forward.”

Some years later, Quinlan would write a book about her experience. While touring the country to promote Time Off for Good Behavior: How Hardworking Women Can Take a Break and Change Their Lives, she met woman after woman experiencing this same hunger and realization that time is going by, usually around moments of truth such as “big” birthdays, deaths in the family, divorce, and the like. “Not everybody is able to make a change. Many are afraid and others are just resistant, especially to the idea of taking time off. We use money as an excuse and for those literally living from paycheck-to-paycheck this is true, but for many of us it is possible. Women are so proud of responding to ‘How are you?’ with ‘Oh, I’m so busy.’ It’s almost like we have to brag about being tired. It’s this weird form of self-flagellation with our careers.”

When she returned to agency life, she knew as soon as she walked through the door she was not going to stay. The newly rested Quinlan had been working on ways to figure out what she might do next. “It was not brain surgery, I made simple lists about what I wanted, what I love and what I didn’t like so much. It was easy to say I wanted the same agency job with, for example, a more flexible schedule, but when I allowed myself to go deep in terms of what I love to do, a completely different list emerged: writing, public speaking, and focusing solely on women.”

Within a couple months, Quinlan quit her job and launched a small entrepreneurial venture Just Ask A Woman, a marketing and branding consultancy focused on female consumers and how they think. She spent the next decade and a half traveling the country, connecting with real women, listening to them, and interpreting their needs for corporate clients. Along the way, she authored two books on the insights she gained: What She’s Not Telling You: Why Women Hide the Whole Truth and What Marketers Can Do About It and Just Ask a Woman: Cracking the Code of What Women Want and How They Buy. “It was a great time. I lived the life I had dreamed of, a life that had breath in it. I began to write … I was a correspondent on CBS morning show on women’s issues for about a year. I was even on a Simon Cowell-produced reality show called American Inventor. Fun times!”

But then in 2006, the 53-year old lost her mother and best friend, Mary Finlayson. A compassionate woman, Finlayson had been unending in her ability to listen to people, they were drawn to her and she always bent an ear to their worries. The night before the funeral, the devastated Quinlan and her brother found her mother’s God Box, ten boxes to be precise, containing her notes dating back to 1986. Quinlan explains: “For 20 years, mom wrote down every wish, worry, mountain, and mole hill from family and friend alike and let them go in the box … scraps of paper, folded like origami, Post-Its and ‘while you were out’ slips, receipts and even a torn piece of paper towel with petitions like ‘Please God, let the Pergo floor be the right choice’. Finding the boxes was a beautiful revelation of every little thing a mother worries about, a love letter in a thousand pieces.”

Quinlan stumbled through that year running Just Ask A Woman and, although she wrote a 3rd book, she felt lost and bereft. That is until she decided to write an article in Real Simple magazine about her mother’s God Box: “I used to talk about it and realized people wanted to know more about her ability to listen, care, and let go. It touched them in some way and I found it cathartic to write about her.” Telling that story and seeing the reaction of women searching for a tool or means to release themselves from their worries unleashed what Quinlan wanted to say and do for her third act. The article led to a book, The God Box: Sharing My Mother’s Gift of Faith, Love and Letting Go, which hit the New York Times bestseller list after just three weeks.

But because Quinlan’s mother’s story was so much more than what could be contained on a page, she decided to take the story to the stage. Starting with the basics, she took acting classes with Martha Wollner at the LAByrinth Theater in New York City.

Wollner and Quinlan collaborated on the creation of a one-woman performance piece entitled the The God Box, A Daughter’s Story. The newly minted actress Quinlan has performed the one-woman, one-act show 40 times around the country and donates all the proceeds to cancer and hospice centers.

In a surprise even to Quinlan herself, The God Box, A Daughter’s Story was accepted at the renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival for August 2014. “How does that happen? I feel new and driven because of this. It’s remarkable that by telling the story of losing my parents (Quinlan’s father died four years after his wife), I feel I’m helping people express their grief and learn to let go. They laugh and cry during the performance but it’s raw and honest and that’s what the audience responds to. In life and death, my mom is helping others.”

Does Quinlan ever wish she’d started acting sooner? “No. I never regret the early years despite the stress because I am bringing my life experiences to my performance. I don’t have to imagine because I have had such a full life. If I have any regret, it’s that I didn’t pay more attention to my personal life, everything always seemed so urgent at work but, in the big scheme of things, it wasn’t. I was loving it but I wish I had breathed some more. Taken the time to step away.”

Not one to sit back and soak up the success of The God Box Project, Quinlan is taking more classes to develop another solo show. “I have so many stories to tell, all the turning points women go through, all the life lessons. I don’t know what’s next but I am open, right now I’m just enjoying performing.” This time around, the seasoned Quinlan is taking her own advice and looking more simply. “I’m lucky. I’ve already done ‘grand’ and had the corner office. Now I’m seeking meaningful and happy. Telling my mother’s story has been a gift to me.”

Mary Lou Quinlan’s Tips for Success

  • Take an annual check up! Even if it’s one weekend a year, stop and just let yourself think and feel how you are doing. After all, life is a really long trip, make sure you take a pit stop.
  • I’m such a believer in taking a pause to think about what you want to do with your life. Write it down and make it happen. I didn’t become a writer by falling out of bed. It’s hard work but you can do it.
  • Be willing to be curious. As you move along in your career, be open to learning new things. We love the feeling of mastering something and can take an ego hit if we have to start over but take it…it feels so good to learn new things

Mary Lou wants to know!

  • Have you ever considered returning to a hobby you had when you were younger such as theater or dance?
  • What is the real barrier that keeps you from making change in your life? Time to think? Money? Ego?
  • What has been or might be your turning point?

Send us your answers/questions/comments and we’ll be sure to pass them on to Mary-Lou.

If you want to learn more about the remarkable Mary Lou Quinlan, visit her websites www.MarylouQ.com and www.thegodboxproject.com or watch this video that traces the story from start to stage.

Kelly Collis: From Political Animal to the Morning Muse

HeadshotKellyKelly Collis has a job many would envy. As co-host on D.C.’s The Tommy Show on 94.7 CBS radio, – she spends her mornings chatting away on the radio, laughing alongside her co-host and best friend, rubbing elbows with visiting rock stars, and scoring choice seats in the house at local concert venues. But don’t be fooled. Collis didn’t stumble into this job. Her path was one of non-stop hard work, astute media skills, a fierce entrepreneurial spirit, and a genuine appreciation for community service.

As a child of Washington, D.C., Collis was exposed to the power of communications and people skills from a young age. Later in his career, her father, an emergency-room physician, was a Bush appointee at the Pentagon during the first Gulf War, and she attended the Holton Arms School for girls, where many of the students were the children of diplomats and the current head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, attended.

For most of her life she had her eyes set on a career in politics. Heading to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, to study politics and interning at the state capitol for a Senator, Collis recalls, “I thought for sure I’d return to be a big-time communications director for a Senator or Congressman.”

After graduation, she landed a job back in D.C., working for the Senator-turned-Congressman. Starting as a low low-level legislative aide, and moving on to help with fundraising, after almost four years, Collis was networking with local CEOs and other decision-makers in the area, including the new leadership of AOL.

She caught the start-up bug as the lure of new media eventually got the better of her. Collis headed for Freedom Channel, a start-up founded by local media entrepreneur Doug Bailey. In the pre-YouTube era, the online video platform was a great vehicle for local luminaries interested in expanding their reach and influence.

“It was a perfect transition for me. I was using all my media and political skills. Because my marketing budget was exactly zero dollars, I really learned how to use the media to tell our story and that’s really where I cut my teeth.” Collis also drew on a skill ingrained in her from her time on Capitol Hill – call it what you like, constituent relations or customer service, but the Hill helped Collis become a pro at it.

But like so many others who dreamed of following in AOL’s path only to be disappointed, Freedom Channel faltered and Collis did not make her millions. Unemployed, single, and the owner of her first mortgage, Collis answered an ad posted by a communications exec looking for part-time help building media lists. With nothing to lose, she took the gig. Wise choice as the part-time position turned into a partnership at a small PR firm with $5 million in billings, which counted MSNBC, a leading cable and satellite news media channel, among its clients.

Six years and many life changes later, including a husband and two children, Collis tired of the constant travel to Redmond, WA, where MSNBC is headquartered. Eager to be her own boss, and spend more time in her hometown, she hung her own PR shingle and scored National Jean Company as her main client. “The position at NJC was perfect. I could bring my daughter to work in a pack-n-play, and control my hours.” It didn’t hurt that Collis was a fashionista who leveraged her killer communications skills promoting NJC across the city at like-minded events. But not one to let moss grow under her feet, as she got more involved in the fashion scene in D.C., Collis spotted a trend that led her to a new business and later forged the path to her work in radio.

“I would see these young women all over the city waiting in line to go to trunk shows, restaurant openings and the like, and that’s where I got the idea for City Shop Girl.” Similar to Daily Candy, but with a focus on deals, events and openings, Collis’ daily email newsletter took hold quickly. The newly single mom was flying around town, feeding the appetite of her tens of thousands of readers with news of hot events, unique products, and Collis’ recommendations for must-try restaurants. But like so many women who find themselves making major changes at times of personal upheaval, Collis found herself struggling to figure out if City Shop Girl would support her new life as a single mother. “Going through the divorce was very emotionally distracting. The kids were young and I was working for myself. It weighed on me that I didn’t have a safety net.”

But she knew a few things for sure–she loved working with the media and had even started doing guest spots on TV to promote City Shop Girl news. But, in her late thirties, she felt she was past the point of launching a new career in TV. “Someone told me I should brainstorm with Tommy McFly, a new local radio whiz kid, but I was hesitant. I wanted to hate him – this young guy coming to my city and thinking he’s a big deal on the radio.” But the unlikely pair struck up a fierce friendship from the start. Geography helped. McFly lived down the street from Collis, and the two started spending more and more time together. “He was a creative entrepreneurial spirit, and we had a lot in common.”

Soon, McFly was offered his own morning show on 94.7 FM, The Tommy Show. One of his first calls was to Collis. “You’re not going to get the job,” he started, “but as your friend I need to tell you about this opportunity. The station wants a female cohost that has kids. You should apply.”

With no radio experience, Collis applied for the job. It was a long shot she knew, but the more Collis pondered the idea, the more she wanted the job. “I started thinking about how it could change our family… a steady job, health insurance. That mattered to me.”

Detractors at the station were silenced when they heard the demo tapes cut by Collis and McFly. The chemistry and camaraderie was palpable. Being that it was a new station and new show, having a strong PR background worked to Collis’ advantage and she charmed her future-boss-to-be: “I can be your marketing and PR person. I can pitch stories, promote the station, and be on the air.”

It was a compelling package. And it sealed the deal.

Today Collis, now 40, starts her day at 4 a.m. when she drives out to the station in Maryland to review the day’s news and talk with McFly about that day’s show. Still leaning on her political skills, Collis knows that while laughing all morning on the radio is great fun, the job doesn’t end there. She spends time after the show and weekends visiting fire stations, schools, local malls and hospitals – understanding that radio can be beneficial medium to be part of the greater D.C. community. “It very much reminds me of when we used to do events with the Congressman.”

For those of you that have tuned in on your morning commute, it’s obvious why Collis, now approaching her third anniversary with the station, has been a hit. Sure, she yucks it up with her co-hosts, but she also connects with listeners, sharing very personal details of her life. In fact, Collis’ fiancé recruited McFly to take part in his proposal – documenting the process on the radio in the morning, and recruiting the band Train to take part in the engagement surprise.

Kelly Collis’ Tips For Success:

  • Efficient use of time is my motto, there is only 100 units a day I can spend on everything – that includes job, children, my personal relationships, exercise, and everything else. Prioritize every day!
  • Don’t take a conference call or meeting without an agenda and knowing in advance all parties in attendance.
  • Get rid of the fear of missing out (FOMO). We live in such an age where everything is real time. There is no way to be everywhere. And saying no is ok.

Discussion
Have you ever wanted to be a radio DJ or TV presenter? What did you do/are you doing to turn this dream into a reality?

Cathy St. Denis: Cinderella in Provence

CathyStDenisWho among us hasn’t fantasized about tossing away their corporate job for something more fun, more glamorous, more … more of anything that you’re not getting at your current job.  Sometimes, the opposite of where we are seems like just the place we want to be.

For Cathy St. Denis, that fantasy was sparked when frustration at work and a longing for something totally different collided during a 2001 spring vacation through in France. The wheels started turning after a day hike through Provence, when St. Denis and her tour group stopped at a charming bed and breakfast.

An early evening of chatting with the innkeepers while sipping wine and drinking in the scenery culminated in learning that each year the inn hired an apprentice to help run the show – a nine-month position where you could learn the “inns” and outs of the B&B business. Et voilà! The seed was planted.

St. Denis returned home to her demanding corporate communications job in Washington, D.C. but continued to mull over the idea … could she be the next apprentice? She was energized by thoughts of chatting with guests from all over the world, perfecting her baking and cooking skills, and exploring Provence in her free time. But not one to rush into things without careful planning, St. Denis planned a fact-finding trip to Napa to visit two women-owned and run inns. But the trip, planned for September 12, 2001 was postponed due to the tragedies of 9-11, an event that helped cement St. Denis’ determination even further. If life can change on a dime, why waste another moment fantasizing? Just get on with it.

So St. Denis charged ahead, applying for, and securing the internship due to begin on March 1, “shoulder season” in the inn business. Although she knew her adventure was certainly not going to be a fortune-making one – the B&B offered a small stipend and room and board, but no salary – it also carried little financial risk should it not work out.

The innkeepers were clear on her responsibilities: preparation of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “The duties were openly discussed, but the actual length of the working day was not,” says St. Denis, who noted alarm bells started going off shortly after she arrived. “In the first couple of weeks on the job, it was apparent to me it was going to be a slog.”

Her day began at 6 a.m. when she was instructed to turn on the warmer for the frozen pastries, by 8 a.m she was scuttling between serving breakfast, making fresh croutons and other items for the menu later in the day, and stripping the guest beds – six rooms worth – many with multiple beds. By 10 a.m. when breakfast had ended and the communal table was cleared, St. Denis began the laundry, which involved 2–10 loads depending on the number of guests. This was not a simple process as the sheets had to be hung out to dry. “The owner was, how shall I say, very particular about how the laundry was done, and if you didn’t do it precisely, we’ll, hell hath no fury…”

In between loads, on most days St. Denis would get started on dinner and dessert, a task that took most of the day. And while the guests were eating, she would race upstairs to do the turn-down service, quickly returning to take care of any post-dinner needs. By around 10 p.m. she was ready to tackle the kitchen – a restaurant-sized kitchen that had to be cleaned from top to bottom each night, including the dishes, some of which were too delicate for the dishwasher. After that, she set up for the next morning, returning to her room just before midnight, like Cinderella, to get a quick night sleep before the next day.

While St Denis took care of everything at the B&B, the innkeepers took daily siestas, and despite one of them being a classically trained chef, they still relied on their apprentice for most of the food preparation. For St. Denis, there was little chatting with guests, few trips exploring the nearby towns, and little-to-no camaraderie with her fellow innkeepers. Instead she developed dark circles under her eyes and lost 22 lbs. despite being surrounded by creme brulée, rich cheeses, and paté.

In June, she knew she needed an exit strategy and, within a month, gave her notice for September 1, a more-than-fair amount of time for the owners to find a replacement. Their response? “But who will watch the inn while we go on holiday?”

Sometimes you fantasize about a life change or a new job, and it turns out to be just that … a fantasy. “I knew within a month, I had no desire to ever own an inn,” says St. Denis. Even the owners, who relied so heavily on their staff, were tied to their B&B for nine months a year, a responsibility that didn’t seem appealing, despite the one positive experience of chatting with guests, 95% of whom were lovely, she says.

“You know, I realized I had a really good life in Washington with good friends, a great house, a successful career, and I owned my time.”

Today, more than a decade later, St. Denis is happily still in communications in the transportation industry…although she still occasionally fantasizes about perhaps working at a winery.

Tips From Cathy:

  • If you are considering a drastic career change, minimize your financial risk. Don’t invest any of your own money until you’re sure about the switch.
  • Do your research!  If a potential employer dangles a shiny object in front of you, be sure to ask about the downsides! Or better yet, ask to speak with someone who previously held the position.
  • Go for it! Things may not work out but the experience can still be rich.

Discussion

What job have you fantasized about?

Julie Thorne Engels: Measuring Herself by Different Standards

Juliete Thorne EngelsWhen you look at the course of Julie Thorne Engels’ career, a few themes and success factors repeatedly pop up: passion for creativity, support from good female friends and family, a willingness to push through fear of failure, and a strong desire to champion women, especially in business. Optimistic and confident, Julie herself is curious and always open to change and improvement.

Never really traditional in her choices (at least compared to those of us outside California), the 45-year-old started out dreaming of being an entertainer. She studied film and video, waited tables, and performed Improv with a Chicago-based troupe for a few years before deciding she wanted to be behind the camera versus in front of it. Julie moved to Santa Monica to launch a career in the business side of the entertainment industry. She landed her first job as a runner and later an associate producer at Channel 1 News and eventually worked her way up to a producer on a show for Lifetime. Being exposed to the genesis of reality TV, Julie made a conscious decision to pursue a more personally rewarding path.  “I wanted to attach myself to something more inspirational and soulful … it was an important turning point for me, moving away from what many considered to be a stable career.”

So for a few years, Julie channeled her creative spirit by writing screenplays and teaching herself to paint. At the height of the dotcom boom, she launched her first start-up, Soulgarden. While the business ultimately didn’t take off, it taught her valuable lessons that would guide her future direction: “I was always networking, and I found the best feedback I was getting was from women my own age. All of my vital professional connections came from these women.”

This realization spurred Julie to start a women’s business group called iBettys, in honor of her close-knit group of high school friends who called each other “Betty.” It grew from a small group of 5 women initially to more than 100 (including men), meeting monthly to share ideas, provide feedback and encouragement to each other, as well as solid networking leads.

Julie continued to host iBettys meetings as she launched what became a very successful career at consumer marketing agency, The Regan Group. “I saw for the first time that my ideas could generate significant money. Very quickly I went from being an executor to new business development,” she recalls. This was a pivotal era for Julie as her work involved executive leadership, overseeing budgets, and team building and development. Patti Regan was a great mentor but equally Julie was a great investment, eventually tripling the agency billings and staff.

After nearly a decade, Julie couldn’t shake the notion that something powerful was going on with the iBetty gatherings. So with the confidence she garnered at The Regan Group, she decided to focus more time on championing the needs of women. Julie launched Bettyvision, a community empowering women to visualize their dreams and create goals to make them come true. A first workshop was followed by a second, third and so on … their success propelling her to invest more of her time and money into the concept.

In 2012, she left The Regan Group to work on transforming Bettyvision into a real venture. Her goal was to develop a tech platform to support vision boards (an Oprah favorite), which are essentially a collection of images to show what a woman wants to have happen in her life. “It’s like Pinterest with a purpose for women,” Julie explains.

She raised seed funding again mostly through family, which allowed her to build and launch her propriety vision board platform. Her expectations of the business were blown away after only a short time.  Julie recalls that she could have been better prepared but that her naivité of what lay ahead was beautifully inspired: “If I had really known what I was getting into, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

The initial funding for Bettyvision was not enough to support the high growth technology play, and Julie all too quickly became aware of the discouraging reality that less than 10% venture funds go to women. It became increasingly challenging to raise the necessary capital to take it to the next level and attract advertising targeting millennial women.

But, Julie’s efforts were not in vain. Having pitched her platform to investors, corporations, women’s groups and brands over the course of the year and invested significantly in her technology platform, she was well poised to pivot to her next venture. She partnered with two women within her inner circle and launched Tribemint, a branding, digital communications and experiential marketing agency focusing on millennials. “I got to the point where I had no funds left. I had to figure out what I do really well, what I am passionate about. It kept coming back to the agency world. All my experience led me to this stage and being focused on helping brands and companies create meaningful conversations and deep relationships with this young, enthusiastic Gen Y tribe.”

Only a few months in, Tribemint is making a go of it. When asked how long she is giving herself to see the agency succeed, Julie is adamant: “I’m going to make it work. I am a female pioneer in the tech space and now need to fund future development – mine and that of others – which led me to this moment. I know how to make money in the agency world.”

While growing the business is of course her main focus, the end game is to build the Tribemint Fund  to support millennial entrepreneurship. “I have been fortunate to be surrounded by strong mentors, who have made a large impact on my entire life and career choices. Now, it is my turn to champion the younger generation and help them succeed. ”

A percentage of all Tribemint profits in the first years will go to the fund. “It was really hard not to see Bettyvision take off. My biggest passion takeaway was figuring out how I could turn this around. How I could raise more awareness about the lack of venture funding for women. The Tribemint Fund is my opportunity to make a difference and start being a woman who invests and writes checks to for-profit ventures.”

And if Julie’s chances of success are dependent on her drive, optimism, and spirit, there is no stopping her this time round.

Julie’s Tips for Success
  • If you are going into a new venture, create authentic business relationships.  Also, make a mutual investment with a millennial. They are hungry for experience and are a wellspring of inspiration, knowledge and fresh perspective.
  • Be clear and stand strong in your ultimate vision and “why” you started your business.   However, be prepared to be flexible in “how” you reach your end goals.  Knowing when to pivot is key to maintaining cash-flow, while on the path toward success.
  • It’s empowering to be in charge of your own destiny.  If you are going to make money, make it for yourself and then have the power to pay it forward.
  • Women have such a unique opportunity to leverage their feminine strengths in business: creativity, collaboration, flexibility, nurturance, and multi-tasking.  Since women have more “natural” milestones (such as having children), they are often faced with evaluating their different life-stages and recalibrating to stay on track with their career goals and vision.

Discussion

Julie Thorne Engels has learned from BettyVision that dreams are so personal. What is your dream and how do you plan to make it a reality?