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…)

Kathleen Marinaccio: The Art of the Matter

KathleenThe old saying goes, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. But that’s not quite the way it worked out for Kathleen Marinaccio who had a full and prosperous career as a corporate creative director before eventually opening her own art school. Not only was she ready to be the boss, but she was also drawn to the idea of encouraging others to entertain the idea of a career in the arts.

But it didn’t always look that way for Marinaccio. For as long as she can remember, she wanted to be a nurse. “My father had MS and I thought if I was a nurse I could cure him,” she says. Marinaccio would watch the nurses taking care of him then she would paint pictures of herself as a nurse, also taking care of her dad. “I have tons of pictures of me in all different scenes, making my Dad better.”

But when she was 12, her father died, and with that so did her dream of a career in medicine. But her love of art didn’t, and Marinaccio continued to paint from 12 on, expanding beyond the nursing (4)

Her focus on art continued through high school, and when she was considering college, Marinaccio’s high school art teacher encouraged her to apply to the renowned Pratt Institute in New York City.  Knowing she would have to bear the financial weight of college on her own, she applied for the Pratt Scholarship. Although she didn’t win, she placed 13th, still quite a feat, and enough to push the college to entice her to come with other grants.

So in 1987, when she was 18, she packed her bags for Brooklyn. “At that time, Brooklyn wasn’t the best place but I loved it.  And I decided early on to become a graphic designer. I knew I couldn’t paint the rest of my life and needed to make money.”

Her senior year at Pratt, she did an internship for NBC studios, a stint where she was producing ads for Emmy-nominated shows and logos for sports events.” She loved every minute of it. From NBC she jumped to Harper Collins the book publisher as a graphic designer.

It was not the pay or the job description that sealed the deal for her: “The woman who was interviewing me couldn’t find a pen to write notes, so after looking all over, she picked up a purple crayon – which happened to be attached to my coloring book resume – and took notes with that. I just thought that was so awesome and funny, and clearly there was some sort of chemistry because at the end of the interview she said you’re hired!”

It wasn’t just interview chemistry. The woman became a mentor to Marinacco, and the two struck up a lifelong friendship as a result. “She always wanted me to strive for the best and always try to do as much with art as I could. It’s hard to believe an art director I met almost 23 years ago is now one of my closest and dearest friends.”

Marinaccio stayed at Harper Collins for a year and a half when she moved to take a position as a junior designer at The Lotus Group, a NYC design firm. “I was just 23 at the time and was supposed to be out partying and doing real life stuff, but yeah, I wasn’t doing that. I was working.” Six months into her job at Lotus, she moved into the senior designer position, and then a few months after that she heard from a Pratt friend who was working with Marvel Comics that they were looking for a freelance graphic designer. Marinaccio had the skillset and the work sounded interesting so she took the position … as a night job.

It was a grueling schedule but she loved it … working three jobs (oh, did we fail to mention the weekly bartending gig?), doing what she loved for great companies. “I didn’t sleep and I worked a ton. I don’t know how I did it all but I just kept working and banking the money.” But at 25, she needed a break, just a vacation really. After meeting someone in a bar who lived in LA and extended her an invitation to visit, Marinacco decided a vacation was long overdue. Her boss agreed and even said, “you need a break. Take the trip, and I’ll pay for it.”

After a week in California, Marinaccio knew she had to move there. She loved the weather and the beach and the laid back lifestyle after seven non-stop years in New York City. “When I got back my boss said, oh my God, did I just pay for you to realize you want to leave your job here?”

Marinacco never had trouble landing jobs. Her work ethic preceded her and when she put the word out that she wanted to move to California, her colleagues at Marvel connected her with people at New World Entertainment (of Wonder Years fame) who were looking for a creative director.

With $6000 in her bank account, the 26-year old headed West.  New World eventually got sold to Fox, a move that led Marinacco to take her design skills in-house … literally. “I realized I really wanted to work for myself and I opened my own design firm, Fishbrain Graphic Design, out of a third bedroom in my house. From 1998 until 2010, Marinaccio ran her business, with her now husband, another refugee from NYC.

In 2010, it had been 12 years since Marinacco had “worked for the man” and when Warner Bros. came calling with the chance to takeover their Media Research design department, she jumped.  But it was that move that really brought it home for Marinacco, “When executives were banging their hands on the table in frustration during meetings, I realized I had been in the game too long.”

photo 1 (3)Those art teachers who had guided Marinaccio long ago must have been speaking to her subliminally because, one day at Warner Bros., it hit her – she had to open an art school.  “I wanted to teach all forms of art to all people. I had had a career already. I wanted to teach other people who liked art how to do it, how to practice it, and to get them to the point where they could have a great career in art if they wanted to.”

At first Marinaccio, started out of her house again, in the evenings and on the weekends. First one student, then three, then four. All of her students were people who had other jobs but wanted to be graphic designers – a challenge Marinaccio was well prepared to teach.

“I couldn’t wait to get home and help the students. It was like THIS – all of this has been for this moment right here. I would go to meetings and I would sketch my students’ projects and try to find solutions for them.”

Even though the writing was on the wall so to speak, it took one of her students to hammer the point home. “She came up to me and said, ‘you need to do this for real.’”

The next day while driving to work, a phrase popped into her mind: Reimagine, Enjoy, Aspire, and Learn. After work she told her husband she had come up with the acronym for the school: REAL. “My husband, who thinks most ideas are dumb just said, ‘brilliant’, and then of course, I said, ‘Shit, I don’t know anything about opening a school.’”

Over the next couple of months, Marinaccio networked like crazy. She reached out to funders, community leaders, teachers and more. Before she knew it she had 15 teachers saying they were willing to teach a class or more if she needed it and a commercial real estate location. She was on her way to raising $30K in crowdfunding through MoolaHoop, a crowdfunding source by and for women. With some money in the bank and her former student and now partner, Tina Cho, on board they launched REAL on March 19, 2014.

“I knew that if I didn’t try it, I would always regret it.”

It wasn’t easy but she kept moving forward. Her motto when she hit stumbling blocks was simply, “I gotta do it.”

photo 3 (2)
REAL’s 4th of July parade float

Today, REAL Creative Space occupies 1250 square feet in Los Angeles’ Westchester Triangle near LAX. REAL offers workshops and camps for adults and kids ages 5-18, that combine people’s current interests with their desire to learn art. A recent summer camp, MineCraft –ing, which focused on the popular game but combined the artist styles of Mondrian and Picasso was hugely successful. Marinaccio still works at Warner Bros., teaches at Otis College of Art & Design, but now also co-manages REAL and teaches Freelance 101, the graphic design class that launched this amazing art school.

She draws adults to the school with monthly couple’s art nights the 4th Saturday of every month. And importantly, in addition to inspiring others to pursue art, she is committed to donating a portion of all proceeds to rejuvenate art programs at the local schools. Open just since March, she’s already raised $1500 for local schools.

“Its not about us. Its about helping people learn art. I went from corporate to listening to my community, and this is exactly where I’m meant to be.”

Tips from Marinaccio

  • Always be learning. There is never a point in life where we know all the answers, challenge yourself to learn something new every day.
  • Be honest but be nice in the process. The best thing you can do for people is to tell them the truth, but please give criticism without being negative or mean. It’s important to let people know that you care about them and that your notes are meant to be helpful.
  • It’s never too late to try new things or change your life. Over the past 10 years, my students have taught me that if you are not happy it’s OK to make a change. Thank you to all of them for having the courage to make a change and open my eyes so that I could make a change too.

Brenda Smith: Discovering the Gem Inside Herself

photoIf you were watching the Emmy Awards recently, you may have caught the sparkle dangling from House of Lies’ Bridgid Coulter’s ears as she sauntered down the red carpet or posed for pics with her costar Don Cheadle. Those weren’t just any earrings. Those were Brenda Smith’s design and you better believe she was as excited as you might imagine. And she should be. She’s worked hard to see this day arrive.

But never fear if you missed the Emmys you can also see Smith’s stunning Four Peaks Amethyst ring on display at the US Natural History Museum’s Gems and Minerals exhibit, not far from the remarkable Hope Diamond and the Carmen Lucia Ruby. “Oh yeah, I’m in The Smithsonian too. All joking aside, it’s quite an honor!”

Smith’s journey to having her creations showcased by Hollywood stars was neither short nor straightforward but rather fueled by hard work, determination, and the gut feeling that she hadn’t quite achieved what she knew she was capable of.

Smith grew up near Pittsburgh, PA, the eldest of ten kids. Neither of her parents attended university and the means to send Smith were limited. “I always had an eagerness to learn and grow and do something useful with my life, but I didn’t have the opportunity to go to college when I was fresh out of high school. It was always a dream of mine,” she recalls.

Married straight out of school, Smith had her first child at 19 and then attended cosmetology school. She became a hairdresser and found that she really enjoyed it although she always had the sense she wanted to do more.

Bridgid Coulter wearing Smith's Wright Hoops at the Emmy's
Bridgid Coulter wearing Smith’s Wright Hoops at the Emmys

It was 13 years later when Smith finally seized the chance and signed up for summer art classes at Kent State University. “I just loved it. I lived to go there. Growing up, I always had been creative, but it was always limited to drawing. I didn’t realize how much further I could take it.” Those summer classes appealed to her so much, she enrolled at Kent in the Fall. Working full-time as a hairdresser to pay the fees, Smith attended classes year round. It took her five years to graduate with a Bachelors in Fine and Professional Arts, specializing in graphic design.

With a husband in the commercial construction industry and three kids at home, Smith turned down graphic design and printing job offers in New York City and Atlanta. “It was heart wrenching to have to say no. It was flattering that they thought I was good enough, but honestly I think I used my family obligation as an excuse because I felt I wasn’t good enough.”

Instead she took a job teaching art classes at a private school. From there she moved to Hiram College, where she was responsible for all the publications for five years. “Anything that got printed at the college had to go through me, they had to hire two people to fill my position when I left.

In her early 40s, shortly after her divorce, Smith became creative director for Taylor-Hawkins Advertising, a small ad agency based in Akron, Ohio. “I loved that job but it was a tough time for me. The salary was not enough to support myself and the children [her ex was not paying child support] so I worked three jobs – hairdressing and freelance design at nights and weekends – to make ends meet and provide stability to the children. I had to put them through college after all.”

Not long after, she got lucky and nabbed a job selling printing to advertising agencies in Ohio. It paid better, plus she got an expense account and a car and could drop hairdressing from her repertoire. Smith continued in that line of work for several years with two different companies.

In her mid-to-late 40s, she married her current husband and followed him to Georgia where he established a chemical manufacturing business. It was “all hands on deck” so Smith went to Kennesaw State to get an MBA on weekends to help out with the fast growing business. “I was the Creative Director, but I did everything from human resources to marketing. I used all my training in design and was coordinating and managing multiple tasks simultaneously dealing with 23 markets. It was challenging but fun, plus my husband and I were together.”

After ten years, the company was sold and Smith, after being so productive and active for so long, found herself without a job. Moreover, the market crash – which came on the heels of the sale – meant that neither Smith nor her husband could retire long term.

RedYelDropsSMWhile cleaning out the basement shortly thereafter, Smith came upon boxes of old art supplies that hadn’t been touched since her days at Kent State. “My husband was surprised to see them. He didn’t even know that part of me.” With a yen for the old creative days, she decided to take up silver- and gold-smithing classes. She immediately loved it and started planning how she could take it to the next level when she was diagnosed with a 99%-blocked left carotid artery. Surgery followed two days later, with the anxiety of not knowing if she would wake up from the operation. On realizing the surgery was successful, she decided to move forward with her plans for a jewelry-making operation. “I did not want to go to my deathbed wishing I would have tried. It wasn’t the best time to start a jewelry business. But I was not going to wait.”

The turning point for Smith came about five years ago when she attended a Masters Symposium at the Revere Academy of Jewelry Art in San Francisco. “I learned techniques from the best. After leaving that course, I knew I had what it takes. I entered my pieces into design competitions and started winning. Now that I had proven myself, to myself and others, I had to get into the marketing. So I did some high end wholesale jewelry shows and got into a few select stores. I also do retail custom-made pieces.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. A silver-smithing teacher at the William Holland School of Lapidary Arts in Young Harris, Smith has won numerous accolades for her work. Last year, the Smithsonian approached her at the Tucson gem and jewelry show where she presented as part of the American Gem Trade Association. The Institute selected her unique setting of the Four Peaks Amethyst, mined from the 7657-foot Four Peaks range in Arizona, for its permanent gems and minerals collection. “It was a donation. I have to consider it as part of my advertising budget,” she explains with a smile.

The Smithsonian’s Four Peaks Amethyst

There’s no stopping the 65-year-old dynamic Smith who continues to do commissions, trade shows, and enter competitions, like the one that got her on Hollywood celebrity stylist Michael O’Conner’s supplier list of the Emmys. “I keep telling myself I should slow down but then the other part of me asks why. I simply just like being productive.”

Tips from Brenda Smith

  • Use quiet time to reflect on what really excites you. Ask yourself what work you could do without looking at the clock. Could you do “it” until the wee hours of the morning without regret? It will take a lot of work but if you enjoy it, it’s a clue that you are on the right track.

  • Work to get momentum moving. When doubts come, and they will, push them aside and press through the doubts. This is your dream.

  • When you are frustrated because you are not making a profit, continue to press on. You will break through. Creative satisfaction is as important as profit for self-satisfaction.

  • Life really is short. Have no regrets. Follow your dreams. Take the high road.

Deborah Hernan: Learning from Icons to Launching New Lines

IMG_1680 If luck is when preparation meets opportunity, then Deborah Hernan has had a career full of it. While most of us settle for reading about the business and creative greats of our time, Hernan has had a career replete with learning from some of the best first hand.

From a successful decade at a NYC advertising agency, she was recruited to Revlon where she became a brand and marketing machine. And then as the AIDS charity, amfAR (the Foundation for AIDS research) was growing at an astronomical rate, she was again recruited to provide some discipline to the organization founded by Elizabeth Taylor. But after decades of travel, Hernan longed to stick closer to home. Inspired by her own tween daughter, she decided to launch a skincare line for girls, Ottilie & Lulu.  But true to the greats she worked with, Hernan is not just launching a product line but an industry.

A native of Brooklyn, NY, and a graduate of Seton Hall University, at first Hernan thought she might want to be a teacher. So she headed to Massachusetts, earned a Masters in Education at Boston University, and stayed up north to teach English grammar and literature to college-bound seniors. But after a few years, she was questioning that path. “I knew I loved writing, and the field of advertising had always seemed interesting to me, especially the copywriting side.”

She started networking and interviewing, but was encouraged to consider account management instead. It turned out she was quite skilled at that track.  Over the course of ten years at Laurence, Charles & Free, an advertising agency, she rose from account assistant to vice president, along the way developing the critical skills to succeed in that world – balancing demanding clients with the internal creative forces. Eventually however, the frustration of nurturing creative campaigns that could be killed by a client with the drop of a hat became too much for Hernan.  “I really wanted to be able to say, ‘YES! I want to do that,’ and then be able to make it happen.”

Again, preparation met opportunity, and Revlon recruited Hernan to manage their fragrance brands and help launch new ones. “Everyone at Revlon eventually spends time on Charlie and Jean Naté, which were fun to work on, but one of the best parts of the job was working with Diane Von Furstenberg.”

Von Furstenberg’s fragrance, Tatiana, named for her daughter, was struggling financially at the time. “She knew how to make a fragrance, but her then business partners mishandled her business with pricing and distribution all over the place.” In fact, Von Furstenberg was on the verge of bankruptcy when her friend, and new Revlon CEO, Ron Perelman acquired her fragrance business and put Hernan in charge of managing it.

“She was a very clever woman and really interesting – that word doesn’t do her justice, but she truly was really so interesting to be around … and she was always looking for ways to channel her creativity.”

Hernan fondly recalls one afternoon when she met with Von Furstenberg at her family’s farm in Connecticut, Cloudwalk. The task at hand was to discuss designs for the Christmas fragrance set, but Hernan walked away with a gift she treasures to this day. “Diane was throwing out ideas for how to make it really special, and of course, it was my job to balance creativity with the cost of goods.”

She happened to have a tray of beads in front of her, and as they spoke Von Furstenberg casually starting picking up beads and stringing them on a thread.  She was just doing it nonchalantly, not following a pattern or a drawing and when she finished it, Hernan found the result, a strand of onyx, and silver with beads mixed in, breathtaking.

“I said to her, ‘I love this,’ and she said ‘it’s yours, take it.’ To this day, when I wear it people say, where did you get that necklace?”

The flip side of getting to marvel at Von Furstenberg’s creativity was justifying the numbers to Perelman. While Von Furstenberg’s creativity was inspirational, Perelman’s business acumen was equally amazing but also massively intimidating. “Once a year I had to present to Ron and it was a total nightmare, but there’s good and bad in every situation, and the good was that you never went into a meeting with him without knowing your numbers inside and out. You never wanted to be embarrassed or ridiculed… even though you would be anyway. The man was a walking computer.”

Revlon was an exciting but rigorous environment and the toll began to show. “One night out to dinner, a friend said, ‘You look terrible-you really need to find a new job. I know someone looking and you would be perfect.’”

The job was at amfAR, the leading AIDS charity that was wildly successful in fundraising but also screaming out for some experienced leadership. While the nonprofit was a departure from her corporate past, amfAR was aggressive and the opportunity intrigued Hernan. “AIDS activists then were educated and very demanding—and with good cause.  Their lives and the lives of their friends demanded deliverables.”

Hernan took over communications as well as managing the schedule and communications of one of the charity’s founders:  Elizabeth Taylor.

The day-to-day job had her managing everything from fundraisers at leather bars to black-tie fundraisers in Cannes where people thought nothing of dropping $40K on an auction item.  But by far the best part of her job was tending to Taylor: “It was just the most fascinating thing in the world,” says Hernan. “Elizabeth was a really smart, really passionate woman and, by the time I met her, a lonely woman.”

Working for Elizabeth Taylor meant going to work wherever she was, whenever she was available. So Hernan had lots of meetings at Taylor’s house in Bel Air and in hotel rooms around the world. “I’ll never forget one room in her house. It had huge black and white photographs of all of the loves of her life who were gone: Richard Burton and Roddy McDowell, Montgomery Clift, and Rock Hudson.”

Despite being lonely, Taylor still had her jewelry, another great love of her life.  “Part of my job was to convince Elizabeth to wear the jewelry of our event sponsors. They were paying a lot of money to underwrite our events, and in return they hoped she would be photographed in their pieces, but Elizabeth believed that if you couldn’t own it, you shouldn’t wear it. It was a real challenge.”

And as a late riser in the morning, Taylor would hold meetings with those she was close to right in her boudoir.  And if she liked you enough, you would have your business meetings right on her bed: “One day, I walked into her bedroom, and she was wearing a simple white cotton nightgown with more jewelry on than I had ever seen, and I said, “Oh, I see we slept with our jewelry on?” And she replied, “Oh Debbie, jewels stay longer than men so they’re good to sleep with.”

While Taylor was a captivating force to be around, managing her schedule could be challenging.  If Taylor was supposed to be on the podium at 8, she would sometimes not arrive until 10. “Time was not a reality for her then,” says Hernan. “People would be screaming at me and I would be doing a lot of pacifying. It was so embarrassing, but then Elizabeth would arrive, the sea would part, the sun would come out, and no one said a word.”

While very few people could pull that off, Elizabeth taught Hernan a lesson she follows in her business today. Elizabeth always said, “It’s better to deliver something late and great, than something poor and on timeIMG_1049.”

When Hernan became a mother in her mid forties, the travel schedule began to wear on her.  “I was in Southeast
Asia one week, then South Africa, then Europe, and so on. If something went wrong at home, it wasn’t easy for me to get back, and it occurred to me why would I want to do this (be a parent) if I can’t actually be with my daughter?” She started thinking of other jobs she could do closer to home.

She didn’t have the answer until one day when she was bathing her daughter, Jules, who was just four or five at the time. Looking at all the soaps and bubble baths and other potions with pictures of babies the precocious girl asked, “Mommy, what are we going to use when I’m not little any more?”

It was a good question. Hernan realized that while the baby and toddler markets were inundated with natural products for skin care, when you became a tween, the options were dismal. The few products that were out there tried to appeal to tweens with sassy girl images but nothing truly natural, nothing made in the USA, and nothing that Hernan could imagine buying.

It was her “a-ha” moment. With her experience at Revlon, creating a product line for girls didn’t seem daunting. She knew the process – identify labs to create a formulas, test the products, seek regulatory approval and market them. And of course, find the capital.  “You can never have enough money to launch a product line, but you really can’t even think about it unless you have about half a million.”

In 2008, Hernan got to work. Branding her product line, Ottilie & Lulu, she was insistent that her line be manufactured in the US, which required even more capital because of the high minimum requirements.  She was fortunate to have a captive audience of potential investors at her daughter’s school.  “All my investors are mothers of tweens who believe in this idea and want their daughters to have access to quality skin care products.”

With capital in hand and manufacturing complete, at the end of 2009, Hernan launched her direct-to-consumer website. Some of the air was taken out of her sails when she realized that, while getting to this point was a huge accomplishment, it was only the first hurdle. “I thought it would be easy to enter the market, but once I created the product I realized that was just the beginning. Then I had to sell it.”

Sales limped along slowly for a year with no additional funds available for advertising. But then, once again, preparation met opportunity when Hernan was introduced to a senior executive — who was also a mom with a young daughter- – at FAO Schwartz. She opened the door for Ottilie & Lulu to have its own outposts at the flagship FAO Schwarz and Toys R Us stores in NYC.

ottilie_lulu_familySales slowly built thanks to a healthy national and international customer base introduced to Ottilie & Lulu at FAO Schwartz. But in 2012, Hernan began to feel tired and couldn’t shake a cough.  She was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, that sidelined her for most of 2013. Although she went through a successful stem cell transplant, she had to remain in isolation with a long period of rest until her immune system recovered.

While the momentum halted, her thinking did not and the alone time proved to be valuable for refocusing the business on a core product line: five items for tween girls’ face care and a growing online component: Back in business, Hernan is ready to tackle the challenge of both launching a tween skin-care category and becoming its leading brand.

“I’ve been very fortunate in my life,” Hernan says. “Now I’m back on track, and as Elizabeth advised me, it may be later than I planned, but I’m going to market with a great product.”

Tips from Deborah Hernan

  • Be open to different lifestyles and others’ experiences.  They can inform and enrich your perspective no matter how hard it may seem in the moment.
  • Never, ever underestimate yourself.  You have amassed a body of experiences and learning that can be applied to a broad spectrum of situations.  Maximize your flexibility.
  • Disappointment and setbacks are a part of life’s experiences.  Pull out what’s valuable and move forward.

Mary Hickey: Found a Niche and Filled It

mary_hickey_june_2014I’m chatting on the phone with Mary Hickey, and we are giggling and gabbing away for at least ten minutes, forgetting that the reason I called was to interview her about her business. It’s easy to see how she’s built two successful careers, first in sales and marketing, and then as an entrepreneur.  Her gregarious personality certainly helped put her on a great first career path, but it was her desire for warm weather that really motivated her.

Hickey graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1985 with a BA in communications, and a specialty in marketing, and within four days found herself in California. “I needed to get out of dodge and into the warm weather.”

She landed in a pre-internet-boom San Francisco, and with no friends or family to rely on, knew she had to hustle to land a job and make a living. In a sign of just how much things have changed in the nearly 30 years since then, Hickey’s first “real job” was selling coupon books for Entertainment Publications, followed by a sales job with the Pacific Sun newspaper where she was responsible for selling time on their printing press.

She was supporting herself and living her California dream in Mill Valley, but at just 24 she was already bored having already learned the ropes of the job. “I had always wanted to be in sports somehow and had recently volunteered at the TransAmerica Open tennis tournament, so I thought I’d call them and poke around and pitch myself for a job.”

When she called the tennis organization, instead of reaching a lowly assistant or intern on the phone, Hickey spoke with the tournament owner himself, Barry MacKay, the famous tennis player and commentator-turned-entrepreneur.

“It would be like today getting Rodger Federer on the phone when you called his organization,” said Hickey. “I was so taken aback but continued, ‘Hi, I’m Mary Hickey and I’d like to help the tournament make some money and sell sponsorships for you.”  MacKay liked the proposition and told her to come in for an interview.

Months later, she asked him why he hired her. “I had no experience in sports marketing! I guess I had a little bit of chutzpah, but Barry said, ‘I have all these people calling me saying, ‘I’m John McEnroe’s cousin twice removed, and what does that get me? I’ll tell you – someone who has a connection, but needs a lot of training. You called and told me you could make me some money.”

She did make him some money and then leveraged that job into a string of successful sales and marketing jobs – managing the Virginia Slims’ tennis tournaments, licensing for video-game company Sega, and doing client services at an ad agency.

“The agency job was good for my nature because it was fast moving and I never got bored. For me, sitting and doing the same thing over and over is like factory work.”

But in the late nineties, Hickey got the Internet bug. “Everyone else was making it big in the Internet business, so I decided it was time for me to get rich. I moved to and promptly got poor.”

Like so many other start-ups in the dotcom heyday, Hickey’s shares went from being worth $4 million on paper to $4K in a matter of months. “If that’s not enough to give you whiplash I don’t know what is. But I didn’t learn my lesson. I tried working at AltaVista, but of course I picked the search engine that didn’t make it.”

Hickey gave up her dreams of Internet gold and took a stable consulting job at Cisco Systems. It was lucrative but didn’t feed her soul. But it gave her an epiphany. “I was almost 40 and I thought to myself, I don’t want to find myself chasing this hourly rate when I’m 50. I wanted to be my own boss by then.”

So Hickey looked at her time at Cisco as a way of stashing away enough money to either buy investment real estate or launch her own company. Making a significant hourly rate, in just three years she was able to amass a sizeable nest egg on top of her retirement savings. “Had I decided to invest in real estate then, my investments would have at least doubled, but no, I decided to start this death business,” she chuckles.

The death business actually turned out to be a great idea.

Hickey and an old friend, Bob Wheeler, whom she met through a friend at Cisco Systems and stumbled upon the concept for Renaissance Urns after Wheeler’s own mother died. He had made an urn for her ashes in a pottery class, and when the funeral director saw it “he went nuts” and asked if he had more. Wheeler had no interest in becoming a potter himself, but Mary thought that this was the inspiration she had been waiting for. She went to a local funeral home in North Beach pretending to look for urns and understood why Wheeler’s urn had been a hit. “They were dated, awful and expensive, but what really cemented the idea was my parent’s enthusiasm. They’ve been married for 57 years and have never agreed on a business idea, but they both thought this was brilliant.”

With the Catholic Church recognizing cremation, it was becoming a more popular option for baby boomers making their parents’ funeral decisions. And the industry hadn’t seen a new player in a long time.

Hickey and Wheeler each invested just $2500, hired a couple of artists, quit their day jobs and hit the road selling their first batch of urns to funeral directors up and down the coast of California. Initially called Urns as Art, the pieces sold wholesale for $150 to $250 each. They sold out but the repeat orders did not come. They scratched their heads in disbelief.

Around that time, Hickey came across a beautiful silk covered plastic box for transporting ashes online and had her second brainstorm. She found a manufacturer in Oakland to produce them and together she and Wheeler set up a website to sell them to a broader audience.

The boxes caught the attention of the press with the Wall Street Journal dubbing them “Kate Spade-esque” and Reuters pointing out the practicality of traveling with them in the post-9/11 era of x-ray machines.

“That’s when the rubber really hit the road,” says Hickey. “Sales took off, and we thought we had it made.”

Rebranded as Renaissance Urns, the pair were still discouraged to be working really hard and not pulling in as much money as they thought they would. “We went through all our costs of websites and logos and office equipment and ran the numbers and figured we needed to make $1000 a day to pay for the cost of doing business and clear a profit.”

So they made a few changes. First, they built a direct-to-consumer website And instead of doing 80% of their business to wholesalers the ratio flipped and the business took off even more. “That helped us a lot because we didn’t have to give a cut to someone else.”

But they still weren’t making what they thought was a reasonable income, and – when they decided the target number was actually more like $2000 a day – Wheeler decided to leave the business and got his real estate license. “It really helped me having the right business partner in the beginning because he was great at the details – setting up invoicing and quick books, and he called me the pit bull because if anyone said no to me I’d just go to the next person. So I had a really good foundation when he left.”

The sole proprietorship proved to be the right formula for Renaissance Urns. Hickey now produces some of her products in China with partners in the U.S. who can ship directly so she has little inventory and counts as one of her resellers. Twelve years into the business she jokes, “I’m getting rich in this business but very, very slowly.”

And despite the fact that Hickey hopped around in her early career because she “didn’t want to feel like a factory worker” she says the day-to-day is still rewarding with challenges like finding new products to design and new sales channels to sell through. “I miss the energy I would get from other people in the office, but not enough to go back.” As for regrets? Hickey’s only one is not starting sooner. “I’m 51 now and I think, gosh, if I had started at 35 instead of 40 where would I be now?” But there’s no time to dwell on that – there are too many new products to dream up.

You can find Mary’s company at:

Mary Hickey’s Business Tips:

  • Business partners are like marriage, success rates are not good. You have to support two people so the business needs to make twice the income. This puts a lot of pressure on a new business. If you can, go it alone. If you do decide on a partner, make sure they have skills that you don’t. Ideally their strengths are your weaknesses. Also, get your business agreement in writing before you start.
  • Have a sizable cushion before you start (6–12 months living and business expenses). Businesses are like house projects, they take twice as long and cost twice as much as you expect. If you don’t have that much money see if you can use OPM (other people’s money): angel investors, friends, family, Kickstarter, etc.
  • Think of ways to make money while you sleep. It’s nice to wake up richer than you went to bed without having to do anything. I wrote an ebook (Planning a Celebration of Life, A Simple Guide for Turning a Memorial Service into a Celebration of Life) and I sell it digitally through Amazon and my website I also invested in real estate, single family rental homes, when it finally became affordable in 2010.

Questions for Mary about starting a business? Post them here:

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 and or watch this video that traces the story from start to stage.

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.


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?