Women and Business
It’s hard to imagine Chattanooga’s business scene without the city’s 7,825 women-owned firms (at last count in 1997, there were 34,417 total firms in the city). Whether the CEO of a small business venture or a major corporation, each businesswoman in Chattanooga is an element of the diverse business picture.
On Equal Footing
"Chattanooga is really on the cusp of the business-related initiatives and the rich diversity that continue to grow and enrich our area," says Ruth Brinkley, president and CEO of Memorial Health Care System, who was recently honored with the Senior Healthcare Executive Award by the National Association of Health Service Executives. "The playing field is level for all who want to work hard and succeed, no matter what gender or ethnicity a person may be. This provides a great environment for all leaders—including women."
Increased daycare options, the desire to be self-sufficient or offer greater financial support for their families, and a variety of other reasons have brought a surge of female professionals into Chattanooga. Thanks in part to a forward-thinking community, these women have been able to expand their careers and the services consumers can access locally.
"The standard role of women has been the mom and caretaker, but we’re now taking on much more than that," says Angela Glover, director of the Business Development Center and winner of the 2004 Tennessee State Small Business Advocate of the Year Award. "Women are great thinkers with innovative ideas, and we’re being recognized for this by our male peers every day.
The Starting Point
"Every time I accomplish a goal I have to create another one to prevent my professional life from becoming stagnant," says Rebecca Stern, a judge with the Hamilton County Criminal Court Division 2 and immediate past president of the Chattanooga Bar Association. "Thanks to the great atmosphere of Chattanooga, I’ve never experienced any type of discrimination during my schooling or business life, so meeting professional goals as a woman has been no different than it would be for a man."
It seems many women who have accomplished business success in the Chattanooga area echo Stern’s belief that with a concrete plan and a willingness to work hard, it’s possible for anyone to thrive in the business world. As many women have learned, one secret to success is staying within your realm of expertise.
Before starting C.J. Enterprises in 1980, Carolyn Jones, president and CEO, taught college and was a director of medical records in Detroit. Her entrepreneur father encouraged her to stay with record management, which led to Jones’ creation of a company that specializes in records and information management.
"My dad told me to start a business I knew something about," she recalls. "He said you want strong people around you to support your endeavors, but you should know the business inside and out if you plan to be successful.
When Bigger Isn’t Better
"We used to ask students where they wanted to work after graduation," says Marilyn Helms, DBA, CFPIM, CIRM, sesquicentennial endowed chair and professor of management at Dalton State College. "Now we ask, ‘What kind of business plan will you start?’ Mapping out a plan for the ideal business is a fundamental part of our schooling."
This spirit has challenged the way business is conducted in the Chattanooga area. As more women have recognized the opportunity to transform their passions into money-making ventures, the number of small businesses in the community has grown.
"Women see small businesses as something they can do and still have a personal life," Jones explains. "Any time women come to me for advice on starting their own small business, I encourage them to take their dreams and follow them. Don’t smother your dream and say it’s nonsense or believe people who say your idea is crazy. If it makes sense, all you have to do is take one step and God will carry you the rest of the way."
Taking Every Opportunity
Darlene Brown, senior vice president of Realty Center/GMAC, entered into the world of real estate after spending time as an escrow agent, helping new homeowners close transactions. Brinkley and Stern both took temporary positions that eventually opened the doors to their current positions. What do these women have in common? They all took challenges and risks that paid off in the end.
"I dealt with realtors every day and it seemed like an interesting career," says Brown. "When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the opportunity to start a new career. There are no limits to what you can do if you’re willing to work."
Beverly Inman-Ebel, CEO of Chattanooga’s TLC (Talk Listen Communicate, LLC) was recently named the recipient of the prestigious International Women Entrepreneur of the Year Award given by the FCEM (Les Femmes Chefs D’Entreprises or "The World Association of Women Entrepreneurs") Congress at a ceremony in Glasgow, Scotland. Also nominated for the award were leaders from Europe, Africa, South America, and the Far East. Inman-Ebel was honored at the meeting for her commitment to helping female business owners all over the world.
"I was honored to be recognized by my sisters from across the globe," says Inman-Ebel. "There are many women from third world countries who are trying to raise their standard of living by becoming business owners—they are the real heroes."
It Takes a Team
A faithful mentor can be important for an up-and-coming businesswoman. Whether that mentor is a family member (such as Jones’ entrepreneurial family, Brinkley’s grandmother who helped her choose to enter health care, or Brown’s husband) or bosses and co-workers (Judge Stern was nurtured in this way), the help and encouragement of others can be an important key to finding success—regardless of your gender. And truly successful individuals realize that reaching out to women who are entering the business arena—whether private or public—is equally as necessary as seeking help when in a rut.
"Once you find success, give back to other young businesspeople by telling them about the challenges you face on your way," Jones says. "This can help them avoid pitfalls and find success."
Erin May, President, Preservation Studio South
"I work around male-dominated fields, but it has never posed a problem," May says. "I am used to it now and it gives me more confidence."
The 30-year-old became fascinated by the historic preservation process while completing a college internship at the Downtown Planning and Design Center. May partnered with her former GPS teacher, Andy Smith, to start Preservation Studio South last year when she was unable to find a historical preservation job in the private sector.
"As I started my company, I found plenty of people willing to offer advice," May says. "The best advice I got was to work for myself if I couldn’t find anyone else to work for."
Vicky Gregg, President and CEO, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee
On any given day, Vicky Gregg, president and CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, makes decisions that affect 2 million people. Her responsibilities contributed to her ranking as the fifth most powerful person in the state by Business Tennessee magazine, although Gregg still has fond memories of her entry into the workforce as a nurse during the early 1980s.
"When I started my career I had no idea I would do anything but nursing," Gregg says. "Managed care didn’t exist and health insurance executives generally came from finance or actuarial backgrounds."
When she joined BlueCross BlueShield in 1995, Gregg was named president and CEO of Volunteer State Health Plan, a BlueCross subsidiary and one of America’s largest Medicaid health maintenance organizations. Her most significant accomplishment, she says, was her contribution to the restructuring of the TennCare program.
"It is rare to have everything go according to plan and always be successful," Gregg says. "The key to getting through hard times is the ability to face reality, make changes when necessary, persevere, and believe things will get better."
Pam Sulser, Owner, Curves
"I didn’t know anything about business, but I was willing to learn and was also comfortable enough to know I would make mistakes," Sulser says. "Luckily, everything worked out."
Now, the owner of two branches of the Curves weight-loss and fitness center (in North Chattanooga and Lookout Valley) has about 1,300 members between her two franchises and loves the feeling she gets when she walks through the doors each day.
"I found a company that made me feel good," Sulser says. "Opening Curves was an opportunity to change my life while helping other women achieve their goals. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made."
Ruth Holmberg, Publisher Emeritus, The Chattanooga Times
The granddaughter of Adolph Ochs, founder of the Chattanooga Times and the New York Times, Holmberg began her professional career as a newspaper reporter and soon became a magazine writer for the New York Times. She eventually served as director of both the New York Times Company and the Associated Press.
"I am thrilled that women are now holding so many important jobs in Chattanooga and helping each other achieve success," Holmberg says. "Set your goals high and do your very best—you can’t be made to feel inferior without your consent."
Julie Brandao, Partner, Huffaker & Trimble, Inc.
As the division grew, Brandao became sales manager of the department. In December of 1999, she was asked to become a partner in the agency.
"That was a wonderful moment," says Brandao, now vice president of personal line sales at Huffaker & Trimble, Inc. "If you’re proactive in your work, it will be noticed. I was given a job to do and I worked hard."
But the office isn’t the only scene of Brandao’s success. As a wife and mother of two children—5-year-old Katie and 21-month-old Emma—she faces the daily challenge of balancing work and home.
"As a working mom, you get pulled between the two responsibilities," she says. "Fortunately, I have some flexibility with my job and excellent daycare and kindergarten for my children."