Women entrepreneurs share their insights

The lively give-and-take discussion highlighted hurdles, resources, and common themes.

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The panel of eight women entrepreneurs shared their experience, advice, and wisdom with a mostly female audience of 55 that crowded the culinary arts dining room. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Energy and enthusiasm ran high at the Women Entrepreneurs of MV: Revitalization Forum held at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Tuesday morning. The panel of eight women entrepreneurs shared their experience, advice, and wisdom with a mostly female audience of 55 that crowded the culinary arts dining room.

The event was billed as “an opportunity to network, exchange resources, and plan future gatherings to share, empower, and educate women in business.”

The professionally and ethnically diverse panel ranged widely in experience, education, and background. It included a dentist, an herbalist-author, a medical clinic director, management consultant, shop owner/jewelry maker, and others. Equally varied, the audience drew together educators, writers, business owners, and consultants in many fields, along with several RHS students. The students, all WINFO members, helped facilitate the event as well.

Vineyard Gazette publisher Jane Seagrave moderated the 90-minute session.

Each panelist made a short opening presentation, based on three questions posed by organizers: “How did you got involved in your business/work? What hurdles and challenges have you encountered as women entrepreneurs and as Islanders? What advice would you offer?” Speakers later responded to questions from the audience in a lively give-and-take.

Goal focused

Although panelists’ personal stories differed, recurrent themes ran through their talks. Many cited the value of doing what you love, maintaining focus, staying committed to goals even when obstacles arise, self-care, taking risks, and gathering supportive allies as colleagues, board members, or advisers.

“Make sure you bring yourself and others joy through your business,” advised Holly Bellebuono, an herbalist, author, speaker, and workshop leader.

Like all the panelists, Ms. Bellebuono gave suggestions that were applicable to many professions and areas of life. She recalled learning that in goal-setting “being SMART,” an acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound was important for success.

“But you need to go further,” she said, adding that it is also important to “be WISE.” Standing for wholistic, imaginative, sustainable, and enjoyable, the acronym highlights the need for support, creativity, lasting goals, and enjoyment in work.

Julie Fay, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Community Services since 2013, related how she had entered human services work through a Boston volunteer job as a college student in the 1970s. The work with juvenile delinquents was daunting, but she stuck with it, soon taking a job with the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, and embarking on a human services career spanning several decades.

She pointed to the value of taking risks in work, to learn both what one is and is not able to do.

“Anything can be accomplished if you have the right people on your team,” she added.

Dentist Karen Gear moved to the Vineyard from New York City seeking a less stressful and more neighborly lifestyle after 9/11. But relocating her dental practice here entailed significant challenges, from finding an appropriate commercial space and financing the new business, to finding qualified staff. But she determinedly met the challenges, and now operates Martha’s Vineyard Endodontics in the Tisbury Marketplace.

“If you want to be your own boss, you have to take risks,” Dr. Gear said.

For Judy Jones, coming to the Island and becoming originally clinical and now medical director at Island Health Care, the rural health center, was an important step in realizing a lifelong wish.

Discouraged from applying to nursing school as a teen, she became a medical secretary as she was advised. But later she returned to school and earned her nursing degree. Despite financial pressures and being a single mother, she stayed committed to her career, and age 52 she received her doctorate, a longstanding goal. She recalled that her father’s early admonition to get an education had proved invaluable.

Berta Giles Welch said that as a July baby, she “grew up” in her family’s shop on the Gay Head Cliffs. She now is co-owner of Stony Creek Gifts, and makes contemporary wampum jewelry with family members. She also chairs the Aquinnah Cultural Center, and said that in both roles her goal is “to bring something unique to the Island.”

Ms. Welch said that people sometimes seek advice about beginning a business on the Vineyard.

“I ask people what they can bring to Martha’s Vineyard. Not everything fits in. You really want to make a good fit for the Island,” Ms. Welch explained.

Speaking from Zurich via Skype, Eleanor Tabi Haller-Jorden, president and CEO of Paradigm Forum GmbH, offered insights gleaned from her extensive work in global leadership, workplace design, cross-cultural management, women’s empowerment, and social justice.

Her business is unique, relying heavily on technology and virtual collaboration. With a small core staff in Switzerland, and 43 project-oriented consultants from various fields worldwide, the company maintains no physical workplaces.

The recommendations she offered to anyone establishing a business are to leverage technology, maintain flexible work arrangements, and establish supportive working boards. Intending to open a Vineyard office in 2016, Ms. Haller-Jorden said she is confident that the isolation of being on an Island will not be a problem, thanks to technology.

A regional high school grad, Liz Rothwell described the circuitous path to her present professional position. It began with waiting on tables every summer to earn college money. After graduating, she approached the Harbor View Hotel, asking for work in event planning. Instead, they hired her as an accounting assistant. Finally she was offered a post in event planning, then became director of marketing and special events for the Harbor View and Kelley House. Recently she was named regional director of marketing for Scout Hotels, overseeing six properties on the Cape and islands.

“Hard work and doing something that may not be exactly what you want to do to get your foot in the door pays off,” Ms. Rothwell said.

“There are many paths to what you want, and you need to keep your eye on the ball,” summed up Jane Seagrave. She said that although she, like some other panelists, had not faced the financial burden of starting her own business, leaving a successful Associated Press career in New York to become publisher of the Vineyard Gazette represented a personal risk. “I was drawn by the sense of community on the Vineyard,” she said.

Participants share advice

During the question and answer segment, audience members eagerly sought advice about how to begin, move ahead with, and thrive in business endeavors. Panelists addressed how to identify and stay focused on goals, maintain personal balance and well-being in a busy job, and adjust to changing workplace expectations and demands.

“You have to define the service you want to provide,” Dr. Gear said. For her the focus was on offering a needed service, quality dental care.

“Start with your passion, then narrow it,” recommended Ms. Bellebuono. “Ask What is it that I do that nobody else can?”

The successful herbalist offered some hints for maximizing productivity. Her day revolves around her family, she said. Work begins when her two children go to school, and ends with the afternoon school bell. She splits her day between creative endeavors in the morning and practical business chores later. She even has established two spaces in her home, to accommodate those two aspects of her work life.

Some stressed the importance of considering attitude and values along with skills in prospective employees. Ms. Fay pointed to the value of making the most of younger and newer staff by delegating responsibility to them.

“Throw them in the deep end of the pool,” she suggested.

Audience member Shelly Davis, a behavioral psychologist, offered a tip for productive goal setting and improving focus. Set measurable goals, she urged.

“They need to be small, tiny, something you can do in 10 minutes, not in 10 years!”

Added another audience member, “As you achieve those goals, give yourself a little pat on the back.”

Ms. Jones said that caring for one’s own needs and relationships, especially when job demands are high, is of utmost importance.

“Invest in the best diet you can, take time to meditate, enjoy the arts … get outdoors. Take time out for yourself,” Ms. Jones advised. “I want my patients to live well and healthy, and I want to live well and healthy too.”

As a welcome postscript to the morning of vibrant sharing, India Rose of Lavish Martha’s Vineyard, an event- and wedding-planning business, announced she is working to revitalize MVWN, which has been dormant for some months. It will be rechristened C.E.O., for Creative Entrepreneur with Opportunities, working to support, connect, and inspire Island professional and business women.

Sponsors were ACE MV, the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, the Martha’s Vineyard Women’s Network, and MVRHS WINFO (a student organization aiming to create opportunities and career inspiration for young women). Lynn Ditchfield, founder and program director of ACE, worked on organizing the event in consultation with teacher and WINFO advisor Corinne Kurtz, and Jan Pogue, Vineyard Stories publisher.