In our market economy, businesses fly or they die. We who live in small towns feel it acutely when a store folds, leaving a vacancy both on the street and in ourselves. And guilt. Could we have done more? Last month my favorite local boutique closed its doors. It was owned by a very young woman, and though I don’t know the circumstances of her closing, I remember when she opened, and my admiration verging on awe for the self-confidence she demonstrated in starting her own business.
In resuming this column, I expected to write about how a small group of very accomplished women were helping to avoid the depressing and disheartening sight of “Going Out of Business” signs. But the funny thing about journalism, even an opinion space like this one, is that sometimes the story you set out to write will change itself for the better. Because it turns out, this is not a story about empty office space, but about the ideas and drive that will continue to occupy it, but sometimes, needs a little coaxing. Which is why, when I sat down with the four remarkable women who comprise the Litchfield-based Women’s Enterprise Initiative (WEI) to talk about their work for our local economy, the group’s founder, Anthea Disney of Litchfield, quickly set me straight.
“We’re not an economic development corporation,” she said, “We’re a group of women who really just want to help other women.”
Ms. Disney, and her partners Carole Marks and Deborah Seidel of Litchfield, and Maggie Selby of Cornwall Bridge are wise to be betting on the women. From the World Bank to the United Nations, women are being touted as this millennium’s most dynamic economic force. In a recent speech at Yale, Coca Cola’s president and CEO Muhtar Kent pointed out how women entrepreneurs are the real drivers of social change, and noted that in the US, women-owned businesses account for nearly $4 trillion in GDP. While other people admirably lend their energy to international causes, the four women of WEI have a shared conviction to focus their efforts as close to home as possible. And they do it for free, although, with their resumes, this team could elsewhere command sky-high consulting fees.
If you’ve read the business pages for the last three decades, you know Ms. Disney as many things, including president of publisher Harper Collins and then for two decades, one of Rupert Murdoch’s top executives at News Corp. A year ago she moved full time to her weekend home in Litchfield with her husband, author Peter Howe, and turned her energy homeward. In so doing, she gathered three kindred spirits who happened to be some of her best friends, all professional super-achievers in their own right, who similarly wished to volunteer their time and expertise locally. They all recognized the gulf between their privileged lives afforded them largely by their own professional successes, and the ones of economic struggle felt by many women in the area. And so they wished to bridge it. “We really wanted to try to help Litchfield Country,” said Ms. Disney. “We’re all here because we love it.”
She credits her friend Deborah Seidel with the idea to create an information, advice and mentoring service, not to lend money, but rather to foster and nurture local women’s entrepreneurial ideas. “We have something that nobody else is really giving these people, which is the perspective of our cumulative experience and our willingness to sit down and listen to anyone from unsophisticated businesswomen to some pretty sophisticated ones as well.” Ms. Seidel has her own storied resume both in nonprofits and in the art world, where among other positions, she was a senior executive at the auction house that is now Phillips de Pury. Like Ms. Disney, Ms. Seidel’s career spans the globe, but she, too, recognized the needs in her neighborhood, and the opportunity for a positive undertaking right here.
And who hasn’t had an itch to start something new and wondered how to get it off the ground? Entrepreneurship for Dummies might only go so far. WEI’s role is to help crystallize ideas, and strategize the growth of existing businesses or the streamlining of struggling ones. Each of the four women partners brings different skills to the operation. Maggie Selby has a marketing and communications background, and also started her own hugely successful business. She co-founded the events behemoth MJM Creative Services, and tries to impart her management know-how to the hardworking and energetic but very busy people she encounters with WEI. “Women have too many balls in the air, so sometimes they can’t figure out how to do all the work that’s required to become more successful,” she said. “We can help with that.”
Carole Marks, a former globetrotting group president of corporate giant Pitney Bowes, has served on the boards of many publicly traded companies. Now, she owns the equestrian facility Far Meadow Farm in Morris, and said that in spite of the expertise they are prepared to offer, sometimes, they are there just to lend an ear.
It’s easy to imagine that every business story begins with a simple conversation and before that, a spark. According to the women of WEI, dreams are alive and well in Litchfield County. Women—several dozen so far—have consulted them on, among other things, opening nail salons, how to market themselves as a make-up artist, establishing nonprofit institutions and on starting a $5 million business. These four can’t teach the self-confidence they’ve earned from decades of success, but they can help to put women in situations where they do well enough to earn it themselves. What they might not allude to is that the example they collectively and individually provide is itself motivating.
Of course, some women seem to have been born with it, the risky gene, or the courage to see an idea come to fruition. Some women prefer the flexibility and autonomy of being their own bosses, rather than having to punch in for someone else. Some women, either because of the economy, divorce, or hard luck, have no choice. Some women are empty nesters whose long-delayed dreams can finally see the light of day. Women may be the future of the global economy, but closer to home, fulfilled women in our small towns will only enrich us all. And in the end, the WEI hopes that the ideas and drive and promise that simmer in our area’s women will beget other good fortune, and other jobs. And perhaps eventually fill office space. Maybe even the dress shop that sits empty but ready for the next inspired person. Sorry guys, but my money is on a woman.
Marcia DeSanctis, a regular contributor to The Litchfield County Times, lives in Bethlehem.