As the percentage of female entrepreneurs continues to grow, six Trinity alumnae reveal what it takes to own a successful business and how they’re barely getting started.
Diana Hirsch Kenny ’94, ’02 started her business in a parking lot.
In 2011, Hirsch Kenny was a licensed psychologist working for a San Antonio private school. Her work was meaningful, yet she had become disillusioned with school bureaucracy and craved something different. A new mother, she sought a schedule with more flexibility. Fulfilling an idea she first visualized as a master’s student, Hirsch Kenny realized a market existed for school psychologists outside of schools.
Trading files and using a virtual office software program, Hirsch Kenny and three colleagues met in parking lots, initially unable to afford the cost of an office. They named their business—“a special education department for hire”—A.I.M., or Assessment Intervention & Management. To date, A.I.M. is on its third office and employs 65 people, from school psychologists to speech and occupational therapists.
“In San Antonio, we are the only business like ours,” Hirsch Kenny says. “Right now, we are growing so rapidly we have moved into the Dallas market and are even exploring other states.”
Fifty percent of A.I.M.’s business is evaluations, where children become detectives who are trying to discover how they learn best. By working together, children become equal and empowered partners. A parent interpretation meeting reviews any testing or screening that was conducted. Additionally, Hirsch Kenny and her co-founders formed A.I.M. so it could also expand from one-on-one evaluations to running an entire school special education program.
Like many entrepreneurs, Hirsch Kenny designed her business around a niche problem that was unaddressed. A.I.M. is a mission-driven enterprise, a common theme for women business owners who build a purpose into their companies from the start. The business is economically profitable and is also imbued with a sense of social responsibility.
“When I meet with parents and I am able to explain to them, often for the first time, why their child is struggling, … that moment that washes over a parent, when they finally have an answer to all of the stress and the fear they have experienced, that is a defining moment of success,” Hirsch Kenny says. “Nothing feels better than that.”
As an entrepreneur, Hirsch Kenny has brought her skillset to the Texas Capitol in Austin, where she has lobbied representatives about regulations from the Texas State Psychology Board. This work is an opportunity she believes she would not have had if she had stayed in the public school system. “I see this as hugely important to the future of my field and to students that I have taught and mentored for the last 10 years,” Hirsch Kinney says. “I do it as much for myself as for them.”
Similar to Hirsch Kenny, Brenda Coffee ’74 founded her business, 1010 ParkPlace, when she spotted a gap in the market. For Coffee, that market was editorial content that catered to women over the age of 45. She began her journey after her breast cancer website earned her a featured speakers spot at Yahoo’s Internet Week in New York City. Coffee presented Yahoo's study about what women over 45 enjoyed about their lives to an invitation audience. Inspired, Coffee returned to San Antonio and launched 1010 ParkPlace as a media company to discuss everything from fashion to sex to financial management with that demographic in mind.
“I’ve always thought the Monopoly board is a good analogy for life,” Coffee says. “For women 45 and above, whether we live on Park Avenue in New York or rural Middle America, we have reached our Park Place.”
To engage online readers—“diehard loyal fans”—Coffee employs a cadre of influential writers, including business owners, doctors, models, producers, and others. Currently, 1010 ParkPlace is garnering as many unique website views as possible so Coffee can best recruit brands and “charge what good media placement is worth.”
As the website grows in popularity, Coffee acknowledges the journey has not always been easy. She recalls an instance when she was seeking investment capital and was met by a sexist and condescending potential investor.
“This man told me, ‘Honey, I know 10 other guys worth 100 million dollars apiece,’” Coffee says. “‘We like to brag about sexy new deals we invest in, and honey, there’s nothing sexy about women over 45.’”
Coffee was disgusted. What did this man know? Wasn’t he aware of the tremendous purchasing power of her target demographic and their burgeoning online presence?
Undeterred, Coffee forged ahead, using her business plan as her guide. For every entrepreneur, Coffee says the business plan should be treated as their bible. It answers how any business owner will get from point A to point B. In her estimation, a business plan is about more than raising funds, comparing it to a doctor’s manual that details exactly how a surgery is executed. She encourages future Trinity entrepreneurs to study their prospective industry carefully and incorporate that research into a surefire business plan.
Laurie Wann ’84 agrees wholeheartedly.
Wann is the founder and CEO of Intentional Entrepreneurs, a consulting firm that helps budding entrepreneurs launch and scale their businesses. Based in Chester, Calif., Wann believes a solid business plan is the bedrock of any company.
“When I started my business, the first step was to write a business plan,” Wann says. “I sat down to think through every step of what I was getting myself into. What was it that I had for sale and who was I going to serve? What were their needs? What was my unique gift or talent to offer?”
By answering these questions and others, Wann laid out a roadmap for her business. Perhaps the most important action entrepreneurs can take, Wann says, is to define why they are creating a business in the first place. Whether that reason is to make a profit or to make a difference, it does not matter, Wann says. The important thing is to have a mission statement you believe in. Keep it accessible for a constant reminder of your business’ purpose.
“Get clear on your ‘why,’” Wann says. “Owning a business is one of the biggest personal development journeys anyone can undertake. Whenever you feel like giving up, use your mission statement as motivation to keep moving forward.”
Wann launched Intentional Entrepreneurs in 2013 after careers in film and television, marketing, radio, and public education. Before starting her current business, Wann was the program director at a nonprofit. She had joined a local Mastermind, a group for people to support one another and to provide perspective, and voiced concerns about challenges at her nonprofit. As she listened to herself, she suddenly realized her true calling was in helping others succeed at their businesses.
“I thought, ‘This is exactly what I want to do,’” Wann says. “I feel that so many people go into business because they have a passion, but their passion is not business. People get overwhelmed or afraid, but there are steps to make the journey easier, which is my specialty.”
Wann never thought she wanted to be an entrepreneur but feels that serving small business owners is what she’s “supposed to be doing.” She gushes with enthusiasm as she talks about her work with the economic drivers of America’s small towns and communities. Wann has discovered that she is the toughest boss she has ever had.
“It is a double-edged sword,” Wann says. “There is no slacking off, but being an entrepreneur offers the ability to create true time, financial, and spiritual freedom. My business works for me, supports me, and allows me to live my purpose.”
By creating a business that fits her lifestyle, Wann joins a movement of women entrepreneurs who are self-authoring, or starting businesses that create workplace cultures that fit their needs and schedules. As business owners, women are able to dictate their own terms of work, which eases the disproportionate social burdens they face as wives, mothers, and caregivers.
Much like Wann, Denver-based Lisa Jasper ’95 enjoys the flexibility and autonomy that business ownership provides. Jasper is the CFO and managing partner of Thought Ensemble, a technology consulting firm she co-founded with Jim Smelley ’95. The firm provides strategy to clients so they can innovate with maximum impact.
“Historically, females are less often in the primary career seat,” Jasper says. “Regardless of the situation, women, as moms, are the quarterback of the household and everything goes through them—all of the scheduling, information, and organization around it. As an entrepreneur, you have to find ways to be authentic to who you are, to be the leader that works for you, and to use that ultimate flexibility to create the life you want.”
A “lifer consultant,” Jasper took a major step in her leadership journey in 2008 when she and Smelley left the small consulting firm where they were working together. The duo had been computer science majors at Trinity and saw an opportunity to make their mark with Thought Ensemble. Their firm was named to emphasize the insight they would bring to clients, their prioritization of intellectual capital, and—believe it or not—their shared extracurricular involvement in the Trinity choir.
Jasper and Smelley saw an analogy between the way voices complement one another in a choir and the harmony that can be created when colleagues work together for a shared goal. Delving into their industry experience, the pair co-wrote Reboot: Competing with Technology Strategy in 2011 to inform readers of the best way to think about technology within their business.
For Jasper, a critical factor in Thought Ensemble’s success is the company’s intentionality about who they hire and how that person fits into the team’s dynamic.
“We are different because we will bring multiple partners into an engagement to help a client think something through,” Jasper says. “If you work with clients to reach a solution, it feels like their idea. We feel most proud of our clients’ successes when they really own the idea and we are propping them up.”
Throughout her career, Jasper has found female role models in her professional peers because mentors in the form of senior women simply were not there. A fellow managing partner, as well as clients and colleagues at other firms, serve as touchstones. In the United States today, 38 percent of businesses are owned by females, an increase from 29 percent in 2007. And while women-owned companies employ nearly 7.9 million Americans, they still face greater obstacles in terms of accessing investment capital or obtaining loans.
According to Thea Polancic ’90, founder and managing partner of ClearSpace, this disparity is unacceptable because 51 percent of the population is not equally represented in the solutions posed by entrepreneurial thinking. At ClearSpace, Polancic coaches mid-market CEOs and their leadership teams at moments of growth and creates organizational structures designed for every employee to achieve. Polancic and her team teach executives to work effectively with one another to optimize success and long-term sustainability.
“We feel that by helping leaders evolve and be the kind of people to steer healthy organizations, that’s the kind of tide that raises all ships,” Polancic says.
She came to executive coaching circuitously, having majored in art history and Russian studies at Trinity. After a scholarly exchange in graduate school brought her to St. Petersburg, Russia, Polancic joined the expat community there, switching industries to become a chief administrative officer at Caterpillar’s Moscow office. She eventually returned home to Illinois and settled in Chicago, founding ClearSpace in 2002.
As she navigated life as a businesswoman and a new mom, Polancic turned to a Windy City icon for inspiration: Oprah Winfrey.
“I admire Oprah because of the extraordinary organization that she has created,” Polancic says. “As I thought about how to get things done, I realized Oprah would get somebody to do things for her, which caused me to think bigger and focus my time strategically.”
Akin to Wann, Polancic also thought deeply about her purpose. She envisioned a world of beauty, happiness, and prosperity powered by business. To realize this dream, Polancic convened a group of like-minded business people who also saw business as a source for good. The group that emerged would become the Chicago chapter of Conscious Capitalism, a global movement dedicated to elevating humanity through business.
In 2016, Polancic co-chaired the Conscious Capitalism national conference, which featured field trips to area companies, panels, keynote lectures, and networking events for CEO attendees. Daniel Lubetzky ’90, founder of KIND snacks and a personal friend of Polancic, gave a keynote address. The conference even caused Polancic to innovate within her own company. As ClearSpace accrues new clients, Polancic says it would have been unfathomable to anticipate her career trajectory as a Trinity student.
“My job did not even exist back then, so I advise Trinity students to do the next thing that feels right for you and do not worry if nobody else understands,” Polancic says. “Surround yourself with people who believe in you, and believe in yourself.”
Furthermore, she adds that students should be strategic in their search for mentors. Instead of corporate mentoring programs, Polancic tasks Tiger entrepreneurs to find someone they admire and develop a list of reasons why. Explain to the potential mentor why you admire her or his career and ask to spend time with her or him to address thoughtful and tough questions.
For women business owners, mentorship and strong business networks have proven essential for longevity and expansion. Sharon Lyle ’00, co-founder of Public City, says the “single most important thing in starting my business has been my tribe,” which is made up of mentors, advisers, and friends who have been her support along her journey.
A key moment in that journey happened in the Trinity development office, where she interned as a student worker. As she neared graduation, a supervisor named Ana Stuart advised Lyle to pursue a job that addressed causes she was passionate about. Lyle realized she cared strongly about the arts, education, and economic development. Her first job was as a development associate and coordinator for a private boys school; it was deeply satisfying work. Seventeen years later, Lyle has made those three areas the cornerstones of Public City, a culture-driven public engagement consultancy and studio based in Dallas.
“You can always get a job, but you will be much more effective and a lot happier if you can find a job that aligns with the things you care about,” Lyle says. “The work that we do at Public City is helping our clients connect with the people they are trying to reach.”
Through strategic planning, Public City helps cultural organizations plan and make investment decisions that will maximize the impact of their work. The company also engages people with their communities through public art, whether it is a physical piece or an art experience. Lyle views her work as a true extension of herself, a realization that became even clearer when she became pregnant a year into founding Public City.
Although the pregnancy was a wonderful surprise, Lyle had not anticipated the possibility so soon into her business. When she came back from maternity leave, she vowed to give the same level of commitment she had prior to her pregnancy. She was motivated by the reality that Public City’s success was largely contingent on her involvement and leadership.
“I gave myself the freedom to stay home, but that was never what I wanted to do,” Lyle says, alluding to society’s lopsided social norms. “At the end of the day, I was accountable to clients and to my business partner, and the business had a lot of me baked into it.”
Today, Public City has become what Lyle and her co-founder envisioned at its founding. Like her fellow Trinity alumnae, owning her own business means Lyle can “design her own playbook and write her own rules.” Her life is a balance between Halloween classroom parties, gymnastic practices, and board room negotiations, and she would not have it any other way. And while Lyle recalls professors Sheryl Tynes and Coleen Grissom as mentors, she has undoubtedly become a role model in her own right.
They may not have imagined growing up to be role models, but these six Trinity alumnae have blazed entrepreneurial paths—for themselves and for the women who look up to them. Instead of waiting for their turn in established corporations, each woman has carved her own place in the business world. Their businesses are fruitful because they each have a mission, a cause, a gap in the market that only they could fill.
Does a glass ceiling exist? If the percentage of women business owners is any indication, then yes, it does. But these women have shown that, armed with a Trinity education and a dream, anything is possible.
So grab your hardhats—Trinity sees some glass that’s about to come down.
Illustrations by Taylor Dolan '12