Women Entrepreneurs and their Million-Dollar Ideas
For these female entrepreneurs, success was just a business away.
Sometimes, filling up a bank account has been as breezy as taking a walk … down the aisle. If you are the marrying type, marrying can be lucrative. While not the impetus, certainly, for commingling in matrimony (well, most of the time, anyway), wealth—and the infusion of it—has offered creative possibility for many women. Along with family inheritance and divorce settlements, wedded bliss has historically provided well for gals, at least for the ones who, ahem, choose wisely.
These days, though, the social and economic landscape looks much different. More and more women are making it on their own, with no help from the guy with the rosebud on his lapel. Or from Daddy. Indeed, more than half of the country’s start-up businesses are owned by women. And more than 80 percent of women derive their wealth, whatever it may be, from personal earnings. According to the Center for Women’s Business Research, of the 10.6 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., 776,283 of them are in Texas (the third highest ranking state), and 144,361 are in the Dallas metropolitan area. Women own 38.7 percent of all businesses in the state, and 39.3 percent in North Texas.
While a disproportionate number of female entrepreneurs never reach the million-dollar mark in revenue, there are some in Dallas-Fort Worth who have. Here are a few of their stories.
|SEEKING AN ESCAPE
Owner, herroom.com, a lingerie web site
One Saturday afternoon 20 years ago, Tomima Edmark sat in her living room, watching television, thinking that she might just go into the office. It was something to do. “It was pathetic,” she says, referring to that notion as well as to her sales position at IBM. She thought, “I have to get a life outside this miserable job.”
So, at 30, with a mortgage and an MBA from The University of Texas, she devised a plan. “I’d seen a girl with a French twist in her hair, and had an idea for a product,” she says. “I came home and made a prototype. I played with paper clips, hangers and, ultimately, made a sample from a circular knitting needle.”
Edmark knew she needed an injection mold, though, to be able to mass-produce her invention. But she didn’t want to borrow the $5,000 to buy one. That’s easy, she thought. “I’ll just sell a book, and use that money to get going. Writing made sense because it didn’t require assets to do it.”
Edmark, who is dyslexic, bought a word-processing package and researched subjects that no one had written about. “I became a self-proclaimed expert on kissing,” she recalls, “and I sold a book for $7,500 [plus royalties]—more than enough.”
She bought the mold and launched TopsyTail, selling it by mail order through a rented Post Office box and earning $3,000 each month. Three weeks after Glamour magazine ran a small feature on the ponytail-inversion accessory, Edmark had 100,000 orders. About three years ago, she sold the rights to TopsyTail for undisclosed millions.
“I was not a good fit for IBM,” she says.
Today, Edmark owns and runs an online company that went live in 2000. HerRoom.com (and HisRoom.com) is a retail site for lingerie that also offers interactive capabilities for determining hard-to-ascertain sizing. About four million people visit HerRoom each year. Revenues are “just south of $25 million,” she says.
“Twenty-four hours in a day is a lot of time,” Edmark says, even as a single mom with two children. “When I hear, ‘I don’t have the time,’ I say, ‘Wrong. Be willing to take it on.’ ”
Edmark, who has no business partners, likes to own all of what she creates. “Men go out and leverage their companies, bring in investors, borrow. I have a cookie-jar mentality. I wonder, though, if I let go a bit, if it could be a bigger pie. But women are not taught that. When I control it, I can make it work.”
|BY HER BOOTSTRAPS
Owner, hattie hill enterprises, a management consulting firm
As one of six daughters raised by a single mother in rural Arkansas, Hattie Hill’s life was full of lessons. “I grew up a poor farm girl,” she says. “I learned how to work hard, be a person of your word, and give to others.”
At 50, Hill views her personal timeline in thirds. “Childhood was Act One. Act Two was for getting a good education, building wealth, and trying to figure it all out. Now, Act Three is about being a catalyst for change.”
Sometime during Act Two, Hill was working as the training director for the Texas Rehabilitation Commission when a friend asked her for a favor: Would she develop a training program for a group of managers? What began as a side project continued for three years, until Hill left her full-time position and struck out on her own, launching Hattie Hill Enterprises in 1984.
“I realized I loved to watch people learn,” she says.
Today, her management consulting and training firm has clients throughout North America and in 42 countries. Hill is known for her expertise in managing human relationships in the workplace, including issues of diversity, gender, and communication. She has written several books on leadership and communication, and is highly regarded on the speakers’ circuit, spending 70 percent of her time traveling to give talks and consult with corporations around the world.
In 2007, she received the distinguished Trumpet Awards Foundation’s first-ever “High Heels in High Places” award, which is given to an African-American woman for her accomplishments in business.
In Dallas, Hill serves on numerous boards, including for the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, Chiapas Project, YWCA of Metropolitan Dallas, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. She is also a board member for Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and the Meeting Professionals International Foundation.
“My mother worked in a Van Heusen shirt factory” in Arkansas, Hill says. “I learned to be a bootstraps worker. Now, I feel it’s important to give back to a community that has given to you, to make the planet better because it has allowed you to be there.”
Last year, Hattie Hill Enterprises reported revenue of nearly $2 million.
|TAKING A RISK
Owner, imprimis group inc., a staffing company
Valerie Freeman was on the business faculty of El Centro Community College when word-processing technology emerged in the early 1980s. She had no entrepreneurial experience. But she had a hunch.
“I knew that people were buying this new technology and they needed help. It was an area that was growing, and it presented an opportunity for me to switch from the academic world to the business world,” says Freeman, who founded the multi-discipline staffing company, Imprimis Group Inc., in 1982. She began by finding employment for people in the computer industry, and ultimately expanded into other industries as well.
“I was starting from zero, being my own boss, and I loved it. I had retirement money from the district, and I paid myself very little,” says Freeman, whose three divisions and six offices now employ about 800. “I made mistakes, but I learned how to do everything. I knew the technology field, but I didn’t know how to sell, how to run a business, how to hire salespeople.”
The business was profitable from its inception, says Freeman, acknowledging that balance sheets aren’t always promising at the beginning. “My expectations were low,” she says, laughing. “I figured I’d pay myself the same amount of money as I would earn from teaching a course, which was only $8,000.”
Imprimis—with its divisions Mature Personnel, BravoTECH, and Art Squad—now boasts revenue exceeding $25 million, making it one of the largest independently owned staffing companies in Texas.
Freeman still keeps a hand in education as chairman of the Dallas Community College District Foundation, and as founder and a director of the Texas Women Ventures Fund. The fund, which has invested $5 million in women-led companies over the last three years, is comprised of 40 self-made female millionaires.
Success like hers, Freeman believes, always involves risk.
“You can do a lot of research, and you can try to address the possible obstacles,” she says. “But you have to bite your tongue, step out, and make it happen.”