March is Women’s History Month. There are so many courageous women to celebrate and be grateful for. Women who broke through barriers no one thought were breakable. Women who revolutionized the world. Women who contributed to the evolution of society.
My mother was not one of them. But she was the strongest woman I ever knew. I want to celebrate who she was today. Not because she changed the course of history, but precisely because she did not. My mother was one of the many women who influenced only a few in their lives. However, the measure of a woman is more than the breadth of her impact.
At 45, my mother Anna courageously announced she was going into business for herself. It was the 1970’s. Even though the women’s rights movement was in full swing, a woman-owned business wasn’t as commonplace as it is today.
My mother raised me as a single parent since I was a toddler. For years, she paid the bills working in various administrative jobs from auto leasing to a local TV station to a shopping mall. When I reached my teens, she wanted to a more significant say in her destiny. With two divorces plus a third marriage that ended with the disappearance of my father, she was determined to change the trajectory of her life.
She quit her position as manager of a local restaurant to incorporate her new company, a party planning and rental firm. With startup capital from a second mortgage on our modest home, she bought tables, chairs, china, glasses, tablecloths, napkins and other accessories destined for rental. She acquired a second-hand cargo van and emblazoned her new company name and phone number all over it.
Anna leased a storefront with a small warehouse in the back. With little funds left to decorate the front office, she turned to the furniture in our house. She recruited one of the neighborhood boys for a couple of bucks to help her fill the van and unload it at the office. Anna turned our chrome and glass dining room table into a modern office desk. She converted dining room chairs into desk chairs and created a cozy reception area with our couch, coffee table and floor lamp.
That night we came home with takeout pizza to a house void of furniture. We sat outside in the humid Miami night on lawn chairs and ate our slices. Between mouthfuls of gooey cheese and sauce, she described her future vision in vivid detail to me. She counted the money she would earn by designing fabulous parties. The control she would have over her life. The party business in South Florida was lucrative and booming. She saw no reason why she couldn’t be a part of it.
After the initial euphoria of her decision wore off, there were many times when fear got the best of her. Especially during late nights of planning, managing scarce finances, and calling in favors from friends. Throughout the process, she fluctuated between enthusiasm and doubt, confusion and clarity, hope and despair. However, not once did I hear her say she would give up.
Within a few months of setting up shop, nothing materialized except a silent phone. Anna’s outreach to her network of business associates hadn’t produced any decent leads. Her direct mailers to fancy zip codes was a dead end. Out of ideas, low on cash and full of anxiety, she faced the reality that her entire net worth was in danger. She soberly admitted, “If this doesn’t work, I’ll probably lose the house.”
Terrified at this prospect, Anna bought a local business journal for some inspiration. She rifled through its pages, unsure of what she was hoping to find. Then she came across an advertisement for free small business consulting by retired executives. She immediately knew she’d found it.
When our consultant Jules walked in, Anna’s heart sunk. She expected a mature but well-groomed executive in a three-piece suit to show up at her door. Instead, Jules had wily grey hair with suntanned raccoon eyes and wore pea green polyester pants. He appeared to be the typical South Florida retiree who fled the northeast for a leisurely round of golf before catching the early bird special.
As it turned out, Jules was sharp as ever. During his career, he held several high-level corporate positions. Although he didn’t have any firsthand knowledge of the party planning industry, he was adept at dealing with the complexities and uncertainties of business.
Jules didn’t call himself a coach but he had outstanding coaching skills. He listened openly and curiously as Anna shared her struggles and her fears. Jules asked penetrating questions that made her think more broadly. He helped her test her assumptions, clarify her aspirations and eliminate distractions. In short, he shifted her mindset to focus on what she could do and what resources she did have to help her succeed.
During one session with Jules, Anna realized she could drive the company van to different neighborhoods where her ideal clients lived. (This is what you did before social media.) The goal was to get exposure by having potential prospects see the company name and phone number in their neighborhood. Several times a week, she parked the van in strategic locations for an hour or so. A high priced restaurant. An upscale shopping mall. A downtown intersection.
I went on one of these many drives with Anna to Coral Gables, a wealthy enclave south of us. We parked the van in front of a posh flower shop and walked across the street to a convenience store. We sat on a bench, drank diet sodas and watched hundreds of cars pass by our improvised advertising. After a long period of silence, she confessed her doubts about the merit of this idea. Then in a complete turnaround, she vowed that if this didn’t work, she would figure out another way to land her first big client.
A couple of weeks later, we were rearranging the still yet-to-be-rented party rentals stored in the back warehouse. Somewhere between refolding napkins and restacking china, the phone rang. Anna jumped to answer it. After exchanging greetings, the caller said the pivotal words that began the next chapter in Anna’s business journey. “I’m calling because I see your vans all over town. You must be so busy. I want to talk to you about organizing a surprise birthday party for my husband…”
The idea worked so well that the client thought she had multiple vans!
In the years that followed, Anna’s business flourished until the time of her death. Her life proved to me that, as William Shakespeare said, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
That’s what I learned from the strongest woman I ever knew.
Jo-Aynne von Born, Certified Professional Coach
Professional and personal development for executives, business professionals and entrepreneurs