women's history month

The Strongest Woman I Ever Knew

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 mid-life, my mother Anna courageously announces she will go into business for herself. It was the 1970’s. Even though the women’s rights movement was in full swing, a woman-owned business was not as commonplace as today.

Anna raised me as a single parent after my father abandoned us when I was a toddler. We never heard from him again. 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, Anna realized she needed a more significant say in the direction of her life.

She quit her position as a local restaurant manager to incorporate her new company: a party planning and rental firm: 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 items destined for rental. She acquired a second-hand cargo van and painted her company name and phone number on it.

Anna leased a storefront with a small attached warehouse to store her new inventory. With little funds left to decorate the front office, she turned to the furniture in our house. She recruited a neighborhood boy to fill the van with as much as he could and unload it at the office. Our chrome and glass dining room table became her modern office desk. Dining room chairs transformed into office seating. Our couch, coffee table and floor lamp created a welcoming reception area.

That night, we came home to an empty house with take-out pizza. We sat outside on lawn chairs in the humid Miami night and ate our slices. Anna described her business vision in vivid detail to me between mouthfuls of gooey cheese and tomato sauce. She counted the wealth she would create designing fabulous parties. The control she would have over her life. The party business in South Florida was lucrative and booming. Anna saw no reason why she couldn’t be a part of it.

After the initial euphoria wore off, fear often got the best of my mother. I remember her late nights of planning strategies, managing scarce finances, and calling in favors from friends. I watched her fluctuate 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 hadn’t produced any decent leads. Her direct mailers were a dead end. She was out of ideas, low on cash and full of anxiety. Anna realized her entire net worth was in danger. In one particularly low moment, she confessed, “If this doesn’t work, I’ll probably lose the house.”

Terrified at this prospect, Anna bought a local business journal to find inspiration. She rifled through its pages, unsure of what she thought she might find. When she came across an advertisement for free small business consulting by retired executives, Anna knew she had found it.

However, when our consultant Jules walked in, Anna’s heart sunk. In her vivid imagination, she expected a well-groomed executive in a three-piece suit to show up at her door. Instead, Jules had unkempt, wily grey hair, raccoon suntanned eyes and sported pea green polyester pants. He seemed 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 assumptions, clarify aspirations and eliminate distractions. He helped her shift her mindset to focus on what she could do and the resources she did have to help her succeed.

During one session with Jules, Anna uncovered the idea that she could get exposure by driving the company van to wealthy neighborhoods where her ideal clients lived. (This is what you did before social media.) 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 soda, and watched hundreds of cars pass by our improvised advertising. We had no idea if this would work.

A couple of weeks later, Anna and I rearranged the still yet-to-be-rented party rentals in the back warehouse. Somewhere between refolding napkins and restacking china, the phone rang. My mother jumped to answer it. The caller said the pivotal words that began the next chapter in her 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.”

For all women, this month and every month, live life at your authentic best. Whatever you do, give it 100% by doing these three things: Commit to creating your ideal without waiting for it to happen to you. Recalibrate when necessary. Get help any way that you can.

That’s what I learned from the strongest woman I ever knew.

Jo-Aynne von Born, Certified Professional Coach

Authentic Success for Entrepreneurs, Executives, Business Leaders

Individual/Team Coaching, Workshops

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