By J.D. Booth
As remarkable as the collection of those being honored by the Michigan Business and Professional Association (through its Women and Leadership in the Workplace program) and the National Association of Women Business Owners — Greater Detroit Chapter (with its Top Ten Michigan Business Women), most of those being singled out would tell you their accomplishments ought not to be considered a matter of gender. That may be true, but in a world that’s still writing the story of equality in opportunity, we continue to look for ways to celebrate their success. Whether it’s leading a team or taking an idea and seeing it come alive, from our youngest honoree (still in her teens) to a near professional volunteer with more than four decades of service under her belt, there are stories to tell. And Corp! is pleased to do so as we showcase their accomplishments and inspire others to follow their lead.
When Renée Ahee found her career in banking communications coming to an abrupt end, she didn’t miss a beat, forming her own public relations, investor relations and marketing firm some 10 years ago. Ahee quickly began attracting an impres-sive list of clients, among them Marygrove College, the Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services and the Council of Asian Pacific Americans. With an ethnic background that includes her father’s Lebanese heritage and Latin American roots (her mother grew up in Argentina), Ahee has parlayed a cultural sensitivity with her communications skills, having earned a degree in journalism and humanities from Marygrove, plus a master’s degree in corporate finance from Walsh College. While acknowledging that challenges remain for a sole practitioner, Ahee says she’s committed to providing service and building relationships, including with fellow members of the Detroit Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (where she is accredited). Her contributions to the profession include having served as the group’s first multicultural officer from 2001 through 2005 (resulting in a chapter award from the national organization). Ahee is a board member of Metro Healthcare Services, the Matrix Theatre Company and an advisor to the Lebanese American Chamber of Commerce. She is also a co-founder of the Arab American Women’s Business Council and served as original co-chair of the Inforum (formerly Women’s Economic Club) Diversity Committee and a member of the WEC Nominating Committee in 2004 and 2005. Ahee is a member of the PR and Marketing Advisory Committee for the Detroit Regional Chamber and serves as a member of the National Task Force for the Arab American National Museum.
CFS Financial Services
Why leave a comfortable, predictable government job for the uncertainty of private enterprise? In the case of Patricia Cole, it was more than the work she was doing for the city of Detroit’s water department —and the satisfaction of attracting millions in grant money to be used for system improvements — that was in play. “I loved my job,” says Cole, “but I had a supervisor who came in and started making my life miserable. When I thought about leaving, I asked my mother for advice and she asked me: ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ I told her: ‘No, I don’t.’” Nevertheless, Cole did leave the $23,000 job in 1983, even while raising two boys (both of whom now work for her). “I had a house in northwest Detroit and no car,” she recalls. “I didn’t think I had a lot to lose.” Initially, CFS provided financial services to the nonprofit community; two years later, a shift in focus meant the company would concentrate on contract staffing, consulting and training, setting a pattern for change as customer needs changed. More change came in 1993 with the launch of Client Focused Solutions, LLC, a human resources solutions partner offering personal and professional development training, workplace learning and performance coaching and human resources consulting. Cole, who now has a second office in Atlanta, continues to serve the community even as she looks to an eventual retirement. One notable area of involvement: her longstanding role as commissioner for the Detroit-Wayne Joint Building Authority (16 years, the last five of which have been as its chair). Cole is also a board member of both the Development Corporation of Wayne County and the Metropolitan Growth Development Corporation. Outside her business, Cole has continued to look for ways to recognize others, particularly African-American women, who are making a difference in the community.
Civil Air Patrol
Categorizing Amy Courter’s service might be something of a challenge, but what may be her most visible role is as national commander of the Civil Air Patrol, the 58,000-plus volunteer organization that serves as the non-combatant auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. But Major-General Courter has also distinguished herself in a number of other areas as well, notably business where she retired as vice president of IT and telecommunications for Valassis Communications. An active member of the Civil Air Patrol for almost 30 years, Courter says her interest began even before she was old enough to join the organization, as a member of a law enforcement post with the Explorers, a Girl Scouts program. “At 18, you age out of that,” notes Courter, who discovered the Civil Air Patrol as an outlet for her energy and enthusiasm. Now having been qualified in both ground and in the air operations, Courter remembers being asked by her former CEO at Valassis why she was so enthusiastic about being involved in the Civil Air Patrol. “I told him, ‘if I can get someone to look for someone in a snowstorm, without being paid, I ought to be able to get them to do a great job here.’” Today Courter, who is based in Michigan, but also has an office at Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery, Ala., is putting an academic background in education, psychology and computer science to work in ways that might be dizzying to others (she’s also CEO of Advanced Materials, a South Lyon, Mich.-based startup that is developing carbon fiber applications, among them high strength, lightweight blades for wind turbines). In everything, leadership is at the forefront. “What has worked well for me is to lead first,” Courter notes. “Yes, sometimes we have to command. But my goal is to motivate people, to align the goals and objectives of the organization and the personnel.”
Terrie W. Henderson
TWW & Associates
It’s fair to say that for much of Terrie Henderson’s career, children have been the focus. So much so that she’s now head of three separate organizations largely devoted to providing childcare services to those who need it most, some on a nonprofit basis; others who contract the service on behalf of employees. Starting with TWW, which she launched after leaving a role at Wayne County Community College that included providing services to those with special needs, Henderson wrote grant proposals for various nonprofit groups, seeking out funding related to the same types of services. Henderson eventually launched Angel Land Child Care & Parent Services, a nonprofit dedicated to satisfying the need for childcare in low-income areas. “Many childcare facilities can’t make it off what the state pays for that service,” notes Henderson, pointing to the difficulty faced with a welfare-to-work participant who wants a “good, safe, healthy environment for their children.” When Henderson saw the opportunity of providing the same level of quality childcare for organizations that could and would pay for it, she launched Angelic Care Child & Dependent Care Solutions, a for-profit entity that counts the U.S. Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration among its clients (employees of which use the service while on duty). Among the various recognitions Henderson has received is the Spirit of Detroit Award in recognition of her achievement, outstanding leadership and dedication to improving the quality of life for Detroit citizens. Even as she gets ready to move into a downtown Detroit building she’s bought to house her operations, Henderson admits times are tough – and likely to remain so. “It makes it difficult because human services are the first to be hit.” Still, she’s committed to the cause. “It’s hard and it’s frustrating some times, but I stay inspired.”
The owner of what is arguably one of Michigan’s best-run incentive companies, Barbara Hendrickson sees opportunity where others might not. The ailing economy, for example, is a great time for those who need to keep their best salespeople motivated and available for when things heat up again. And that ought to bode well for Design Incentives. At the same time, Hendrickson, who launched her firm with a view to offering customers a higher level of service, sees another opportunity: to reexamine how the business works, targeting audiences — “essentially reinventing ourselves, which for most small businesses is a work in progress.” When times are good, she says, “it’s difficult to justify the time and energy that takes.” From two offices — Livonia and St. Joseph in the Benton Harbor area — Hendrickson has already earned a reputation for superior customer service and strategic solutions geared toward building employee and client satisfaction. Having already taken the steps necessary to survive in tough times, she’s looking ahead, even as she works to improve the operation. “We took our business from a $5 million company with four employees to a $25 million business with 150 employees and back again. And we’re still here.” Today, Design Incentives continues to offer a wide range of programs to increase sales, including the development of consumer offers and sales incentives, promotional products, employee rewards and ways to manage customer relationships. And opportunities continue to exist, one being keeping employees and clients delighted through products they might not otherwise buy for themselves — like Omaha steaks or designer handbags. “Flexibility, a willingness to change and a constant focus on the customer has kept us in the game,” says Hendrickson.
St. John Health
As CEO of St. John Health System for the past year (she took over from Elliot Joseph on Jan. 1, 2008), Patricia Maryland is tackling a number of challenges faced by those addressing the health care needs of residents served by St. John’s seven hospitals and 125 medical facilities. The number one challenge, she says, is dealing with the large numbers of uninsured (growing in tough economic times), followed by helping people use the health care system more efficiently. Rounding off her list of top three challenges: maintaining the quality for which St. John has come to be known. Equipped with a doctorate in public health, Maryland is unabashedly measurement driven. “I’m a big believer in having the sound data in order to make decisions,” she notes. “By looking at trends, seeing what works and what doesn’t, we rely on evidence based medicine as well as the protocols and pathways to follow.” Maryland and her team began by taking a hard look at what her system’s health care providers needed to move more dollars to actual patient care. “What we needed to do was ease the burden from a corporate standpoint, and that meant cutting $70 million in corporate shared services cost out of the system,” says Maryland. “Those are dollars that have been put back at the bedside.” As a Catholic health care provider, St. John has a mission that includes taking care of “any and every” patient, regardless of the ability to pay. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for providing that service in a more cost effective way. One way is by “providing a medical home for patients,” she adds. “We resolve their immediate need, but we also connect them with a primary care provider, which is a much better option for us and for them than the emergency department.”
Sue Marx Films Inc.
An accomplished Michigan-based filmmaker, Sue Marx has what very few can claim: an Academy Award that she received in 1987 for “Young at Heart,” a short documentary film about an aging couple. Before and since, Marx, who founded her company in 1980, has produced and directed hundreds of promotional, political and educational films, television programs and radio commercials, with her work being seen around the world. Marx says her real passion is to put the lives of people forward for others to experience. “I love to tell stories,” she says. “And when it feels right, sometimes it becomes a documentary.” She’s also frequently in demand to tell the stories of an organization, among them Children’s Hospital, the Detroit Institute of Arts or the Metro Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau. Her long list of clients also includes Little Caesars, the Detroit Zoological Society and Michigan State University. Before starting her company, Marx worked in public relations and as a freelance photojournalist. She also wrote and produced “Profiles in Black,” a documentary series that ran for nine years on WDIV-TV in Detroit. Marx has won many national and international awards, including Emmys, CINE “Golden Eagles,” and major awards from the American Film and Video Festival and the New York Film and Video Festival. Still a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (the group that hands out the Oscars), Marx says she helps with the short-listing of documentaries that ultimately make it to the finals, a task that’s clearly more a love than a duty. “I have a great interest in people,” she says, a quality that finds its way into her day-to-day work. “When we’re hired for a project, we do our imprint, which is story telling.” Marx lives in Birmingham.
You Can International
Changing the world? Pat McCants may not be that ambitious, but she’s certainly taking a stab at making a difference in Africa, a region that caught her attention two years ago when she first visited Ivory Coast. The experience was not without its surprises. “I was amazed to see how the country was so developed,” notes McCants, who is also putting her business acumen to work with a debit card technology that can be used to transfer money over the Internet at a fraction of the cost of typical wire transfers. In addition to working on expanding that business (Michigan Mobile Power —www.mobile2mobileusa.com), McCants is developing opportunities throughout Africa, including supplying Ivory Coast with heavy equipment. Through that initiative she’s seeing opportunities open in Ghana and Nigeria. McCants is also hoping to organize an international women business conference to Africa, a follow up to one held last year by You Can, the nonprofit she launched in 2006. “On my first visit, I had the opportunity to see the prosperous side of Africa,” notes McCants. Using education as the starting point, You Can hopes to create business opportunities that will positively impact not only the direction of Africa, but the United States as well. “We’ll do that by sharing our knowledge, understanding and embracing each other’s differences,” says McCants, who adds that reducing poverty is the great opportunity that awaits. Adding to the education component is the establishment of working relationships in business as well as investments and wealth sharing as an instrument of development. “We are very excited by the work You Can is involved in,” says McCants. “Our goal as an organization is to encourage others to reach their full potential; by working together we can accomplish this goal. In a time where our economy is being challenged, we must work together to reshape our future.”
For more than four decades, Sue Nine has made volunteerism her hallmark, spending countless hours in community service, giving leadership to numerous charitable organizations, including serving on their boards. Whether it be the Visiting Nurse Association, where she serves as chair, or serving on numerous committees and as vice chair of the local chapter of the American Red Cross, Nine continues to make her mark. From her days as a debate major in university (where she met her attorney husband Paul), Nine has been high energy. “I love what I do and I’m excited about new projects,” she says, adding that the enthusiasm is not limited to any one area. “I’m not committed to a single cause,” she notes. “My view is that you can keep learning until you die.” Nine says she feels privileged to give back. “I’ve been fortunate but we’ve worked very hard to have the wonderful life we’ve had,” she says. Clearly, Nine has done so at least in part through her continuing efforts to make a difference in the community even beyond her home in Bloomfield Hills. Organizations as diverse as the Boys and Girls Clubs, March of Dimes, American Lung Association, Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall, St. Vincent de Paul and the Kresge Eye Institute are all beneficiaries of her energy and enthusiasm. Nine says the best gift she’s received was from her own father, who was indirectly benefiting from having his daughter on a full nursing scholarship at Wayne State University. “At the end of the first year, we had a debate team picnic and on Sunday morning he called me to the kitchen table where he told me he and my mother weren’t convinced I wanted to be a nurse. ‘You love this activity more than nursing,’ he said. Basically, he gave me permission to pursue my passion and the next day, I changed my major.”
Defense Contract Coordination Center
One billion dollars in defense contracts to Michigan. If that sounds like an audacious goal, consider that Rosanne Oliver and her team at the Defense Contract Coordination Center doubled the amount of business year over year from 2007 to 2008, reaching $760 million last year. Now on contract to the state of Michigan (through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation), Oliver remains extraordinarily busy, crisscrossing the state in search not for business opportunities as such, but for companies able to come together to fulfill the business being attracted. And that remains the challenge. “We have more business than we can deal with,” says Oliver, who besides her work for the state, does some out of state consulting. She also owns a shoe wholesale and distribution company. Oliver says companies used to waiting for weeks or even months for payment will find the federal government easy with which to do business. “They pay within 30 days, which is music to the ears of people I talk with.” Equipped with an associate’s degree in business from St. Clair County Community College and a bachelor’s from Concordia University, Oliver went to work for the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County, bringing contracts to the area through the Procurement Technical Assistance Center, part of a nationwide program funded by the Defense Logistics Agency. She later did similar work for Genessee/Shiawassee counties through the Flint Genesee Economic Growth Alliance. The common thread? Oliver gets to see small businesses succeed. “It’s a great source of satisfaction to see the smiles on a business owner’s face as they get some money in their pocket,” she notes. Oliver credits State Senator Valde Garcia for asking the question: “What do you need?” (The answer: more procurement specialists) and then helping to put a team together to bring the defense contracts to Michigan. And, of course, hiring Rosanne Oliver to do her thing.
In talking about Ashley Qualls, it might be best to substitute experience for energy, initiative and creativity. After all, Qualls is just 18, having founded her company nearly five years ago. Still working on her education, Qualls has nonetheless put her graphic design passion to work in building the Web site. Essentially a design showcase that brings in revenue from companies marketing to an up and coming audience, www.whateverlife.com continues to grow. Qualls is working more hours than the average person might want to consider (when Corp! spoke with her, she hadn’t slept for two days). How does a young entrepreneur get hooked on developing and running a business, especially one that initially didn’t make any money at all? “I always wanted to do something different,” says Qualls of a background that includes being raised by a single parent. “I hoped I would be a graphic designer and freelance my work; it turned into something I could do for free.” Indeed, one of the principles behind the Web site is to tap into the inherent desire to contribute on a volunteer basis. Qualls is also in the process of launching a creative network, something she says would have been helpful to her when she was putting whateverlife.com together. “A lot of the girls and guys want to know how to do their own thing,” she notes. “If I had a guide, it would have been good. I’m hoping that in the long term it turns into a nice size network.” She’s also growing up. “I’ve learned a lot in the last few years,” says Qualls. “I wasn’t as persistent when I was younger. And I was way more of a procrastinator. I’ve always been shy and kind of a pushover. Now I’ve learned to negotiate.”
Sales Partners Troy
Expanding the business? If it sounds like an unrealistic expectation in “times like these,” Denise Roberts would like to have a word. An accomplished salesperson in her own right, Roberts is putting forward lessons she learned the hard way into practical sales training for others. “When I was on my own, prospecting was difficult for me,” she admits, citing fear of rejection as being among the most common of ills facing those who sell for a living. As a professional trainer, Roberts “sees the greatness” in others and offers a technique she calls “painless prospecting.” Acknowledging the tendency to contract in difficult times, Roberts says the opposite is what is needed. “They need to expand, but they need the emotional stamina to do so.” The greatness she talks about? “My role is to identify it and pull it out of them, helping them to take the steps, even though they’re afraid.” A self-described high-energy person, Roberts says she’s able to see what’s possible. “There’s a bigger person inside of people that’s ready to come out.” While the positive thinking philosophy may not be unique, it works. “Years ago, I heard a quote that I’ve built my business on: ‘You can get anything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.’ I’m thrilled to see that daily — everything from helping people gain the emotional stamina it takes to be a business owner, holding people accountable to fulfilling on their commitments and building championship teams.” Roberts says the impact her business is having excites her even more. “Everyday we get to help our clients get what they want, but it’s actually much bigger than that. It’s really the processional or ripple effect our clients then have with their employees, their customers and the lives they touch and the difference they make in the community.”
Already equipped with a nursing degree from the University of Michigan, Andra Rush wisely surmised she might do better by pursuing an MBA from her alma mater’s business school. That’s when things got a little more interesting than even the Native American Rush could have imagined. “I did an internship at an air freight company and one of the things I discovered was their weakness was in pick up and delivery,” she recalls. “I thought I could do that and that’s how things started.” Indeed, the birth of Rush Trucking, a full-service logistics company, led to the establishment of Dakkota Integrated Systems, LLC, a joint venture between Rush and the interiors division of Magna, an automotive supplier. Rush says successfully competing in today’s environment is largely a matter of identifying what a customer wants and customizing the service to meet their needs. As a woman, that’s not much different. “I think in the beginning there might have been a curiosity factor, but it’s gone beyond that, especially as people see what you can do.” The entrepreneurial appetite that Rush has clearly been very good at satisfying may have come at least in part from her father, who ran his own business while she was growing up. But it was her own motivation that made things happen, perhaps born out of a healthy dose of ambition. “I could see that the CEO and CFO of a hospital could influence the entire direction of the organization. And they certainly had a pretty good compensation package.” Clearly, Rush soon found herself on another career path, one that has led to leadership roles that include serving as a board member of the Michigan Minority Business Development Council. She is also president emeritus of the Native American Business Alliance and serves on the board of the Minority Business Roundtable. Rush is also a national trustee for Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Thanh (Tawny) Thieu
Liquid Salon, LLC (www.liquidsalon.com)
Shoe Envy (www.shopshoeenvy.com)
Unquestionably, Tawny Thieu knows the value of money. The daughter of a widowed Vietnamese immigrant, Thieu was born en route to America, where she went to school, graduated and got her first job, in an office. “It was my last,” quips Thieu. “It wasn’t for me.” What got her excited was the hair salon business, the result of her first job at 16. Once she’d graduated from Oakland University (business and marketing) and tried the office life, Thieu went back to the salon where she’d worked, this time as a manager. When a family member loaned her money to launch her own operation, Liquid Salon was born. A year later, Thieu took “what little profit I had” and opened a shoe store in Keego Harbor. “Shoes are my first passion,” says Thieu, recalling that she’d often spend her babysitting money on a pair. Today there’s a second Shoe Envy location in Bloomfield Hills, just two doors from the hair salon (she’ll open a third Shoe Envy in March, in Royal Oak). And a car, a pink Volkswagen Beetle dubbed the “Shoe Bug,” that serves as an eye-catching delivery vehicle. Thieu’s buying strategy seems to be along the lines of what she herself would buy. “I was the first customer,” she says. “I bought everything I wanted. If I don't like the merchandise, and I don't like the store, how can I expect other people to do that?” With prices ranging from $30 to $400 and delivery fees of $5 to $12, Thieu says there’s a shoe for everyone. She is also giving back to the community, one initiative being the donation of excess inventory to Grace Centers of Hope in Pontiac, which helps women struggling with addictions.
Linda Thompson Adams
The dean of Oakland University’s School of Nursing, Linda Thompson Adams counts among her greatest accomplishments having been able to develop and expand the nursing program, especially in a time where a shortage of professionals continues to exist and those with the potential for easing that shortage are being displaced from other industries. Those efforts include developing alternative education models, something Thompson Adams is doing in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Labor. At the same time, she’s doing her part to be one of the “faces” of the nursing profession, “someone who is highly educated, competent, with skills in the physical and behavioral sciences.” Thompson Adams began her education in Detroit, graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from Wayne State University before earning master’s and doctorate degrees in public health from Johns Hopkins. At Oakland University, her efforts to advance the profession include reaching out to the community, notably through a program organized in collaboration with Girl Scouts of Metro Detroit that seeks to mentor girls ages 11 to 13. She’s also helped organize a “Camp RN@OU” that brings upcoming seventh and eighth grade students a message of opportunity and a Gear UP 4 Nursing where Oak Park and Pontiac middle school students learned basic nursing fundamentals, nutrition, pharmacology, career exploration and obtained CPR and first aid certification. Her efforts extend to the level of recruiting students — Thompson Adams has instituted a Dean’s Nursing Scholarship and has hired a recruiter for the school. Still, Thompson Adams remains concerned over the shortage of nursing professionals, not only in the area, but also throughout the U.S. “There are concerns about being able to do elective procedures,” she notes. “Those include concerns about the length of time people have to stay in an emergency room.”
Rhonda Walker begins her day early — she’s awake at 2:30 a.m. weekday mornings, getting ready for her morning shift on Channel 4 (WDIV-TV). A lifelong Detroiter, Walker is committed to mentoring young teen girls, which she does throughout the year. The Rhonda Walker Foundation, which she set up in 2003, is a way for her to put structure on that passion. “Certainly, in my own personal life, I’ve gone through different experiences, pitfalls and growing pains. It’s something I’ve been able to share with young girls.” Walker says she believes those in the public eye have a unique responsibility to those around them. “News anchors have a leadership role, she adds. “Even in the newsroom, where we play a role, there’s a great team of people involved, but we’re the people who are the face of it. It’s a huge role and responsibility.” Walker’s involvement in the community includes being a partner with Cornerstone Schools and a member of the Winning Futures mentor collaboration. Her resume includes an extensive list of awards and acknowledgements, leading some to wonder how she gets everything done. Walker is undaunted. “I always accept invitations,” she says. “If I can bring my name and likeness and help raise awareness for a cause in the community, I’ll do it.” Indeed, as she focuses on those initiatives that benefit children, those with disabilities and the elderly and homeless, Walker says to do anything less is simply not an option. “I don’t feel I could live with not doing something about it,” she adds, referring specifically to the work she does with teen girls. Walker logs nearly 100 appearances a year as a motivational speaker, host or volunteer with community projects and by sharing her time and enthusiasm in support of charities and corporate outreach.