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Women's Enterprise Initiative

Women's Enterprise Initiative

A WOMEN'S WORLD: BECOMING AN ENTREPRENEUR

by Joseph Montebello

Anthea Disney, Deborah Seidel, Maggie Selby and Carole St. Mark had one goal in mind when they created the Women’s Enterprise Initiative: to share their combined business acumen and help potential entrepreneurs.

“Anthea and I both retired six years ago,” said Seidel. “I am a lawyer and have spent my whole career in the nonprofit world, volunteering legal services and promoting literacy for children. We were both looking forward to retiring but knew we wanted to do something.”

Disney spent much of her career in journalism, first as a newspaper reporter for the London Daily Mail. When she was sent to New York as a foreign correspondent for the newspaper, she knew this is where she wanted to be.

“I was editor of the Sunday Daily News, spent time at Condé Nast as editor-in-chief of Self Magazine, and then worked at Us Magazine,” Disney explained. “For the last 20 years of my career I worked for Rupert Murdoch in a number of capacities, from CEO of TV Guide to CEO of HarperCollins, and I helped develop various companies for him. When Deborah and I would discuss our futures, I realized that I was tired of doing what other people wanted me to do. I wanted to do something that would feel meaningful.”

Both women had been part-time residents of Litchfield for many years and wanted to do something local. As they discussed ideas they enlisted the talents of two friends, also local residents, who were also at the point of leaving the business world and changing their lives.

Maggie Selby had started her own successful marketing business that provided meetings, events, training, exhibits and trade shows, mobile marketing and interactive solutions as core offerings for Fortune 100 companies. The company was sold to a large conglomerate and Selby was now ready to enjoy a slower paced life in Litchfield.

Carole St. Mark, the fourth partner in the venture, has a real gift for business and during the course of her career was the CEO of both manufacturing and services businesses, one of which grew to more than $1 billion in revenues and 12,000 employees.

“What people really want is advice,” Disney said. “Together we have a ton of knowledge in different areas; if we can give people the right advice they will have credibility that will help them attain their goals.”

In the six years since the inception of WEI, the women have had about 100 clients ranging from someone who wanted to grow and supply organic vegetables to local restaurants, to a psychotherapist relocating to this area who wanted to establish her practice, to a woman who wanted to start a concierge service and a woman who imports luxurious cashmere items made by women from Afghanistan.

“Regardless of the concept or the environment, the questions are the same,” said Disney. “They involve marketing, board structure, financial backing. All of our experiences are transferable.”

Along with individuals seeking business advice, a number of nonprofits have also come to the group, which is where Seidel takes over.

“I’ve dealt with an amazing array of organizations,” she said. “Local libraries, youth services, arts for the elderly, people who make quilts for cancer patients. I have so much training in this area I know how to help these groups.”

Much of the preliminary work is done via the group’s website. There is an enquiry form an applicant must fill out so there is some idea of what the goal is. These all funnel through St. Mark who then asks who would be most interested in handling a particular request.

“Our level of involvement depends on the client’s level as well,” said Disney. “One of our concerns is not to oversell ourselves. If a client decides to follow our initial advice we will go further. We are willing to dig deep and stay with them until they reach their goal.”

Many clients come back after the initial conference for additional advice. Seidel and Disney estimate that of the 100 clients they have assisted 60 percent are doing very well, 20 percent never did the preliminary work involved, and the other 20 percent are struggling.

The question one can’t help asking, given the name of the organization is: are men allowed? “We have had several male clients,” Disney replied. “But women make up a large part of small businesses. We felt they were having a tough time in the business world and we wanted to extend ourselves to them.”

All the women agree it is the happiest work they have done.

“There is such an array of ideas and personalities,” said Seidel. “None of us is doing this because we have to. We want to keep the joy in it. When it works well, it is extremely satisfying to all of us.”

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