How This Veteran Overcame a Military Injury to Launch Her Thriving Business

Launching a business means dealing with all kinds of adversity. But with enough effort and the right attitude, you can overcome nearly any challenge. Just ask Nneka Brown-Massey, CEO of Innovative Supplies. Brown-Massey suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) during her military service.

Despite her injury, Brown-Massey launched a successful business and created badly-needed jobs for her community. We spoke with Nneka to hear her inspirational story and find out what advice she has for other business owners dealing with their own struggles.

Serving Her Country

Brown-Massey has been connected to the military nearly her entire life–her parents were also service members. “My Mom was a supply specialist and my Dad was a cook. Growing up I knew I wanted to be in the army as well.” As Brown-Massey turned 18, her parents asked her what she wanted to do. She would likely go overseas.

Ultimately, Brown-Massey decided to join human resources and shipped out to Afghanistan at age 18. She worked in the military post office to process mail and help soldiers with their passport applications.

After her tour of duty, Brown-Massey enrolled in the Basic Leadership Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. For most people, this would already be enough. But, Brown-Massey kept pushing. “I wanted to pick up additional skills so I applied for Airborne School, an unusual move for someone in Human Resources.” It took her three tries, but she ultimately qualified.

An Unfortunate Injury

Airborne School training meant participating in parachute jumps. This is how Brown-Massey became injured–she banged her head on multiple jumps. She describes the aftermath of one accident. “I was walking down my hallway and something didn’t feel right. I waved my hand in front of my face and I just saw a trail of hands following that hand.”

From that point on, Brown-Massey began dealing with the long-term issues from her concussion: light and noise sensitivity, constant headaches and fatigue. “I was so used to having a fully charged battery at all times. Now it’s more like a four-hour window.”

Concerns Over the Future

Due to her Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Brown-Massey had to leave the military after nine years of service. She was concerned about what would come next for herself and her family. “When you get injured in the military, you qualify for disability income benefits. But for me, that’s only $550 a month and not much to live on with my 8-year-old daughter.”

She knew she needed to earn more. Brown-Massey worried about whether her TBI would get in the way of a regular 9-5 job. “I noticed that I have a lot of anxiety. What if my disability affects how I perform for someone else? Would I get let go earlier than other workers, even if I push myself?”

She was also concerned about whether employers would understand her condition and be able to accommodate her needs. “When we think dramatic brain injuries like concussions, we think of football players or veterans who got blown up in a vehicle with a roadside bomb. But we rarely talk about other ways veterans get hurt and how it affects them.”

Turning Adversity into an Opportunity

With these health concerns in-mind, Brown-Massey delayed taking a 9-5 job and instead returned to school to continue her studies. It’s during this time that she spotted a perfect opportunity. “I wanted some nice, artistic stationary to get ready for class, but I just couldn’t find anything at T.J. Maxx or Walmart. I figured there’s got to be something out there that I like, but there just wasn’t.”

At the same time, Brown-Massey wanted to support her artist friends. “I always saw nice artists posting their work on Instagram and wondered how can I get that out to more people? That’s when I realized, stationary. People always need stationary.” The idea for Innovative Supplies was born.

Even though Brown-Massey had never launched a business before, she believed her military experience gave her the tools needed to succeed. “The military spends around $1 million training their soldiers. I wanted to use my leadership skills to help my community.” This would help her avoid the common mistakes new small business owners make.

Building a Business

She started by reaching out to one artist she really liked on Instagram and together they designed their first round of notebooks. They posted the design on Instagram–Innovative Supplies was an instant hit. “Our Instagram posts went viral and received millions of views. My artist friend earned $3,000 in commissions that first year alone.”

After proving her idea worked, Brown-Massey began hiring staff to expand. She hires a lot of teenagers for her business, especially those who are at-risk and would benefit from work experience. “I want them to develop real skills: communicating with one another, learning inventory management, how to respond to customer emails. I let them run the show and just supervise.”

In her first year of business in 2016, Brown-Massey hired 15 students part-time to manage Innovative Supplies. With her initial launch a success, Brown-Massey would like to grow her workforce even more and aims to hire at least 30 students throughout 2020.

Advice for Other Business Owners

Brown-Massey had to overcome her share of challenges and doubts. “When I face adversity, I think back to the good times I’ve had and that inspires me to keep going.” She reminds herself about the first 8,000 notebooks she sold within 24 hours and how that didn’t happen by chance. If you’re ever in a tough business stretch, she suggests thinking about your past positive results and feel confident that you can do it again.

Brown-Massey also turns to her internal motivation for launching the business in the first place. “I remind myself why I started, to give students a way to make an honest dollar. A lot of students in my community may not have the opportunity to make money in a legal manner. This keeps me going during tough times.”

She challenges other business owners to think the same way. If you find motivation beyond just making a profit, it can give you the strength to overcome adversity.

Success Prevails

Brown-Massey went from worrying about whether her military injury would prevent her from finding employment to becoming a successful business owner, and helping others in her community launch their careers.

She hopes her story can inspire others dealing with adversity that they too can find the right opportunity, if they believe in themselves. We’d like to thank Brown-Massey for sharing her story and for her service to our country. We wish her the best of luck to continue growing Innovative Supplies.


Mission: Entrepreneur: Jen Griswold’s Pursuit to Help Veterans become Entrepreneurs

Jen Griswold is the author of Mission: Entrepreneur and CEO of a company with the same name. She grew up in a small town in Montana where her father owned a Cessna 172 small plane that her family always flew. So when Griswold was considering her post-secondary education, the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) seemed like a great option; she entered the academy. Griswold became an Aircraft Maintenance Officer and soon found that it suited her better than being a pilot.

“As an Aircraft Maintenance Officer, I was given a lot of responsibility at a very young age. At 22, I was managing a flight line full of 250 Airmen and highly specialized aircraft. And I loved it!” She met her husband who was a pilot in the Air Force Academy.

Her and her husband couldn’t start a family if they continued to serve. Griswold had to make a tough decision: Should she start having children or stay with her career?

Griswold says, “It wasn’t a job that fit well with raising kids, since the work was 24/7. I knew both my husband and I would be faced with the very likely chance that we would both be deployed at the same time. At the time, 2005, the operations tempo in the Middle East was very busy and our airplanes were constantly overseas…so I left Active Duty after six years of service. I transitioned to the Air Force reserves, and I am in my 19th year of service at the Pentagon as a Lieutenant Colonel.”

Reentering the Workforce

Griswold had two children in two years. While she attempted to embrace stay-at-home motherhood, she found she missed working and began looking for a part-time job. She says, “With a Master’s degree and a lot of management experience, I was very disappointed to find that the part-time options for someone like me were low-paying and were not jobs that would travel well with our transient, military lifestyle.”

So Griswold, a child of two entrepreneurial parents, decided to start her own business. She says, “my bedroom was next door to [my parents’] office growing up, so I witnessed them build a life that allowed them the flexibility they needed. I figured I could do the same.”

Her first attempt at being an entrepreneur was successful! Griswold started a home staging and decorating business; this was the catalyst that would propel her from solopreneur to author, speaker, and founder of Mission Entrepreneur.

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She says, “the empowerment I gained was priceless. I proved I could turn my hobby of decorating into a viable business, even with a busy husband and two very small children. And it got me thinking — how could I help other women empower themselves through entrepreneurship?”

Griswold’s family moved from the west coast to the east coast after four years of running her own business. That made it impossible to manage her business from far away. So, she sold her business. In closing that door, a new opportunity arose.

She says, “One of my best friends from growing up offered me the chance to partner with her in a new skincare direct selling business called Rodan + Fields. I didn’t know the first thing about skincare. But, I figured I could learn.  It excited me to share with other military spouses like me, who were in need of mobile, flexible jobs. By that time I had become aware that 90% of military spouses were under- or unemployed, and yet 90% reported they wanted to work.”

The Start of Mission Entrepreneur

For female veterans and military wives, there’s a big gap in employment opportunities. Griswold makes it her mission to change the mess of transitioning from transient military lifestyle to civilian life and work. Since 2010, her community’s grown to approximately ten thousand women. Griswold estimates two thousand of those budding entrepreneurs are in a military family.

But her wish to encourage female veterans and military wives didn’t stop with her direct selling business. In fact, it only motivated her to do more to help women with military ties to Cover of Mission Entrepreneurgrow and succeed. First, Griswold started a blog for military entrepreneurs. Later, she decided to turn those stories into a book — Mission Entrepreneur.

Griswold says, “I wrote the book as a handbook for any military spouses who were like me and wanted to solve their own employment problems through starting a business. When I was in the beginning stages of my business, I always wished I had a mentor to help me through all the scary decisions of starting up. And [I designed] this book to be a form of mentorship for the military spouse entrepreneurs — I call them ‘milpreneurs’ — that needed some support and encouragement.”

Griswold still wasn’t satisfied with the impact she was having on military families. She decided to do more and founded a company with the same name — Mission Entrepreneur — so she could help women create careers that suit their lives.

Griswold says, “At Mission Entrepreneur, we are a one-stop shop to help busy women turn their passions into a business and achieve portable business success, through inspiration, education & training. We also love providing a community of support with a service mindset to help women thrive.”

Griswold never would’ve known she’d join the Air Force all those times she rode in her father’s plane. She couldn’t have imagined the difference she’d make in female veterans and military wives’ lives in the future.


From Veteran to Publisher: Alexa Bigwarfe on Founding Kat Biggie Press

Alexa Bigwarfe, founder of Kat Biggie Press, grew up in a family of military veterans. Growing up, however, she never thought she would enlist. In an interview for this article, Bigwarfe says, “I always joked I would never join the military or marry a man in the military, and I wound up doing both.” After enlisting, Bigwarfe became an Intelligence Officer in the United States Air Force. She provided other service members with quality information so as to help protect them and enable them to do their jobs.

 

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Bigwarfe’s career as an Intelligence Officer was an exciting one. But Alexa and her husband wanted to have children. They worried her demanding career would interfere with growing their family.

“I saw many service women have to deploy when their baby was only four to six months old. And I couldn’t fathom leaving behind an infant…So, my husband and I decided it was time for me to leave, and I separated from Active Duty in August of 2007 when my son was four months old.”

Bigwarfe knew she wanted a similarly demanding career post-active duty — just one that wouldn’t force her away from her family.

Life After the Air Force

“I absolutely loved my career and wanted to do something related, so I was able to find a position in my State Homeland Security Office. I continued to work in counter terrorism planning and emergency management for another three-and-a-half years, when I opted to try and see what life would be like raising my two small children. In April 2011, I became a stay-at-home mom with a 4-year-old and a 1-year-old,” say Bigwarfe.

Bigwarfe then jokes, “Ask me which job was harder!”

While one might think transitioning from counter terrorism planning to stay-at-home mom would be easy, that wasn’t the case. Bigwarfe learned that she was expecting again just a month after leaving her job. As soon as she understood she was having a third child, she found out she was actually pregnant with twins! Soon, she’d have four children under the age of five. Those emergency management skills would come in handy!

However, as Bigwarfe and her family came to terms with their new future, they learned devastating news. Her babies’ diagnosis was a fatal syndrome occurring in identical twins called Twin-to-Twin Transfusion Syndrome. Bigwarfe spent the rest of the year on bed rest. Doctors monitored her as she went in and out of the hospital.

Bigwarfe says, “The girls were born at just over 30 weeks. Kathryn was very sick with a heart condition and undeveloped lungs, and little Charis was a one-pound, ten-ounce, micro preemie. Kathryn would live for two days. Charis spent 12 weeks in the NICU, and then we were finally able to bring her home in March 2012.”

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Dealing with Grief

Bigwarfe started blogging under the pseudonym Kat Biggie to deal with her grief and stress of parenting a baby with specialized medical needs along with her other two young children. She needed a safe space to vent her frustrations, her angers, her fears. She found that space in writing. People wanted to hear her story.

“I found that the articles really resonated with people, and many people were searching about how to help someone who lost a baby or child, as well as the people who lost a twin.”

When her youngest daughter Charis was 18 months old, one of Bigwarfe’s friends experienced a stillbirth at 37 weeks. Bigwarfe says, “I was in a better place by then, but as I watched my friend, I remembered what those first few days, weeks, and months were like. I started kicking around the idea of trying to help other moms see that even though this is the worst thing that has ever happened, they will see sunshine again.”

The Start of Her Entrepreneurial Career

She knew she wanted to do more. So, Bigwarfe reached out to fellow bloggers, writers and other moms she knew had experienced loss. She wanted to create a book that would help other women who were also grieving. It was called Sunshine After the Storm: A Survival Guide for Grieving Mothers. On the experience, Bigwarfe says, “I self-published the book and really found I enjoyed the publishing process.”

Later, with her children older, Bigwarfe partnered with another mother to write about their experiences of motherhood in Lose the Cape: Realities from Busy Modern Moms & Strategies to Survive. Buzz for her new venture and a potential new business followed publication. Additionally, Bigwarfe created a Lose the Cape podcast and website.

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Bigwarfe says, “One thing led to another, and I started offering services to help people produce and publish their books. Write Publish Sell was born, and not long after that, I decided to launch my own publishing house, Kat Biggie Press. The business grew around my desire to help other people in pain do something good with it.”

And, she didn’t stop there. Bigwarfe also founded a nonprofit. She says, “I started donating copies of my book and sending books to grieving mothers, free of charge. First it was just a book, then I added comfort items. I decided that I needed to raise money to pay for this initiative, and I founded a nonprofit to support Grieving Mothers – Sunshine After the Storm.”

She continues, “I found myself running three businesses…but at the heart of all of it, I was serving mothers and trying to make a positive impact on the world.

Kat Biggie Press hasn’t yet published more female veterans But, Bigwarfe wants to work with some who want to share their story. She says, “I am very proud of my service and very proud of my status as a veteran, and I would love to be the publishing partner of other female veterans.”


How Kaitlyn Pierce Transitioned from a High School Dropout to Biz Owner and Product Inventor

Entrepreneurs are a hearty bunch. They need drive, determination, and moxie to handle the learning curves and setbacks most business owners deal with. But does that mean that entrepreneurs Kaitlyn Pierce, Creator of Binka Bearneed not worry about their mental health? Far from it! According to a recent study done at the Universities of California (Berkeley and San Francisco), 72% of the entrepreneur respondents self-reported concerns with their own mental health.

Should these mental health issues hold individuals back from building a business or inventing a product? Absolutely not.

Meet Kaitlyn Pierce, mom of two, founder of Pierce Social, a social media agency, and inventor of Binka Bear, a toy which helps toddlers and young children wean from their pacifiers. When Pierce was 16 years old, dropped out of school to ease the extreme anxiety she was experiencing.

The Decision to Quit School

“At the time, I didn’t totally understand what I was feeling or why, I just knew I did not want to be in rooms full of people, no matter what,” says Pierce. “To this day the sound of an alarm clock triggers severe panic in me because to me it was the beginning of my struggle to get through the day.”

As a high school student, Kaitlyn Pierce missed over 100 days of school in only two years. She says, “I was non-functional in school and basically in life. I couldn’t go to class or participate.”

And on the days she did attend, she spent most of her time crying in her guidance counselor’s office. Obvious that the traditional educational system wasn’t working, her guidance counselors and her mother urged Pierce to quit school, obtain a General Education Diploma (GED), and attend college, if possible. While her struggles with anxiety didn’t immediately disappear, a huge weight was lifted off her shoulders. Pierce was now better able to take care of her mental health.

Of the decision, Pierce says, “I could have more freedom to make choices for myself. It should have been my first clue I would need to be my own boss one day.”

In fact, she was able to obtain her GED within a month or two after quitting school. She then began taking courses at her local community college.

Pierce says, “I really enjoyed learning. That was never my problem. I just needed to have more control over how and when it happened so I could learn the coping skills I needed to deal with the anxiety I had.” But attending school was still no easy feat for Pierce, and she needed to put in a lot of effort to manage her anxiety so she could move into this new chapter of her life.

She says, “I had no help getting to school. If I wanted to go to college, work, and start my life, I had to find a way to get there. I took the bus to campus every day for over a year before getting my first car at 18. I had to work to pay for it while I went to school and tried to figure out what I was even doing. Dropping out set me up to be the person I am now, the person who will find a way to make anything happen!” It also helped her understand how working through the anxiety offered greater rewards than simply letting it hold her back.

“My anxiety made it feel impossible at first to get on the phone with anyone, especially potential clients,” says Pierce. “I hated phone calls and without them I wouldn’t have the business I do now. I had to learn to have confidence in myself and how to move on when I am triggered.”

 

Educating Herself

Kaitlyn Pierce, Binka Bear and BookKaitlyn Pierce chose tenacity over anxiety. She still struggled with feelings of panic and overwhelm, but she worked through and didn’t allow the feelings to stand in her way. One thing that helped her was her self-taught interest in building websites and blogging.

She says, “I used to sit at my neighbor’s house and build websites on their computer until we got one of our own at home. My blog was focused on our community at the time, and I was using the new social media tools showing up to promote it. Because of that, I was approached by a local branding company and hired on the spot to help with social media and web development. I never finished my degree, but gained more experience doing the work than I could have dreamed of.”

After having her second child, Pierce was looking for more freedom and flexibility to be home with her children. She returned from maternity leave determined to make some life changes. Says Pierce, “I launched Pierce Social in July of 2016 and worked on it after bedtime and in the evenings until I was able to replace my income.”

Only four months after starting the company, she was able to give her notice.  And Pierce, officially, became a self-employed business owner.

 

Inventing a Product

Launching a business is a monumental feat, but Kaitlyn Pierce didn’t stop there. Just shortly after starting her social media agency, Pierce set the ball rolling to invent a product that she’s moved all the way through the manufacturing process. But, how does an individual take that large a leap? There’s a massive jump from owning your own business to also being a product inventor.

Pierce says, “Binka Bear is one of those things that I think I was just meant to do. The idea came to me when I was trying to wean my oldest from the pacifier. I had no idea how to get the pacifiers she loved so much away from her at almost 3 years old. We found a fun idea of putting them in a stuffed toy and the wheels began turning. It worked so well for us I knew if I could make it a process and a product it could help so many other families. ”

Though, while Kaitlyn Pierce knew how life changing Binka Bear could be for other families, she had absolutely no clue how to move from idea into manufacturing a real product.

She says, “I had no idea how to even begin so I didn’t. Not for another 18 months.” Then, on Thanksgiving night of 2017, she couldn’t keep the idea to rest any longer. Pierce says, “From there it never stopped growing and developing!” Now, Pierce has living proof of her idea.  Boxes of bears are sitting in her home, waiting to be matched with their future children. Her dream became a reality. Now, one small idea that helped her child is able to help children all over the country.

Regardless of the bumps in the road Pierce has faced, she’s still confident that dropping out of school to manage her anxiety was the best decision for her. “I’m grateful to not have the student debt so many of my friends have. Not having a degree has made certain things more challenging.  But, it’s been the path that was best for me.  And, I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself in other ways.”



Making Her Mark – Influential Women Business Owners: Mei Wang


Switching Gears and Saving Lives: How Instapath Pivoted and Built a Business

“We need to do a biopsy” – Words that can cause a patient’s hear to skip a beat.  A biopsy removes cells or tissue from a suspicious area of the body.  Doctor’s then study these cells to see if a

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Credit: Instapath

disease – such as cancer – is present. Patients wait with hope and trepidation for their biopsies to return either “positive” or “negative.”

However, few people realize the first biopsy may not provide doctors with the desired information. Of the 5 million biopsies performed in the United States to diagnose cancer, 1 million must be re-done. This can cause more stress, and potentially delay a patient’s treatment by months.

When Mei Wang was a Ph.D. student in biomedical/medical engineering at Tulane University, she was astounded to learn that biopsies are unsuccessful so often. She and a group of fellow Ph.D. students looked into the problem.

The reason, she concluded, was the way in which these tests are done. Most biopsies use an imaging technique known as a rapid on-site evaluation (ROSE). The problem with this technique is that it captures only 1 percent of a total biopsy.  This small percentage is what typically leads to the inaccuracy.  An inaccuracy that can necessitate the uncomfortable and costly procedure being repeated.

A Microscopic View

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Credit: Instapath

Wang and her colleagues came up with a new approach. They use a digital microscope that takes a picture of the whole biopsy at subcellular resolution within seconds of removal, improving the speed and accuracy of the diagnosis. Wang believed it could also increase the likelihood the patient would return for treatment. When they presented their data at different medical conferences around the world, physicians and the medical community took immediate interest.

“Everyone said we should push forward because this was a significant clinical issue,” Wang says. “A few people from the industry approach us during the conference and said they were interested in what we were doing.”

With that motivation, Wang and her colleagues founded a company call Instapath, which is now based in Austin, Texas, to turn their idea into a product. Quickly, Instapath won several pitch contests for their concept, including an international pitch competition, receiving $30,000. The company also received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant for $225,000 to perform their R&D.

Overcoming Negative Feedback

All this would make Instapath seem like a slam-dunk.  After all, they had come up with a solution to an urgent medical issue. However, Wang found a great idea does not necessarily make for a great business. This is especially true in an industry as complex as healthcare. While the need and the solution were apparent to her, the business did not come into focus.  So she set about interviewing more than 200 physicians and health industry participants.

Surprisingly, many of the first doctors she approached were downbeat about the idea. Many different kinds of doctors are involved in treating cancer.  As a result, the need for better and faster biopsies was not of equal importance to all of them.

Trudging forward after a string of negative feedback, finally, she found the medical personnel most interested in her technology: interventional radiologists. These are sub-specialists of radiology who use minimally invasive image-guided procedures to diagnose and treat diseases.

“When we started, they were pretty low on our list,” she says. “We started targeting neurologists and breast cancer surgeons.”

While the latter thought her technology was a “nice to have,” it was the interventional radiologists who felt their work was most impacted by frustrating delays in biopsy quality.

New Business Model

There was another surprise, though. While healthcare providers were interested in improving the diagnosis, the institutions that would pay for the technology – insurance companies and

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Source: Instapath

hospitals – had other concerns. They wanted a procedure that was more efficient and could be performed with fewer personnel. Wang, like many entrepreneurs, had to appease different constituents: the medical personnel who would influence the purchase decision, and the hospital administrators who would have to sign off on the sale.

“Without those interviews, we wouldn’t have a product that would sell and we wouldn’t have known who we were selling to,” she says.

Once the issues and concerns came into sharp focus, she changed her pricing plan and business model. Now, when pitching Instapath, Weng focuses on the fact that the technology “increases the throughput of biopsy procedures and allows more patients to be treated per biopsy suite per day.”

It is a subtle, but critical difference.  A difference that made the difference between having a great idea and having a great business.

“When you start a business, you often find yourself in the valley of despair,” she says. “But you quickly learn how to pivot, because you need to understand what your customer cares about and appeal to them.”


Editor’s Note: Lauren’s story is one of an ongoing series celebrating women business owners.  Take a look at some of the other inspiring stories in this series: How I Built My Own Business After Cancer and Launching Your Own Business as a Working Mom


Making Her Mark – Influential Women Business Owners: Lauren Leblanc-Haydel

Winning the Great T-Shirt Battle of 2010

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Source: bizneworleans.com

Lauren Leblanc-Haydel had something most single mothers with three young kids would love: job security. After six years as an on-air personality at a New Orleans radio station, she landed a position as the creative director of the Louisiana Farm Bureau, a solid job that provided her with benefits, a phone and even a company car.

But Haydel wanted more. “I had a belief that I could create a better life for my children,” she says. So when her 2009 tax refund arrived, she knew she wanted to start a business with the $2,000. Still, she was a little hazy on what the business would be. At first, she thought about selling makeup. Finally, she settled on making T-shirts, an idea her boss at the Farm Bureau thought was ridiculous, considering that there was a huge number of vendors selling T-shirts to tourists who flocked to the Big Easy. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” she says.

Getting ‘Fleurty’

Haydel, however, had a steadfast belief that she could stand out with V-neck shirts and other female-friendly cuts reflecting, as she puts it, “the culture of New Orleans.” It all came together when she was sitting on her porch and a name for her company came to her that embodied the spirit and zest she hoped to capture: Fleurty Girl.

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Source: ClearWare

She rushed to her computer and registered the domain name. While the company didn’t have a business plan yet, it got off to a good start: After launching the company’s site, she sold out of her T-shirts within 30 days.

It wasn’t a quick rags-to-riches story, though. Haydel had to make plenty of compromises to pursue her dream, such as moving to a smaller house and having her children give up their individual bedrooms. She was working 14- to 18-hour days. But the biggest challenge came soon after she opened her first storefront six months later. Almost immediately, she found himself being sued by the National Football League. The New Orleans Saints were set to appear in the Superbowl. Haydel was one of a number of entrepreneurs who sold T-shirts emblazoned with the team’s slogan, “Who Dat?” The NFL rained cease-and-desist orders down on her.

“A woman who took a chance to make a better life for her and her kids by celebrating the city where she grew up” – Haydel has a chat with Harry Connick Jr.

Standing Her Ground

Haydel had no trouble with the idea of sending the NFL a royalty payment, but she was caught in a tug-of-war with another company which also claimed to own the phrase “Who Dat?” The origins of the phrase is debated in and around New Orleans, but it had been around for decades. For local football fans, it became a popular abbreviation of, “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints” when fans chanted for their team in the Superdome.

Haydel, who originally sold T-shirts from a building she rehabilitated after Hurricane Katrina, was something of a tornado herself. With her astute understanding of media, she managed to get an avalanche of publicity when the NFL came after her.

Stories appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, the Times Picayune. She appeared on national TV shows, which loved the David-and-Goliath story of the 4-foot-11 single mother standing up to one of the biggest sports league in the world.

Attorneys offered to represent her for free. Louisiana Senator David Vitter sent the NFL a letter telling them to back off. The NFL finally did, issuing Haydel an apology in the bargain.

Haydel says that people, especially independent-minded New Orleanians, admired the local who stood her ground. However, she bristled against the common belief that the controversy and publicity from the NFL lawsuit made her business. She says the suit hit her at a time when she had no money, and almost sunk her.

Onwards & Upwards

With steadfast determination, her business kept going — and growing. Today, the multi-million Fleurty Girl sells not only shirts, but also dresses, jewelry, books, wedding gifts, art and items for the home. Many have a unique, local flair, such as the “Mardi Gras Fan Tassel Earrings.”

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Source: fleurtygirl.net

Last year, Haydel opened her seventh location at the Louis Armstrong International Airport. At the same time, she bought fellow New Orleans T-shirt retailer Storyville. Storyville also got a cease-and-desist order from the NFL in the great T-shirt battle of 2010. In addition to purchasing the company’s line of T-shirt designs inspired by New Orleans, she hired her competitor’s three employees.

To top it off, the same year, Haydel married Ryan Haydel of Haydel’s Bakery.  Haydel’s Bakery is a three-generation Big Easy institution.  This union made them something of a power couple in the city. Haydel says her idea of being a power couple is both of them working 10-hour days — Ryan comes home smelling like king cake, and her arms are tired from folding T-shirts.


Editor’s Note: Megy’s story is one of a four-part series celebrating women business owners throughout the month of March.  Take a look at the other inspiring stories in the series: How I Built My Own Business After Cancer and Launching Your Own Business as a Working Mom


Making Her Mark – Influential Women Business Owners: Megy Karydes

Launching Your Own Business as a Working Mom

As the managing director of marketing at Chicago’ massive Merchandise Mart, Megy Karydes knew she wanted a change. She spent almost every month traveling, overseeing some of the biggest

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Megy Karydes in Cyprus, August 2018

trade shows in the world.

“I felt like I was at the point where, I’d done everything I needed to do,” she says. “It didn’t feel challenging anymore.”

With two children under the age of two, Karydes left her job and launched her own business. Karydes Consulting is a C-corporation in Chicago. It offers marketing, communications, public relations, and media relations services to corporate and nonprofit companies.

At the same time, she also launched her career as a journalist. Learning how to balance being a journalist, a marketing and public relations consultant and a mom is a lot. Here’s how Megy does it.

Making the transition

Start by identifying your audience and your unique selling proposition to let potential clients know what you can offer based on the kind of work you want, Karydes says. When she decided to start her own company, the first thing she did was email her entire network of contacts to let them know.

“As soon as I sent out that email letting people know what I was doing, I immediately signed two clients.”

Over the past decade, Karydes’ business has grown to include major clients such as The Morton Arboretum, Union of Concerned Scientists, Heartland Alliance, McCormick & Company spice, and Meredith Corporation.

Vetting potential clients

Her advice to new business owners: hone in on both the type of clients you want and don’t want. It’s important to interview potential clients to make sure they are a good fit for you.  Just as much as the other way around.

Although Karydes wanted to focus much of her work on nonprofits, many didn’t have a large enough budget to make some potential clients a good fit. To ensure business viability while fulfilling her need to work with nonprofits, Karydes began focusing only on mid-to-large organizations with budgets of a million dollars or more.

“It’s important to me to determine that early on,” she says. “I don’t want to fall into the trap of just accepting a client and find out when we begin working together that we’re not seeing eye to eye.”

To vet potential clients, Karydes starts by asking “What are you trying to achieve by trying to hire someone like me?”.  To do her job right in media and public relations, Karydes needs access to sources, imagery, B-roll video and the ability to quickly get in touch with an executive if a reporter wants to do an interview.

If Karydes feels like she has the expertise to work and help a potential client achieve their goals, she then asks the following questions:

  • How available will you be for me?
  • How do you prefer to be contacted?
  • Are you prepared to provide me with the necessary material in order to do my job?

“These questions are so basic.  But when you ask the questions, it puts the onus on them to understand that I can only do my job as well as I can if I get what I need from them,” she says. “They almost forget that. They almost feel like if they hire someone like me, they can just hand over everything to me and wash their hands from having to do any more work. That’s never the case. We need to be a team for this to work.”

“If executives are difficult to reach, because they are constantly traveling or don’t check their phones, it makes it a lot harder for me to do my job,” Karydes says. “That’s a problem. If I have a reporter who needs to do an interview, thenI’ve lost that opportunity and potentially alienated that reporter.”

Managing motherhood

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Megy and her son, Alex.

Karydes’ son Alex, who is now 12, was only 10 months old when she started her own business. Her daughter, Chloe, who is now 14, was less than 2 years old.

Running her own business has given Karydes the flexibility to work the type of hours she wants and still be available for her children.

“I was fortunate that my mother was able to take care of my kids full time while I worked. I realize that is not something that’s common, but it was so integral for me,” she says.

Her advice: Since finding affordable (and safe) daycare can be difficult and time consuming, it’s important to do it early on.

“It’s easier said than done, because our country doesn’t necessarily value that kind of role,” Karydes says. Because of this, she suggests involving your children in your work when possible. For Karydes, that meant bringing her children, even when they were babies and toddlers on business trips. She did this especially when she was writing travel stories.

“For the longest time they didn’t even know about kids menus,” she says. “We went to so many restaurants we just let them try the food from our plates. They couldn’t read the menu so they didn’t even know kids’ meals were even an option which has made them become much more adventurous eaters.”

More importantly, it’s helped open her children to different cultures and other ways of life. Even if it’s just in another neighborhood in Chicago.

“It’s a good reminder for them that they don’t live in a bubble,” she says. “But they’re part of a bigger community.”


Editor’s Note: Megy’s story is one of a four-part series celebrating women business owners throughout the month of March.  Take a look at the other inspiring stories in the series: How I Built My Own Business After Cancer.


Making Her Mark – Influential Women Business Owners: Michelle Mekky

How I Built My Own Business After Cancer

“I don’t think I would have ever had the courage to start my own business, if I didn’t have cancer,” says Michelle Mekky, the CEO and founder of Mekky Media Relations.

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Credit: Michelle Mekky

Michelle Mekky dreamed of owning her own business, but the financial risk always felt too great. For years, she’d held senior positions at various public relations firms. She was a loyal employee, she says, who worked late nights and weekends, running international business campaigns.

She’d been working 80-hour weeks, raising two kids, and putting off her annual exams. When she finally went to the doctor, she was told they’d found something, possibly a fibroid mass.

“But I was told it was probably nothing,” Mekky says.  But after seeing an oncologist at the University of Chicago, Mekky was told there was only a 10 percent chance the growth was benign.

Mekky underwent a seven-hour surgery and awoke to learn she had ovarian cancer and a full hysterectomy. “It was such a traumatic experience for me, but it was the turning point. I didn’t immediately start a new business. But it gradually led me to wake up that I had to take more control over my life and go down a new path.”

After returning to work, she switched agencies in the hopes of finding a better work-life balance. In less than a year and a half later, she was laid off from her new position.

“I went home and looked at my family,” Mekky says. “I don’t know which was harder, recovering from cancer, or being told that I just lost my job and having to decide what am I going to do next.”

Life After Cancer

For the next seven days, Mekky’s husband would ask her, “Did you think of a name for your business?”

“Finally I said maybe just maybe I need to do this.”

She went to see a mentor to figure out why, with over 20 years of experience in the business, she felt tentative. Mekky knew she had connections within the industry and could achieve great things. Her mentor asked a simple question: “What’s holding you back?” Then Mekky’s mentor wrote her a check for $10,000, as a loan, and told Mekky to start her business.

“I thought, if she believes in me this much, I’d better go find a bank and start a business account,” Mekky says. “It was the birth of Mekky Media.”

Building Her Business

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Mekky used a lean canvas model to reflect on her unique value proposition and how she could provide solutions to client problems she was seeing. She created an S corporation and hired what she says was the key to starting her business: a great accountant and attorney.

Mekky did competitive research on what other people in the industry were saying about themselves.  From there she had to figure out how she could stand out in a crowded field of agencies and consultants. She knew from years in the industry that her personal attention and creative storytelling made her stand out.

“I quickly realized people hire people,” Mekky says. “They don’t necessarily hire a business. It’s the human behind the business that people are hiring.”

It led to 800 percent growth in her business in two years, she says.  This growth netted an invitation to join Forbes Agency Council, a well-known organization of business owners and executives of advertising, creative, public and media relations agencies.

Mekky soon began netting clients such as Abt Electronics, nonprofits like Susan G. Komen Chicago and GiGi’s Playhouse, as well as companies and individuals in the hospitality, fitness and financial service industries.

In November 2018, Mekky was awarded the 2018 Stevie Award for Women in Business with a bronze medal for Entrepreneur of the Year.

“I’ve always had the entrepreneurial bug in me, but I always felt too much obligation that I had to support my family, pay the bills and this was too risky. Having cancer forced me to do something outside of my comfort zone and now I’m also able to take care of myself and create the environment I’ve always wanted to create.”

Michelle Mekky Accepts her Stevie Award


Editor’s Note: Michelle’s story is one of a four-part series celebrating women business owners throughout the month of March.  Take a look at these other inspiring stories in the series: Launching Your Own Business as a Working Mom.


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