FSU celebrates women entrepreneurs

Erin Lang
Erin Lang

Like many great ideas, Erin Lang’s idea for her business came to her in the middle of the night. She was changing her infant’s diaper and fumbling with the snaps on his footed onesie, unable to align them properly and trying hard not to twist his little leg in the process. Exhausted and frustrated by the time she was able to lull her son back to sleep, she knew there had to be a better way to deal with the task. It was then that the concept for Zipaboo was born.

“I think the best product ideas have been born from simple needs that are not being met,” said Lang, a 2001 Florida State University graduate who majored in entrepreneurship. “The traditional pajamas worked, but were inconvenient. It wasn’t until I became so frustrated by the snaps that I thought of Zipaboo. It seemed so simple and obvious to me.”

Lang—and a burgeoning number of enterprising Florida State alumna—represents a national trend among women whose innovative ideas have filled unmet needs and been catalysts for launching thriving businesses. “The 2014 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report,” commissioned by American Express OPEN, showed that start-up activity by women is on the rise, with the daily rate of new women-owned businesses up from 602 in 2011-12 to 1,288 in 2014.

Recognizing the value of entrepreneurs to the economy, Florida State in recent years has expanded its efforts to create a culture of entrepreneurship across campus. A $4.25 million gift in 2011 from Jan Moran and The Jim Moran Foundation through The Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship in the College of Business allowed the university to set its sights on being recognized nationwide as “The Entrepreneurial University.” The university can call on an impressive roster of successful entrepreneurial alumni to inspire and foster entrepreneurial thinking among students and to help see that success is tangible.

Sara Blakely ('93), creator of Spanx, Inc.
Sara Blakely (’93), creator of Spanx, Inc.

“Learning to think like an entrepreneur will help you in every aspect of your life,” said Sara Blakely, Spanx, Inc. creator and a 1993 communication studies graduate committed to fostering entrepreneurship among women. “And most importantly, you will be ready when your a-ha moment comes. Owning your own business means owning your future and gives you a tremendous opportunity to help others.”

Blakely is a famous example of someone who recognized a need (an unflattering line under her white slacks) and invented a product, one that in her case, sparked a multimillion dollar revolution in women’s undergarments. Started in 1998, the company today is valued at more than a billion dollars, with annual revenues of $250 million, and earned Blakely a spot on Forbes’s list of the World’s Most Powerful Female Entrepreneurs of 2014.

Countless other Florida State alumnae, who majored in everything from marketing and education to studio art and fashion design, also have recognized opportunities and made the most of them. Some entered their fields decades ago, others are in the mid- to nascent-stages of business ownership:

    • Lucy & Leo’s Cupcakery co-founder Jean Bates, who earned her MBA in 2008 and competed in Food Network’s Cupcake Wars wedding edition and landed in the final competition.
    • Jan Greenwood, who received her Ph.D in counselor education in 1972, is co-owner of Greenwood/Asher & Associates, Inc. and has developed the educational search firm into a well-known global brand.
    • Julianne Johnson, a 2013 entrepreneurship and professional sales graduate who is branching out from residential real estate to nurture a growing jewelry-making business.
Laura Johnson
Laura Johnson
  • Laura Johnson, who earned her degree in studio art in 1984, launched Coton Colors in Tallahassee in 1995 and whose Tapers & Toppers ceramic designs made it onto Oprah’s 2015 Favorite Things list featured in the March issue of “O.”
  • Kate Pankoke, a 2010 apparel design and technology major and Project Runway All Star whose Chicago-based luxury bridal line, Elaya Vaughn Bridal, has gained international prestige with gowns featured at red carpet events and in top fashion magazines.
  • Sandra Brown, who received her Juris Doctor in 1994, emerged from the corporate law setting and opened a boutique-style firm specializing in entertainment law.
  • Donna Abood, a 1981 marketing major recognized throughout Florida and the nation as a powerhouse in commercial real estate in South Florida.

“There are lots of reasons women make great entrepreneurs,” said Susan Fiorito, chair of the Department of Entrepreneurship, Strategy and Information Systems, Jim Moran Professor and an entrepreneur-in-residence in the College of Business.

“If we look at the characteristics that make great entrepreneurs in general, most people would list: innovative, hardworking, passionate for the idea, persevering, ability to reshape an idea, understanding customer needs and caring deeply. Many of these characteristics are typical of women, who are often the caregivers — they care for their families, nurture them, protect them and are often selfless in the process. Entrepreneurs are like this with their ideas.”

Seeing their ideas through

The morning after the stress-provoking diaper-changing episode, Lang took a sample onesie to a seamstress and had prototypes made until she had exactly what she wanted: a footed onesie with a zipper accurately placed to make it quick and easy for parents to change the baby without tugging at legs and spending time searching for and struggling to align snaps. She officially launched Zipaboo at the 2013 Golden Globes Boom Boom Room, the gifting suite for expectant celebrity parents, and gained a following among that group after being invited to host the baby shower for Lisa Ling of OWN’S “Our America” series.

Jean Bates (Photo by Kallen Lunt)
Jean Bates (Photo by Kallen Lunt)

What Jean Bates calls her “light bulb moment” came when she and friend Paula Lucas walked into a cupcake shop while vacationing in London.

“The shop was exquisite and very tiny, and we looked at each other and decided we had to open our own cupcakery in Tallahassee,” Bates said. “The country was in a recession, we were in a not so abundant job market, and we thought people needed a sweet, inexpensive treat to celebrate themselves. That’s how Lucy & Leo’s came to life.”

The business made a splash when it opened in 2009, and today, Bates and Lucas own two very popular Tallahassee brick and mortar locations plus a traveling food truck and cater special events. “Our target market are people who value made-from-scratch products, can afford them and who seek out great products from locally owned businesses,” Bates said.

For others, entrepreneurship is the next logical career move. Jan Greenwood, whose expertise is in education, spent many years in a large executive search firm. In a corporate setting, she found it difficult to focus on higher education because the fees aren’t as substantial as those collected from Fortune 500 companies. After planning for several years, Greenwood and her business partner founded Greenwood/Asher & Associates, Inc. in 2004.

“All the pieces of your career and life go into leading you down the entrepreneurial road. Florida State certainly added to that, significantly,” Greenwood said. “Don’t look at challenges as problems. Look at them as opportunities. How you look at things can lead to coming up with creative solutions and entrepreneurship.”

Greenwood’s firm, based out of Miramar Beach, is now one of the leading executive search firms in higher education worldwide, helping fill positions from Washington State University to the City University of Hong Kong.

Julianne Johnson needed a birthday present for Mother’s Day in 2014 when she came across coins her family had gathered on trips to the Bahamas over the years. It struck her that a bracelet made of the coins would make a perfect gift. The gift was a hit with her mom, who posted the bracelet on Facebook, and friends who asked Johnson to make one for them.

Within two weeks, Johnson and her business partner launched Sea la Vie and found themselves in need of additional coins after a local boutique placed its first retail order. These days, eight stores from Deerfield Beach to Stuart and Anna Maria Island sell the one-of-a-kind pieces, and Johnson has begun incorporating coins from around the world, hoping she will be able to get hold of enough of them to fill the growing demand.

Johnson of Jupiter, Fla., recently emailed Entrepreneur-in-Residence Jim Dever in the FSU College of Business to update him on her success and thank him for helping her gain the confidence and know-how to start her own jewelry-making business.

Johnson said Dever influenced her decision to become an entrepreneur.

“We not only learned from his experiences, but he gave us the opportunity to learn from our own, and this taught me so much more than a textbook ever could,” Johnson said. “Through trial and error, failure and success, I became an entrepreneur.”

Before joining the College of Business, Dever owned a string of hugely successful companies in West Florida and gladly passes on his knowledge to enterprising students. The gift to The Jim Moran Institute allowed him to be hired as the first of 18 Entrepreneurs-in-Residence placed in colleges across Florida State’s campus – from the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice to the College of Motion Picture Arts — to provide students deliberate exposure to role models.

By expanding the study of entrepreneurial practices across disciplines, Florida State gives every student, regardless of their field of study, the opportunity to learn fundamental business practices and enhance their career potential. The end goal is a culture change that promotes the transition from invention and creativity to the marketplace and encourages budding entrepreneurs to think big, take risks and enjoy the rewards of business ownership.

The rewards of business ownership

Kate Pankoke (Photo by Heather Talbert)
Kate Pankoke (Photo by Heather Talbert)

For Kate Pankoke, who started out as a child selling jewelry at her parents’ garage sales and in high school sold accessories to her classmates, becoming an entrepreneur was inevitable.

“I simply can’t help it; it is in my blood,” she said. “It’s a good fit for me because I am a control freak, which would be a very hard fit in corporate America. I have always had a very clear vision of what I wanted, and entrepreneurship allows me the freedom to go after my dreams.”

Entrepreneurs can point to numerous reasons for choosing the path they did. But when it comes down to it, many, like Pankoke, say they love the freedom to do what they love doing the way they want to do it and being in control of their professional destiny.

“I like not being subjected to obstructions or restrictions and can take Coton Colors to where I want it to go,” said Laura Johnson, whose retail/wholesale company now employs 50 employees and whose market extends across the country to more than 3,000 retailers and is on Inc. magazine’s 5,000 fastest growing businesses three years in a row. “I like being able to surround myself with creative people I can depend on and want to see the business succeed. The best part is getting to do something I love every day.”

Pankoke takes the same view. “It’s important to make sure your company is focused on something that you are truly passionate about,” she said. “The biggest challenge I first encountered when I started my company, was learning to respect myself as a boss. I needed to learn to fear myself. To wake up and get to work on time for fear of upsetting myself…. it is a strange mentality, but I’m sure that every entrepreneur knows exactly what I mean. It is not easy, and it can be lonely at times, but at the end of the day, it is so gratifying when it is your company.”

Sandra Brown
Sandra Brown

Sandra Brown, like Jan Greenwood, discovered that a large firm doesn’t suit a specialized field. Brown decided to take her talent as an entertainment counselor to a smaller firm, yet she was still unable to fully establish her brand identity.

So, despite not having a natural entrepreneurial spirit, Brown gave her 30-day notice. She had six months worth of revenue saved up in order to focus on implementing a business strategy where she could build lasting, intimate relationships with her clients, something that corporate firms can’t afford to do. Based out of Atlanta, The Law Offices of Sandra L. Brown, P.C. launched in 2007. Brown admittedly was fearful to go out on her own, but discovered the benefits associated with being the boss.

“My mom was visiting and said to me, ‘You know you’re the boss, right? Technically you don’t need to go into the office.’ And that’s when a light bulb went off and I realized that I have the flexibility to work from home and in my pajamas,” Brown said.

This flexibility matched with Brown’s discipline and passion has led her to represent client projects ranging from recording artists such as Lionel Richie and Lady Gaga to television programming such as the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and MTV Behind the Music.

Zipaboo’s Erin Lang likes knowing that her rewards will be directly linked to her efforts, and she’s looking forward to the day she can offer employment and opportunities for success to others.

For now, Lang is enjoying the short-term rewards of traveling, learning about new markets and networking with other entrepreneurs. She also is keeping her eye on her primary goal. “The longer-term reward will come when Zipaboo becomes a household brand, and I have a successful team working to build that brand.”

Donna Abood (Photo by Cristina Diaz)
Donna Abood (Photo by Cristina Diaz)

Donna Abood, who built her brand and distinguished herself in real estate, is at the point of her 34-year career to begin enjoying one of the ultimate rewards of entrepreneurship: the sale of her business. From the start, Abood viewed her increasingly valuable company as an asset to draw upon in the future. She has worked hard to ensure it is a solid investment. “As a self-employed individual, no one is putting money aside for me, so this is my retirement fund,” Abood said, who in 2013 was inducted into the FSU College of Business Hall of Fame, the college’s top honor.

Formed in 1989, her Coral Gables-based commercial real estate firm Abood & Associates grew to be the largest privately held, locally based commercial real estate firm in Miami-Dade County before merging in 2002 with another company to become Abood Wood-Fay Real Estate Group, an affiliate of Colliers International South Florida. In late 2014, having amassed a remarkable portfolio of managed properties, close to 6 million square feet of property for lease and sale, employing more than 70 employees and revenue of $12 million, Abood and her partner sold the company to the expanding Canadian commercial real estate firm Avison Young.

Blessed with enviable financial freedom and energy, Abood can revel in her past successes and set goals for her current position as managing director and principal at Avison Young. At the pinnacle of her career, she is happy to be among those who set the standard for excellence, happy to be standing shoulder to shoulder with those she considers the most talented individuals in her industry, happy to be on her next chapter and happy to still be able to dream big.

Or, as Spanx founder Sarah Blakely says, “to own her own future.”

Kate Mueller contributed to this story.