From Corporate to Core Passion

By Melissa McCaughan

Rachel DesRochers, chief gratitude officer of Grateful Grahams, says her motto is “dream big and make it beautiful.”
Rachel DesRochers, chief gratitude officer of Grateful Grahams, says her motto is “dream big and make it beautiful.”

From hat shops to bakeries, yoga studios to social media marketing firms, Kentucky women are thriving as small business owners. Female entrepreneurs are opting out of corpo­rate positions for small-business owner­ship, leaving corporate America for family flexibility, meaningful work, cre­ative outlets and positions aligned with their values.

Renee Setters, founder of the Central Kentucky-based Gurlz for Gurlz network­ing organization, which has five chapters, believes women are natural entre­preneurs.

“Women are so great at multitasking. That is a great fit for entrepre­neurship,” Setters said. “Kentucky is very accom­modating and welcoming to small-business owners. It’s a great state for opportunities for women in business.”

After 30 years in a senior level corpo­rate position, Setters started her own business for mobility.

“My husband and I relocate so often,” she said. “It was important to me to have a business I could pick up and move anywhere.”

And Setters is only one of many women who started their own businesses after decades in corporate America.

After 27 years in the telecommunica­tions business, Shannon Stricklin was ready for a change.

“I had a ton of responsibility and stress. I lost my son Nick in 2007. He was 13 years old when he died,” said Stricklin. “At that point, I realized life is precious and you should do what you love. People are real­izing that they only have this one precious life. They are asking themselves, ‘What is my contribution to this world?’ ”

Searching for healing for herself and others, Stricklin tried a variety of relax­ation practices, and yoga stood out for her. She decided to get a teaching cer­tificate in 2011. In 2012, she opened The Studio in Georgetown, Ky., along with her daughter, Alex Likens, who previously taught dance classes.

In her corporate position, Stricklin was responsible for sales, marketing and customer service, which laid the founda­tion for opening a business of her own. She started out using what she knew and learned the rest along the way.

“My grandparents owned their own business when I was growing up. They taught me about accounting and the fundamentals of giving the customer what they want,” Stricklin said.

Starting the business in Georgetown seemed like a natural fit.

“It’s where I lived. I wanted to be downtown. I love their downtown,” said Stricklin.

“The Studio has grown and continues to grow. We have new yoga and massage clients in here every week,” she said. “At first, I was worried that a yoga business wouldn’t be well received, that it wouldn’t resonate with the community, but the community has really embraced it.”

Her marketing background was an asset.

“Getting the word out has been the biggest challenge,” said Stricklin. “I try to leave people wanting for more, make people feel welcome and like they’ve found a home away from home. It was a risk starting out; I was just hoping peo­ple would love what I loved.”

‘I eat, breathe and sleep my business’

Pursuing what she loved is something Jenny Pfanensteil, author of “The Mak­ing of a Milliner: Hat-Making Projects,” desired from a young age.

“I’ve always collected hats since I was a little girl. I started sewing when I was 5,” said Pfanensteil, who owns Formé Fashions, a hat shop in Louisville.

Pfanensteil moved from Chicago two years ago, after having come to Louis­ville for six years to do custom work for the Kentucky Derby.

“The city of Louisville is really sup­portive of small businesses. It’s very dif­ferent from Chicago. The mayor’s office did a ribbon cutting when I opened my shop; they want people to succeed here,” Pfanensteil said.

In high school Pfanensteil decided to pursue fashion design. She worked in the corporate world for 15 years until she met a milliner from New York with 35 years business experience who took Pfanensteil under her wing as an apprentice.

She learned the art of blocking (mold­ing over wooden forms) and found that it came naturally to her. Pfanensteil started collecting hats and making molds. Her home business grew, and eventually she was able to quit her corporate job to pur­sue hat making full time.

Starting out and following her phi­losophy to do what you’re good at and hire out the rest, Pfanensteil hired a bookkeeper. She did her own market­ing. And she learned running her busi­ness involves using 20 percent of your time making your art and 80 percent running the business.

Time management has been a chal­lenge for her; so has finding help doing what today is a rare art form. She attri­butes her success to never giving up.

“There aren’t a lot of milliners that make hats from scratch. I hand-sew them, and quality is important,” Pfanensteil said. “I eat, breathe and sleep my business.”

It is important, she said, to know how to sell your product and how to handle rejection.

“People fear competition. You just have to keep going. If an opportunity falls through, another one will come along.”

Opening her own business has been a step Pfanensteil has never regretted. The business has grown continually since it opened. She appreciates that she can bring her baby to work and make her own hours. And she likes that she now has a shop that is both a retail and work space.

“People like the experience of seeing the process done. It’s like getting a tai­lored suit made,” she said. “If you’re the creative type, you will eventually explode in the corporate world. You yearn for a creative outlet if you’re creative.”

Pfanensteil debunked several myths about starting your own business.

“You don’t need a loan. I have no debt, and I didn’t take out a loan,” she said, and the Small Business Administra­tion agrees.

Between 2004 and 2008, 61.8 per­cent of women who started businesses did so with less than $25,000, accord­ing to the Kauffman Firm Survey. According to the 2007 Survey of Busi­ness Owners, women were more likely than men to indicate they didn’t need startup financing and were less likely than men to start firms with business loans from banks.

Pfanensteil recommends starting small. She started with two hat blocks in her apartment and the business grew from there.

“Learn what you’re getting yourself into. Learn about the marketing, selling and bookkeeping aspects. There is more involved than making the art. But dream big. It can be done,” Pfanensteil said.

Go big – with enthusiasm

“Dream big and make it beautiful,” is the motto of Rachel DesRochers, chief gratitude officer at Grateful Grahams.

“We’re a gratitude company that makes a sweet treat. I really believe in our message and in showing people that you can be grateful for something every day,” said DesRochers.

She runs a Covington-based com­pany that now makes 20,000 cookies per week. Grateful Grahams are distrib­uted in Kroger, Whole Foods, Remkes, Good Foods, a variety of coffee shops and are part of Green Bean Delivery. She started the company five and a half years ago at home.

“I did marketing in the corporate world. Then I stayed home, had a baby, cooked a lot of food and folded a lot of laundry,” DesRochers said. One day she was baking with a girlfriend and they made graham crackers from scratch. “They were the best thing I ever had. I got the idea: What if I can take this home­made thing and pair it with a message I believe in?”

As a new mother, she also wanted her daughter to see that you could dream big and make those dreams come true. She started refining the gra­ham cracker recipe.

“After my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he had to go on a vegan diet. So, I made them vegan as a nod to him,” she said.

DesRochers knew marketing from her previous business life and she knew how to bake and sell. She could visualize the bag they would come in and how she wanted people to feel.

“I decided not to worry about the other things. I wanted to be on grocery shelves. I kept the big vision and had the motivation to keep going,” said DesRochers, who started selling with a baby on her hip – one store, one coffee shop at a time. Eventually the business grew to a staff of eight and a 5,000-s.f. facility.

“We’ve always grown at the rate I could handle. We’ve moved five times,” said DesRochers.

Initially intimidated by the size of the kitchen in the new facility, she then got another idea and started the Northern Kentucky Incubator Kitchen. Other food-based businesses rent out parts of it. She organized a support network; tenants work together and support each other. And she opened a second space in January called The Hatchery to help other small businesses.

Her work is her inspiration and moti­vation in life, and her enthusiasm for community is contagious.

“People want to help us be successful. We have to get out of our own way and let them help us,” DesRochers said. “We have the ability to say yes to our dreams. That’s where all the magic happens.”

Help those you believe in

Passion and determination led Emily Ho to open Authentically Social, her own social media marketing business, in Lexington in 2012.

“I left my corporate job because I felt like the companies I worked with were great, but they weren’t products and services I was passionate about in my personal life,” said Ho.

All of her current clients are fashion, fitness or lifestyle services with products she personally used before working with them.

“I wanted to find joy in life,” said Ho. “We spend a lot of time at work and put in a lot of hours. I wanted to believe in the products I was promoting.”

Ho knew a lot about finance and accounting from brand management work in the corporate world for eight years and earning her MBA with an emphasis in marketing. She uses inde­pendent contractors and virtual assis­tants to assist in the brand management of the businesses she promotes.

Letting go of control has been diffi­cult, but she now outsources some work to people she trusts.

“It’s been a shift from seeing myself as the employee to seeing myself as the man­ager,” she said. “In the beginning, I took on every client. I’ve learned to say, ‘no.’ ”

Ho started out building her personal brand to demonstrate how she could build the brand of others. She is the blogger behind the body-positive fitness and plus-size fashion blog Authentically Emmie, which has been featured in Ladies’ Home Journal, Shape magazine, Health magazine, New York Post, Prevention magazine, and the Associated Press.

Having developed a niche, she now is able to pursue work for companies she admires.

“I actively pursue clients that I want to work with and put it out there that I want to do work for a company. Some­times all you have to do is ask,” Ho said.

She believes women are craving for their voices to be heard and the ability to do work that is fulfilling and doesn’t just pay the bills. She learned a lot from lunches with other women who have started their own businesses.

“It gave me a lot of confidence to know that no one knows what they are doing in the beginning,” said Ho.

Her advice to other women seeking to open their own business: “Do it now. I wish I had started earlier. If you feel like you have the vision and the tools in place to be successful, go for it. Once you take the leap, you don’t regret it.”

Please wait...

Subscribe to the FASTER LANE business newsletter.

Subscribe and receive breaking Kentucky business news and updates daily.