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Capital Acumen 34

Women on the Journey to Ownership

A group of women business owners offer experiences and insights to help light the way for future female entrepreneurs.

Illustration of eight women entrepreneurs.

Illustrations by Alexandra Compain-Tissier

IN THE PAST FEW DECADES, women-owned businesses in the United States have seen growth rates above the national average.1 Between 1997 and 2017, the number of all women-owned businesses grew by 114% while all firms combined grew by just 44%. The employment growth rate was stronger, too: 27% for businesses owned by women vs. 13% for businesses overall. Today, women in the U.S. own an estimated 11.6 million businesses, employ nearly 9 million people and generate more than $1.7 trillion in annual revenue.

In light of these striking numbers, U.S. Trust sought to discover whether there is a shared approach among women entrepreneurs in how they create wealth and define success. The resulting study, “Women’s Entrepreneurial Journeys: Profiles of Leadership in an Era of New Opportunities,” is based on interviews with eight successful women at different stages of their personal and professional lives. By highlighting some of their experiences and insights, we hope that budding, and established, women entrepreneurs will find inspiration and guidance.

(Read the executive summary here and the full report here.)


A meticulously written five- to 10-year plan, with ambitious but realistic revenue and profitability numbers and a methodical growth plan, is the most rooted method for convincing oneself that an idea is worth pursuing.”  And on mentorship:  “The simple action of an older woman inviting a younger one to a meeting costs nothing and is one of the most powerful acts that women do for each other.”

MAXINE CLARK founder and former chief executive officer (CEO) of Build-A-Bear Workshop, Inc., an innovative chain of stores where kids create their own stuffed animals. Maxine founded the company in 1997 and retired in 2013. She now focuses on the organization she established with her husband, the Clark-Fox Family Foundation.


 “[I believe that] women really care about people, seeking to build companies that are giant families, and everyone is encouraged to have a vested interest in the enterprise and each other.”  And on being one: “I never thought of myself as being a woman, I thought of myself as being a person. I am not afraid to do anything."

SUZANNE WEINSTEIN founder and former CEO of Coastal Seafoods, which pioneered the introduction of exotic seafood to the Midwest. Suzanne opened her first store in 1985 and sold the company in 2016. She has leased two vacant lots she owns for use as community-supported agricultural gardens.


“I strongly believe that growing entrepreneurs cannot be driven only by money. One must be driven by purpose and passion.”  And on family: “[My children] would often come to work with me. They all had age-appropriate jobs. [It was] not to follow in my footsteps but to build a work ethic.”

CAROL LEVINS founder of Creative Kids Learning Center, which seeks to provide early learning in a safe and supportive environment. After 37 years at the helm, Carol sold her company in 2017. She sits on the board of the Las Vegas Natural History Museum.


Every job at every agency prepped me for starting my own firm.”  And on starting a business: “[Prospective entrepreneurs] should find the savviest lawyer, accountant, bookkeeper and IT advisor they can afford and invest the time to regularly talk to them.”

MEGAN DRISCOLL founder and CEO of EvolveMKD, a public relations (PR) firm. Megan started her company several years ago after spending more than a decade working in the PR industry. She has pledged to give away 10% of the company’s profits to “make the world a better place.”


“Next-gen family members should prove themselves at jobs elsewhere, for at least four or five years, before joining a family business.”  And on stepping up: “[I] waited too long to assume the leadership role. I was in my 50s when my father passed away, and I stepped up. I encourage women in family businesses to step up for leadership while they are still young.”

CINDY AYLOUSH CEO and chief financial officer (CFO) of Hydraflow Corp., a California-based manufacturer of valves, hoses and couplings. Cindy’s father founded the company in 1961 and she has run it for more than 15 years. She created an initiative to encourage local colleges to offer programs in manufacturing management.


 “Quite literally you are your own destiny. The possibilities are endless. It is my source of energy and pride leaving work every day, knowing that I work hard and feel fulfilled. But one must accept the ups and downs, as no entrepreneur ever gets it right every time.”

LISSA WONG CEO of Casters, Wheels and Industrial Handling, Inc., a leading distributor of products for warehouses. After working there for years, Lissa and her future husband purchased the business in the mid-1990s. They have visited all seven continents, a benefit, she says, of being an owner.


 “The lack of equal access to capital has hurt our economy by limiting the growth of existing and new businesses and job creation.”  And on equality: “We must work harder to teach boys the value that women bring to our economy, not just that it is fairer to give us opportunities.”

JANICE BRYANT HOWROYD founder and CEO of The ActOne Group, a workforce-management company with offices in 19 countries. Janice founded ActOne in 1978 and built it into a billion-dollar business. She believes women can and should collaborate more, crossing racial, national and other divides.


“You just need to believe in yourself. Be brave with the conviction that there is something to be brave about. You can figure it out. Take the leap. We all should recognize that the best things happen the farther we travel outside of our comfort zone.”

KELLY GASINK co-founder of Austin Cocktails, a craft cocktail business. Kelly and her sister, Jill Burns, began producing bottled craft cocktails in 2012 and include New York’s Madison Square Garden on their list of clients. Kelly says that she and her sister work well together because they are a classic left-brain vs. right-brain pair.


The women featured in this article offer actionable insights for budding and established entrepreneurs.


  • Choose your first job carefully. Is your motive to learn about the business, the industry? Could it lead to a career that you love?
  • Utilize government, university programs and internship opportunities.
  • Focus on listening and observing.
  • Monitor trends and look for gaps that could present opportunities.
  • Learn and practice financial prudence.
  • Engage with professional advisors (for example, accountants, lawyers) and leverage their expertise.


  • Explore entrepreneur-focused networking groups.
  • Hire the best accountant, lawyers and IT specialists that you can afford.
  • Learn to interpret and write financial statements, and pay attention to cash flow.
  • Know how fast and how much you want to grow.
  • Consider the impact of outside investors and debt carefully.
  • Know the key P’s: passion, purpose, people, process, profit, problem-solving and persistence.


  • Set up a will, healthcare proxy and financial power of attorney, so your business can continue to operate if something happens to you.
  • Create a succession plan and an estate plan.
  • Communicate your goals to your children joining the business and prepare them to assume responsibility.
  • Download a due diligence list to help you understand what a buyer or an investor will want to know.
  • Prepare for an unexpected offer and learn about your exit options.
  • Build a strong team. It may include a business consultant, lawyer, accountant and private banker.


  • Establish your company culture from day one.
  • State your values in writing.
  • Build your business to reflect your most important values.


  • Find a mentor or mentors. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Speak up. Mentor young women interested in a similar path.
  • Support other women and expose them to other successful entrepreneurs.


  • Calculate risk and then jump in.
  • Trust yourself and your passion.
  • Develop and practice optimism.


  • Treat yourself well. Recharge your mind, body and soul.
  • Eat well, exercise and sleep.
  • Have a purpose outside of your business and take time for family and friends.

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