One of 11 children born to Panamanian immigrants, Womack first made her mark with VCW, which sells insurance to independent truckers. That company, which she started with just $17,000 in 1983, was worth more than $100 million when she sold it in 2002. Currently, she manages a nonprofit called the Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World, helping others on their way up. Married and the mother of two, Womack recently pledged $2 million to build a women's softball field at her alma mater, the University of Kansas.
Hitting the road: "I was working for an insurance company in the department that covered trucking. I was so mad that my boss wouldn't let me take the next step in sales that I thought, 'If I can't be my own boss, I don't want to be in this business.' Anger was what got me going."
Diapers and elbow grease: "I started the business in my basement. After about a year, when I felt I could buy space, I realized that the flu I thought I had was really a pregnancy. So now I was in debt, and I had to call on my largest customer when I was eight months pregnant. Then I had to do their year's checkup when I was pregnant again. They were not happy. The first time they were all, 'Take your time. Enjoy.' The second time, it was like, 'Are you going to have children, or are you going to run a business?' One client would not work with us until after I delivered the baby and returned. So I came back to work three weeks after I gave birth—and I'd had a C-section. But it was a huge account and we needed to get it. When the kids were young, if I was going to be away for more than a night, I took them along with a nanny.
Passing it on: "The whole reason I was successful is that I hired a lot of incredible women and gave them a chance to move outside the box. I love empowering women."
Victoria Knight-McDowell was a second-grade teacher who kept catching colds from her students. So she came up with her own preventive remedy (which includes vitamins A, C, and E, seven herbal extracts, antioxidants, electrolytes, and amino acids) and called it Airborne—which now brings in $100 to $150 million annually. She stopped teaching to run the company with her husband, Rider, and care for their son, Errol.
The fizz effect: "The formula I developed was working for my husband and me, and for teacher friends. Rider and I were talking over dinner one night, and it just sort of flowed until we said, 'Let's put it on the market and see what happens.' Probably the most important thing we did was research a way to get it to effervesce in less than two minutes, since Americans like things that happen quickly. Then we cashed in our IRAs and savings to jump-start the business. Our first run was something like 12,000 tubes. We put the labels on by hand, and I made sales calls at all the local drugstores after school."
On-the-job education: "Ordinary women, people like me who don't have Harvard MBAs, are not encouraged to start businesses. But one thing I did from the very beginning was ask a lot of questions. I didn't know the difference between a P&L and a balance sheet, so I asked the woman who was helping me at the bank. I'm still asking questions—now it's about distribution channels and streamlining."
Tuning out naysayers: "When we were starting out, Rider had just sold a screenplay [for the made-for-TV movie The Angel of Pennsylvania Avenue], and our friends and family thought we should invest in a house instead of Airborne. People will say, 'Oh, what a crazy idea!' or 'You can't do that.' You have to ignore them."
When Rice sold her software company, Integrated Business Solutions, in 2000, it was worth more than $12 million. The mother of three continues to run her own consulting firm, AR & Associates.
Aiming high: "In sixth grade, our teacher gave us an aptitude test. She came to me and said, 'It looks like you could be a telephone operator.' I told my mother, and she said, 'Maybe you should think about being president of the telephone company.'"
Mother knows best: "When I was in high school, there was discrimination, and there were no jobs we could just go into, like McDonald's or Burger King. So I got a gray uniform with a white collar and I cleaned toilets. My mother told me, 'Whatever your job is, do the best job. If you're cleaning toilets, they have to sparkle.'"
An eye for opportunity: "I was working for the government in minority business development when I realized that soon there would be a personal computer on every desk. I decided to start a full-service computer systems agency, developing software and providing hardware for both government and private companies."
When the going gets tough: "Starting Integrated was hard as hell! I was a woman in a man's world, and an African-American woman, so you've got to prove you are reasonably intelligent before anything happens—and then they want to see who owns the business, because you couldn't really own it. It was like a hit in the face. But having to prove your capabilities makes you stronger."
Secret weapon: "I surrounded myself with top-of-the-line talent, some of the most astute people in technology. Their skills were passed on to our customers. Great service was the formula for our success."
In 1992, shortly after graduating with an MBA from New York University's business school, Elting started TransPerfect with classmate Phil Shawe. Their start-up money: $5,000, largely from credit cards. Today the 30-branch international translation and interpretation service takes in more than $65 million a year. Elting is married with two young children.
Eureka!: "I worked in finance for six weeks and thought, 'Why am I doing this? I don't love it.' What I did love was languages. I'd worked at a translation company, first coordinating projects and then in sales, for almost three years after college, and I'd seen a gap between the service and quality that was available and what clients really needed. Today we offer the most qualified linguists and the fastest service in more than 100 languages."
How do you say "espresso" in Swahili?: "In the beginning, Phil and I worked 100, 120 hours a week. I'm lucky I wasn't married and didn't have kids then."
The toughest week ever: "We needed to translate an 800-page geology study into Russian in only six days, and it required people with specialized knowledge. Through networking we found some translators who had actually worked in the mines in Russia, so we flew them in for the job."
Strange but true: "I speak French and Spanish but not well enough to translate. Phil speaks only English."
Life after the struggle: "I'll never feel completely comfortable, because anything can change at any moment. And we still have a long way to go as a company. But now I don't need to work on weekends and I get to be home with my kids every night. And having a certain amount financially does make me feel secure. It's nice not to have to worry about money day in and day out."
Wells's company, which keeps clients such as Sony and MGA Entertainment updated on the latest trends among young buyers, is worth more than $5 million.
The start of a great thing: "At 16 I began writing product reviews for a newspaper called The New Girl Times. In return I got free products from more than 40 companies. After three months, I brought in ten of my friends to help me—and to share the freebies."
Lightbulb moment: "I talked to the director of marketing of a company for which I'd written up a really cool report. She said she'd just paid someone $25,000 to do what I'd done—and that I had done it better. I was like, 'People get paid for this?' I got my first paying client my freshman year in college."
Making her mark: "Until I graduated, I had trouble getting taken seriously as a businesswoman. So I started putting out research that was different from what everybody else was doing: It was more informative, and it was sexy and scandalous. For instance, I wrote a report saying we interviewed 500 kids, and 99 percent of them said they illegally downloaded music and were not going to stop. We also did surveys about sex and religion, things people wanted to know about but were too scared to ask. We now have 9,000 teenage and young adult 'buzzspotters' who scope out what their peers are thinking and doing."
Imelda Marcos doesn't live here: "I love shoes and Louis Vuitton bags, but as much as I indulge, I also tell myself, 'No, this money has to go back into my business.' I have a special teen advisory board, in addition to the buzzspotters, that's a huge part of our success, so I spend on training seminars for them. Entrepreneurs don't realize that while they may have gotten a client and made an extra $100,000, it has to be reinvested so it can make another $500,000."
Building Your Nest Egg
For every woman who earns $100,000 or more, there are four men. The annual median earnings for a man working full time is $40,668. For a woman, it's $30,724. That's almost 25 percent less. Women should do what men do: Make the money! Follow these cardinal rules.