"When I arrived in the U.S., I was 15 years old and had never seen a telephone, a television or heard English spoken," said Carmen Bermudez, a native of Costa Rica who used to climb trees to pick fruit as a way to stave off hunger.
Today, she is chairwoman and CEO of Mission Management and Trust Co., the first minority- and woman-owned trust company, based in Tucson, Ariz. Bermudez said she is "proud to give job opportunities to others."
Bermudez and others were recently honored for overcoming adversity to achieve entrepreneurial success at the 14th annual Avon Women of Enterprise Awards, co-sponsored by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The women's stories, shared at a lavish luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, were inspirational.
After moving to the United States, Bermudez cleaned houses with her mother. It took her two years to save $54 to buy a typewriter. Then she landed a job as a secretary. Before starting her own company, she worked as a flight attendant for TWA, and as the treasurer and eventually the chairwoman of her husband's asset management company.
While Bermudez's firm manages money, winner Barbara Manzi manages metals.
"I plan to be the 'Oprah' of raw materials," said Manzi, president of Manzi Metals Inc., a Brooksville, Fla.-based distributor of raw materials for aerospace and other industries. Manzi Metals is believed to be the only metal distribution company operated by an African-American woman.
"When the Challenger (space shuttle) blew up, I thought, 'Whose material allowed this to happen?'" said Manzi, who started her company in 1993 in a spare room of her home. The business now generates $1.3 million in annual revenue.
Before opening her own restaurant on 40 acres of historic land in the Wasatch National Forest near Salt Lake City, Margo Suzan Provost had to cope with the aftermath of a traumatic childhood living as an orphan and then being adopted into an unstable family.
"I had to accept the fact that I had to save myself," said Provost. "I opened the restaurant because I wanted a place with solace and safety."
Provost achieved financial success working in the health care industry. Before opening the restaurant, she said she sold "both of my houses and all of my cars. I was in dire straits."
Today, Log Haven Restaurant has 46 employees and is considered one of Utah's 10 most popular restaurants.
Life after retirement
Avon's fourth honoree decided to set up shop in her home when she found out her husband had cancer.
"My husband and I drew the plans for the Avon office with our house around it," said Vondell McKenzie, now the senior executive unit leader of Avon Products, in Los Banos, Calif. McKenzie was retired but started selling Avon products with her husband for extra income. They sold enough products to build a new home.
"I started my business by visiting the house next door (and making a sale)," said McKenzie, who now manages a $5.5 million Avon products business.
A fifth award was presented to Aliza Pilar Sherman for her leadership and success in using technology and the Internet to benefit women.
"Women need to be more than just the users of technology," said Sherman, an author, speaker and co-founder of Eviva.net, a new Web site for Latina women. "Women need to be the creators, the programmers, the builders and the inventors of Web technology."
Actress Mary Tyler Moore delivered the keynote address at the awards ceremony.
"These women are certainly trailblazers," said Moore, who shared details of her own personal and work challenges. She juggled a successful career in show business while at the same time dealing with her son's suicide, two divorces and alcoholism.
"Having a dream is what keeps you alive," said Moore. "Overcoming the challenges make life worth living."
This year's honorees join 80 other women who have previously been honored by Avon and the SBA. Candidates are nominated by various business organizations. They must have been profitably self-employed for at least five years. They must also have had to overcome some significant personal or professional obstacle before achieving business success.
Here's an update on Springboard 2000, the venture capital conference that was the topic of a column earlier this year.
Even though none of the venture capitalists in the audience last January invested in her San Francisco-based business, Karen Wilson still managed to raise $12 million in a second round of funding.
Wilson was among the two dozen women who presented their dreams at the first Springboard 2000 venture forum for women, held at Oracle headquarters in Silicon Valley.
"Unfortunately, the VCs I met there are not candidates for my third round of funding, but being there created a huge P.R. buzz," said Wilson, president of Livemind.com, a company that has developed a technology that lets people connect to the Internet using their cellular phones.
"We just happened to pick a great category that's hot right now," said Wilson, who hopes to raise $50 million to close the company's third round of funding.
On July 11 and 12, Springboard 2000 will host its second event, "The Springboard 2000 Mid-Atlantic Forum," where 20 to 25 women entrepreneurs will pitch their businesses to investors. For information, visit www.springboard2000.org.
"Not only are the equity markets a new frontier for women entrepreneurs, but these women-led firms are a lucrative new market for investors looking for new deal flow," said Kay Koplovitz, chair of the National Women's Business Council and a co-founder of the Springboard program.
In other small-business news, MasterCard International and Microsoft Corp. signed a deal to help small-business owners obtain credit and other business services online.
"Microsoft bCentral helps small businesses get started on the Web as well as manage and market their businesses online," said Jonathan Weinstein, marketing director for bCentral.
Reporting by Julie Neal. Jane Applegate is the author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business," and is founder of ApplegateWay.com, a multimedia Web site for busy entrepreneurs. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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