Success On Her Own Terms
BY ANDY STEINER
Enterprising, entrepreneurial Katies confidently create businesses that fit their lives.
Like many entrepreneurs, twin sisters Carolyn '04 and Julie Maset '04 were thrilled when they received their first check for Maid for a Day, the housecleaning business they founded just a year after graduation.
"When we went into business for ourselves, we placed our first ad in the paper, got our first call and did the job," recalls Carolyn, who, like her sister, majored in business administration. "We made a copy of that first check and framed it." She pauses: "Then it bounced."
"We had no idea what we were doing back then," Julie says. "We were innocent. But we learned fast. We had set out to work for ourselves, and we were determined to make it work."
The experience was an important lesson for any budding entrepreneur: Starting a business can be tough, but if you've got the right attitude, skills and persistence, you can craft a successful career that fits your life.
Learning and leading
Throughout its history, St. Catherine has been rich with entrepreneurial graduates who have gone into business for themselves. In recent years, the number of Katie business owners has been increasing, thanks to the accessibility, networking and marketing opportunities created by the Web and social networking.
"Social media help level the playing field between large and small businesses," explains Sara Kerr, adjunct professor of business administration. Kerr's new course, "Integrated Marketing Communications," teaches students how to use new media to define and promote their businesses. "It's very easy for a small start-up company to make a large impression on the Web," she says.
Although plenty of St. Kate's alumnae choose corporate careers or professions such as law and medicine, growing numbers of alumnae like the Maset twins are developing businesses crafted to fit their lives. These independent businesswomen take many forms: visionaries who market and create the product of their dreams; mothers who build their work around their families; natural leaders who have always dreamed of being their own boss.
What these entrepreneurs have in common is the power of a St. Catherine education — and the confidence it instills.
"At St. Catherine, empowering women is central to our mission," says Mary U. Henderson '80, associate professor and chair of St. Catherine University's Department of Business Administration and holder of the 3M professorship. "And empowering women means giving our students the skills and experience needed to achieve their life goals — whatever they may be. We teach our graduates to see life's possibilities and have the confidence to make their work work for them."
In the new American economy, jobs rarely span the length of a person's working life. The ability to craft a viable, flexible career that suits your life and pays the bills is an important survival skill. Given its history as a women's college that always has challenged conventional norms, St. Catherine attracts savvy "survivors," says Kerr, students who are bold enough to define success on their own terms.
"For the most part, St. Kate's students come to school to learn," she explains. "Once they land on campus, they are determined to succeed. My colleagues and I give them the skills they need. They take it from there."
Maid to order
The Maset twins grew up watching their entrepreneurial father run his own adoption agency, and the idea of calling the shots always appealed to their spunky, independent personalities. But they didn't enroll at St. Catherine with the idea of running their own business.
"When I started college, I had thought of going into a big local corporation — Best Buy, General Mills, Target, 3M," Carolyn says. "But the more schooling we had, the more we realized that we wanted to do our own thing."
Julie and Carolyn went to work for the family business for a year after graduation. Then, after researching the market and securing a start-up loan from their parents, they incorporated Maid for a Day in 2005. The company now employs seven full-time workers plus the twins' mother, Holly Maset. Every day, three two-person teams don brightly colored uniforms and head out from Maid for a Day's Edina office, driving a company car. Each team cleans four houses a day.
The Masets considered focusing their business on office buildings, but they found that the market was glutted, with aggressive corporate cleaners willing to undercut most bids. They turned instead to the less predictable realm of residential cleaning, working to build a reputation among customers for reliable, flexible, high-quality service.
In an economic downturn, clients may view a cleaning service as a luxury they can't afford. The Masets have countered that trend by emphasizing Maid for a Day's flexibility and superior customer service. "We have to make sure that people see us as the essential service they can't live without," Julie explains.
Wendy Nemitz '98 usually listens to her mother's advice, but this time, she's glad she didn't.
In 1993, not long after Nemitz and her husband divorced, her mother advised her to give up her burgeoning freelance marketing business and find a more reliable career.
"After the divorce, my mom said I should look for a job with the state," Nemitz recalls. "She said I'd have good benefits and job security." As a single parent, Nemitz reasoned that working for herself was less risky. "When I work for one employer, if my boss doesn't like me then I'm out of a job," she says. "When I'm an entrepreneur with 12 clients, if one client doesn't like me I still have 11 more."
Nemitz has built her business from a one-woman shop to what is now Ingenuity Marketing Group, a 12-employee firm that serves a diverse range of local and national clients, including attorneys, financial institutions, engineers and technology professionals.
She doesn't envy her friends who work 60-hour weeks or who have to put in "face time" to appear productive.
"I have always assumed that I can create a work life that works for me," Nemitz says. "I want a whole life."
After two years of college and some study abroad, Nemitz transferred to St. Catherine's Weekend Program. For a time, more travel, marriage and children — and launching a business — got in the way, but Nemitz persisted, eventually graduating from St. Kate's in 1998 with a Bachelor of Science in communications.
She has since gone on to earn a master's degree in leadership and to craft a digital presence for her business that showcases the team's expertise in social media, blogging, video and more.
Nemitz, 50, recognized the importance of being her own boss in the early 1990s, when she fell ill with toxic shock syndrome. The condition can be fatal, and it left her weakened for nearly a year. Her children were just 2 and 5. "As I was recovering, I went into business for myself because I couldn't get through the whole day without a nap," she says. "I knew an employer wouldn't work with that, but I could."
A decade ago, she joined forces with business partner Dawn Wagenaar, and the pair began building a staff of full-time, salaried employees.
The freedom-loving Nemitz and her partner have crafted a workplace that "has flexibility down to the bone," she explains. "As long as people are responsible to clients and to the deadline, that's all that matters. I have employees whom I see only once a week."
That is exactly how Nemitz runs her own life. "I love my work," she says, "but I don't want work to be my life."