Borat might be surprised to learn that in the U.S. and A., more women are doing "men's work" than ever before.
Some might even say they're doing it better.
I spoke with four hard-charging women in "non-traditional" industries for Success.
And if powerful businesswomen are your thing, here is a behind-the-scenes look at a glamorous life in the fashion industry, Wall St. for Chicks. Don't ask who I know on the inside, I would never reveal my sources.
In 1966, James Brown sang It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World. Four decades later, it appears he was wrong—at least in the business world. As of 2004, there were 10.6 million businesses at least half owned by women, and those firms employed 19 million workers and generated $2.5 trillion in sales. “Women-owned companies are growing at twice the rate of all other privately held firms,” says Sharon Hadary, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Women’s Business Research. “And their goals have changed from making a living to support the family to providing employment and generating wealth.” The organization also reports that jobs in typically male-dominated industries such as mining and fishing are seeing the greatest growth. Between 1997 and 2004, for instance, construction companies headed by women increased by 30%. Here you’ll meet four enterprising women who are shattering the glass ceiling with a whole new range of tools. Maybe the Godfather of Soul needs a lyrical update because these days, Mama’s Got A Brand New Bag.
Ask Barbara Kavovit to define success, and she responds definitively: independence. That’s appropriate, considering that her line of tools for women allows homeowners, homemakers, and home-is-wherever-I-hang-my-hatters to take care of projects—whether there’s a man around or not. Kavovit’s company, Barbara K!, teaches women to do everything from childproof a kitchen, replace a doorknob, and install a dimmer switch to build shelves and change a flat tire.
Kavovit’s road to becoming a home improvement guru began in 1990, when she heard her mother and a friend commiserating over how they’d been exploited by unscrupulous outside contractors who took advantage of their lack of knowledge. Kavovit was a few months into her first post-college job as a financial analyst, but she saw an opportunity to help other women while building a business. She began marketing her idea to women in supermarkets, introducing herself to female shoppers and offering to take care of their home repairs. She also acted as a third-party conduit, finding out what women’s problems were and enlisting fair and qualified tradespeople out of the classifieds to solve them. The inspired entrepreneur took her role as an advocate for women needing repairs so seriously that she even picked up workers at their homes to ensure that they followed through with the job.
It was a solid business, but most projects were under $500, and Kavovit had her sights set on something more. When a carpenter she knew gave her a tool belt, the gift ignited a feeling of empowerment she recalled from her childhood when she would do woodworking projects with her father in their Bronx apartment. “To this day, I remember the sense of accomplishment I got from nailing wood together to make a bunk bed that my sister and I slept in,” Kavovit says. She bought a van and a batch of tools to start a small construction company and went right to the top, securing a two-year contract with local giant IBM to handle small tasks like replacing fireproof doors.
From there, Kavovit kept building the business, ignoring threats from union workers. She took architects, foremen, engineers, and end users out to lunch to learn all she could about the construction industry. “A lot of men told me I was barking up the wrong tree, since I was a young, inexperienced woman,” she explains. “But every day was different, and it was exciting forging my way ahead.” By 2000, Kavovit was running a $40 million company with 35 employees working on large projects that included a five-story, 100,000 square-foot office for iVillage. Her combination of hard work and practice, practice, practice even landed her a renovation gig with construction giant Tishman at Carnegie Hall.
Then, on 9/11, everything stopped.
“It doesn’t take a lot for a company to shut down when there’s no cash flow,” says Kavovit, who in September 2001 was also going through a divorce and caring for her 3-year-old son by herself. With her much valued independence on the line, she needed a new plan to get her life back on track.
Intimidating visits to home improvement centers had given her the idea for creating a tool kit designed specifically for women, but it took an episode of Sex and the City to get it in motion. Watching fiercely self-reliant Samantha struggle to hang curtains strengthened Kavovit’s resolve to combat female do-it-yourself ineptitude.
“It was the eureka moment,” she says. “I knew women would buy the tool kit if it was about providing solutions.” Kavovit wanted three components: A sleek, stylish, translucent case; lighter products with grips that felt good in the hand; and a how-to guide with basic solutions to everyday problems. She hired an industrial engineer, came up with a design, and had a prototype built. Then she went to Taiwan to secure a manufacturer. “I found someone who understood I was going to build a brand around a real-life story,” she says. “And that I wasn’t just an actress or a model hired to be on the box.”
By 2002, all the elements were in place. Kavovit started cold-calling retailers across America, trying to get them excited about the new product. She was armed with statistics to make her case: According to the National Association of Realtors, in the past decade, roughly 20% of homes have been purchased by single women (that’s double the number purchased by single men). Combine those homeowners with women who are the heads of their households, and it all adds up to a woefully underserved market.
Bloomingdale’s was the first company to bite on the Barbara K! tool kits, in 2003. Now they are available in a variety of outlets, including Office Depot, Ace Hardware, and select Home Depot stores. Revenue is projected to double to $10 million by the end of the year. The company has reached the point where Kavovit can afford to turn down retailers who don’t follow her dictum to “buy our brand, not our tool box.” She’s always had more in mind than just hustling hammers. Her business plan includes a major media push built around the idea of empowering women and instilling confidence through the lens of home improvement. Her recent ventures include hosting AOL Webisodes, authoring books (Invest in Your Nest was published this summer by Rodale), and developing her own cable television show, You Can Do It with Barbara K.
“I love being a pioneer in helping women achieve independence,” Kavovit says. That means making time for more than work. She’s especially committed to raising her son, surfing, and playing guitar. She has a picture of Slash mounted in the bedroom of her Hamptons dream house and fantasizes about playing lead in a garage band. And chances are, she could make it happen.
Few entrepreneurs would quote Stalin as a means of illuminating how they could better society, but few entrepreneurs are like Tara Hart, owner of the Compliance Alliance, a workplace safety company based in Houston. Stalin’s famous quote, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” hits home with Hart, who was once in the ICU when doctors pulled the plug on a family friend after he was crushed in a man lift. He had been working on a job site where safety inspectors had been let go to increase profits. That experience played an obvious role in the development of TCA, whose mission is to put methods in place that enable both management and labor at some 1,000 companies to reduce accidents and fatalities. (The OSHA fatality total for the country was 5,703, or 4.1 per 100,000 workers, in 2004.) Hart’s quest is to ensure that a death in the workplace is always a tragedy and never a statistic.
The story of Hart’s journey to her current accomplished position would fill a week’s worth of conversations on Oprah’s couch. She was born into a dysfunctional Texas household with an alcoholic parent, and her childhood was divided between a Catholic orphanage, foster homes, juvenile hall, and even homeless nights on the streets of Houston. She got her first valuable sales lesson while panhandling outside a mall. “I learned to ask for what I needed,” she says. “Lunch cost $2, so it didn’t do me any good to beg for nickels.”
By the mid-1980s, Hart was a twenty-something divorced high school dropout with five children surviving on food stamps and was ready to give up. She made a list of her choices (it included becoming a call girl) and settled on suicide. “It was my darkest period,” says Hart, “but I believed that the pain I had to look forward to was more than I could handle.”
One drunken night, Hart was driving around her old neighborhood when she had a fortuitous accident. A man cut her off on the freeway and then waved at her to pull over. He was a local businessman who remembered her from a Houston Economic Development Council gala that she had attended while working as a low-wage secretary. The man cried as Hart told her story and asked her to meet with him. “He was a modern-day Henry Higgins who made me believe I could do anything,” Hart says. She began her remarkable turnaround by teaching herself to type and becoming an administrative assistant for Century Development, which handled the fund-raising campaign for the HEDC.
It was Hart’s complete lack of trust in anyone but herself that lead her to spurn the advice of her mentor and leave that position to start her own business-services company. She figured there was more money to be made doing special projects for the numerous contacts she’d made at Century Development. “Adversity strengthened me,” she says, “and I made up my mind to never be a $35,000-a-year person again.”
The company had its ups and downs, but Hart managed to keep it afloat until 1994, when she got a call that helped shape her future. A general contractor who had built a California Pizza Kitchen in Houston had gotten hit with OSHA citations that needed to be rectified. She called the agency and found out that “OSHA doesn’t tell people anything.” Hart acted as a middleman, fixed the minor problems, and saved the contractor time and money. As her reputation grew, she focused the Compliance Alliance on managing contractor safety for companies in rough-and-tumble industries like oil and gas, construction, and waste management. “I’ve been successful in the most chauvinistic industries in the most chauvinistic state in the Union,” she notes.
It’s not hard to find clients when you can show them the bottom-line savings in reduced lawsuits, lost work time, and insurance premiums, as well as increased rebates and reputation. The Compliance Alliance is a membership service, but its online tools and systems for tracking safety performance in a variety of categories are available to nonmembers. TCA audits companies and gives recommendations for particular job sites to reduce practices that cause accidents. There are different membership levels, from standard memberships that include access to TCA’s research and materials to platinum memberships that include field supervision. Such on-site guidance has had Hart scaling water towers, hanging in elevator shafts, and even ascending an 11-story building. Today, TCA has 12 employees and revenues of around $2 million, but Hart is so serious about safety that she will drop clients who get a third strike. She even turned down work for a project in India because it had budgeted for six fatalities.
Hart believes that companies too often call TCA after the fact—which usually means an employee has already suffered a terrible misfortune. “TCA is a champion for workers,” she says. “We are actively involved in trying to get companies to adapt to a culture of safety.” Hart says that although standards have improved, there are still plenty of owners who cut corners and won’t invest in thorough workplace security. That makes her a safety zealot, set on giving a voice to workers who are toiling in uncomfortable environments. She details her experiences in her book Faking Safety, which offers real-life examples taken from AmericansTakeCharge.com, a Web site that TCA hosts. The site covers every safety topic imaginable, including identity theft, heatstroke, table saw etiquette, emergency sanitation, and rape prevention.
“We’re in a race to save lives,” says Hart. Considering that the first life she saved was her own, she is just the person to lead the crusade.
Architecture is a slow-moving, conservative field dominated by men. According to Kermit Baker, chief economist for the American Institute of Architects, while the number of female architects is slowly increasing, women are still “underrepresented at the senior levels.” Baker points out that women make up only 20% of principals and senior partners in U.S. firms. But one woman is bucking the trend: Jane Smith, owner of the New York City–based Spacesmith, a growing architectural firm with some 30 ongoing projects and 25 employees (the majority of whom are female).
Smith grew up in the cowboy town of Laramie, Wyoming, with parents who had no problem with the fact that she was into skiing and football. After studying art and painting at Arizona State University, she came to New York during the summer of 1976 and never left. Her first job was at Prudential Financial, and her first project was redesigning the interior of a Lear Jet for the chairman.
Smith moved on to architecture firm HOK and then took a globe-trotting position with ExxonMobil in 1980. “They hired me at double my salary to fly all over, first class, working on projects everywhere from the first world to the third world,” she says. “It was ideal because it enabled me to become a creative thinker and figure out how to adapt to unfamiliar conditions.” After seven years at ExxonMobil, it became clear that not being an “oil person” meant there was a limit to how far she could go.
She joined an architecture firm while getting an MBA from New York University to bolster her business credentials. The company wasn’t matching her vision, however, so she split, realizing that true freedom would only come when she could head up her own diverse, forward-thinking shop. In 1998, she founded Harris Smith Design. She and partner Olaf Harris worked together on a wide array of projects, including a design for the 100,000-square foot headquarters of the International Rescue Committee near Grand Central Station, the Ralph Lauren Polo offices and showrooms in the U.S. and abroad, and the headquarters of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission.
Harris Smith Design was a full-service firm, working on every phase of its projects, from strategic planning and design through occupancy. The company garnered numerous awards and accolades, but Harris remained in Dallas, Texas, while Smith was working out of the Manhattan offices. Although the partners were always in touch, Smith felt the interaction wasn’t sufficient and offered Harris a buyout in 2004. Smith changed the name to Spacesmith, but not solely because it’s her name. “It’s a combination of what we do, which is really about space and ‘smithing,’ the craftsmanship of a goldsmith or a blacksmith,” she says.
The company hasn’t missed a beat, and Smith continues to build the brand. Their Flatiron District office, in an old sewing factory, offers a prime example of the clean, simple, airy aesthetic that defines the firm’s work. “Spacesmith is sensitive to the environment, and we like to use elements that are already in place,” she explains. “We want our designs to be a backdrop for people to live, work, and play.” Smith says that women-run architectural firms have a hard time getting a foothold because architects play such a big role in defining people’s everyday spaces. At the end of the day, she says, clients can only choose one firm to handle their expensive, invasive, often long-term projects, so they entrust the group with the longest track record. “The male firms often have a wealth of experience to draw upon,” says Smith. “It is very frustrating to sit at the table and not win.”
But Spacesmith is winning big. The company is currently working for the New York Police Department on a precinct in Brooklyn and on a 200-unit residential condo complex in the East Village. Smith is even heading to Africa to work with local artisans on the creation of a mixed-use village in the war-torn country of Eritrea, on the Red Sea. She takes time for the things that matter and began another career in September as Chair of the Interior Design Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. “I believe there are many ways to live a life,” she says. And she’ll be plenty fulfilled as long as she has her space.
Jackie Kallen Fans of the fight may refer to boxing as the “sweet science,” but stripped down to its essence, it’s still two men beating the hell out of each other. With apologies to Laila Ali, Maggie Fitzgerald, and ring-card girls everywhere, boxing has never been known as a woman’s domain. But that never stopped Jackie Kallen from stepping into the ring. She’s gone from being a publicist to managing four boxing champions to inspiring a Meg Ryan movie, all the while never wavering in her love for the sport. There aren’t many women who can say their occupation was kick-started by softening up a “Hitman,” but it’s just that type of caginess that’s enabled Kallen to have a three-decade-long championship career in the macho world of boxing.
Kallen was born and raised in middle-class Detroit, a tough industrial city that breeds fighters. But her earliest professional battles were in the old-boy’s club of sportswriting. “I was a bit of a tomboy growing up and threw a few punches in my day,” she says, “but I wanted to be Barbara Walters.” Her first beat for the Oakland Press in suburban Detroit was entertainment, where her two journalistic coups were interviews with Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. She moved into sportswriting but chose to profile athletes off the field, delving into what made them tick rather than Xes and Os and locker room chatter. “I thought that getting athletes to talk about their home lives was more interesting,” she says, “and the profiles became popular because they were from a women’s perspective.”
No matter what was said to or about Kallen, she never backed down—even when an athlete dropped his towel and told her that’s where she could find a story. Her reply: “I was hoping for something bigger.” (The athlete later apologized.) Despite that incident, Kallen says the athletes she encountered were almost universally cool with her, including the first boxer she interviewed, Thomas “Hitman” Hearns. In 1978, Hearns was a shy local kid in the early stages of an amazing pro career. Kallen attended her first fight, expecting to hate it. Instead, it became her life’s work. “I was enthralled with the technique and completely taken with these sweet guys who became so intense and ferocious in the ring,” she explains.
Kallen approached Hearns’s legendary trainer, Emmanuel Stewart, at Kronk Gym in Detroit and asked if he needed a publicist. He did, so Kallen got out of journalism and spent the better part of the next decade in boxing PR. It was a glorious time to be associated with Hearns, as he became the first fighter to win titles in four separate weight classes.
In 1988, Kallen was promoting an Auburn Hills, Michigan, fight between the aptly named Bobby Hitz and the resurgent George Foreman. Hitz didn’t have a manager, so Kallen volunteered, and he moved to Detroit to train. She’d been around Kronk long enough to understand the basics, but it was still a novelty to sit on the 6’3, 220-pound heavyweight’s feet while he did sit-ups, hectoring him to drink enough water. “I was the quintessential Jewish mother,” she says, “but guys saw how much TLC Hitz got, and they started asking, ‘What about me?’ ” Kallen’s nurturing, cheerleading, positive-reinforcement regimen brought her to the attention of the up-and-coming James Toney, and he signed her on as his manager.
In 1991, Kallen led Toney, the trainers, and 30 friends and family members into the hostile territory of Davenport, Iowa, hometown of undefeated IBF middleweight champion Michael Nunn. After an 11th-round knockout by “Lights Out” Toney, they left with the title. The stunning victory cemented Kallen’s reputation, and she took her percentage of the winnings and opened Galaxy Gym. Eventually, her stable of fighters would grow to two dozen, but she learned a hard lesson along the way when Toney split from her in 1995. “James broke my heart, because he was like my third son,” says Kallen. “But it thickened my skin, and I learned not to take things personally.”
She also learned that even in a man’s game, femininity and success don’t have to be mutually exclusive. She loves coordinating her fighter’s robes and shorts, and the First Lady of Boxing doesn’t eschew personal style just because she might get man sweat on her designer outfits. She is happy to see more and more female fighters showing up to become the next Million Dollar Baby and finds it amusing that the women she’s managed take a lot less “psychological prodding” than their male counterparts. Still, it irks her that not much has changed since the early 1980s, and she wishes she wasn’t the only woman around. “The maternal instincts for managing a fighter are so natural that I thought women would be commonplace in the sport by now,” she notes.
Kallen’s iconoclastic persona is what inspired the 2004 film Against the Ropes. “I love that I’ve done enough in my career to inspire a movie,” she says. “And they got the message to ‘be who you want to be’ right.” While Kallen feels the movie falls short in terms of the life she’s lived, it has given her more name recognition as a motivational speaker, dovetailing perfectly with her book, Hit Me With Your Best Shot.
Kallen now lives in Los Angeles, and she’s a doting grandmother of two. But boxing will always be there for her, which is why she continues to manage and has high hopes for 11-0 featherweight Matt Remillard. The sport has seeped into Kallen’s core, and she knows that boxing opened up a world to her that few women will ever experience. “Getting to see the inner workings of something so male has been a thrill, “ she says. “There aren’t many women who have washed blood out of their fighter’s mouthpiece and stuck it back in before the next round.”
(Photographs courtesy of Kate Swan and the women profiled.)
(Success, Winter 2006)
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