Erie Times-News, Pa.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet 5 incredible women from Erie, Pa. who are pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams in their own unique ways. What they do have in common is passion and persistence to achieve success.
Success doesn’t come overnight, or at least it didn’t for the five women featured here.
Instead, it has come from years of effort, after trial and error, and then more trials.
Their stories reflect the larger story of America, which has seen the percentage of women-owned businesses grow from 5 percent in 1972 to 38 percent in 2016.
We share their lessons learned as we launch into Women’s History Month.
Engineered for success
For Hannah Kirby, engineer is more than a job description. Her mindful approach to problem-solving is also a blueprint for connecting in the community, for mentoring and for having fun.
Kirby, 29, is a senior quality engineer at Lord Corp. She began her career at Lord as an intern while pursuing her MBA at Gannon University, where she had earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Kirby took a pragmatic approach in choosing a career. “‘What do you do when you are good at math?'” she asked herself. “I eliminated things and landed on engineering. It was a very engineer-type decision.”
Kirby likes engineering because it involves “learning how to learn, learning how to think, breaking down large problems into pieces.”
She also learned she needed mentors — a challenge in engineering, where women represent about 20 percent of college graduates but only about 14 percent of the engineering workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Kirby counts herself “lucky” to work with several women engineers at Lord, and she was honored in 2009 as the first Young Athena Professional as a college student. That honor “definitely impacted my interaction with the community,” said Kirby, who grew up in rural Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. “Erie is the big city for me,” she said. “Breaking in for an outsider can be difficult.”
The award connected her to Erie’s Athena PowerLink program and the Athena Circle of Trust, which brings together women leaders together for peer mentoring where she discovered women her age are doing “some really cool and impressive things,” she said.
Kirby has some cool and impressive accomplishments, too. In 2014, she received the Hannah Penn Rising Star Leadership Award from the Pennsylvania Commission for Women. The former high school soccer player also joined the Eerie Roller Girls roller derby team.
And borrowing an idea she heard about in Chicago, Kirby started Pack of Erie Dogs, a weekly dog-walking group — a chance for humans and her rescue pit bulls, Tesla and Edison, to socialize. — Liz Allen
From nonprofit to entrepreneur
Tiffanie Page-Collazo, 41, has embraced many roles: single mom; wife; development professional in the nonprofit world; caregiver.
Now she has an additional identity — entrepreneur. But the road to her choice was not an easy one. Page-Collazo had her first child at 15. Yet she graduated from high school with certifications and entered the job market as an employment staffer when Amy Cuzzola-Kern, who was vice president of programs at the Erie Community Foundation at the time, recruited her in 2008.
“She gave me the confidence. She said, ‘The community needs you to do this job. You have a heart for the community,'” she said.
Page-Collazo worked her way up to director of community impact, then in 2013 moved to another nonprofit, where she served as a director in a variety of management roles. At the same time, she had been a caregiver for her mother, Shirley Martin.
After Martin died, Page-Collazo had her own medical problems, and after emergency surgery, her husband, John Collazo, wanted to be at her side. He decided to reinvent his business, J.C. Everything Automotive, at their Erie home. They now have an auto shop on Buffalo Road.
Her husband’s risk-taking helped her to start her own business. Inspired by her certification as an instructor in the Erie Ice House entrepreneurial leadership program, Page-Collazo is opening a Pink Zebra franchise, which sells home decor and “environmentally friendly” candles and other products that can be made with custom scents.
Her “why” for starting this business is Pink Zebra’s Heroes Program, which pays for day care so single mothers can continue their education. Helping single mothers to succeed is close to her heart.
She also has been inspired by her Christian faith, as a member of Christ Community Church, and connections to mentors who include Cuzzola-Kern; Beth Zimmer, founder of the Innovation Collaborative; Linda Stevenson, chairwoman of Erie Athena PowerLink; and Tiffany McCloud, owner of HER P.O.W.E.R.; and the Coffee Club Divas.
And there’s one new inspiration — 7-month-old grandson Kingston Jacob. “He opened up a whole new love portal in my heart,” she said. — Liz Allen
Finding her nonprofit niche
Joelyn Bush began donating to the United Way of Erie County when she was a student at McDowell High School and working part-time at Wegmans.
Fast forward 16 years, add in a college degree and work experience, and Bush is now working at the United Way as marketing and communications manager.
“I’m actually one of the youngest loyal contributors to the United Way,” Bush, 31, of Fairview Township, said. “I always say I’ve come full circle.”
Bush has moved around at different positions since graduating from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 2004, but she’s always been interested in marketing, communications and nonprofit organizations. She’s held positions at the Erie Regional Chamber of Growth and Partnership and Erie Community Foundation before landing at the United Way.
“Over the years, I’ve had friends leave Erie and come back,” she said. “I truly love Erie and all it has to offer and I do believe it does have a lot to offer.”
In her role, she has a hand in organizing the United Way’s annual meeting, which is changing to a Self-Sufficiency Summit. She was the lead for the United Way’s Faces United exhibit, a traveling photo display of success stories, and she helped organize the Centennial Pack-A-Thon event in April 2015.
Bush is active in the Public Relations Society of America, the Athena Erie Circle of Trust and other organizations.
Ultimately, she said she sees herself in a leadership role.
“I’ve always wanted to lead a team in some sort of aspect. That’s definitely a bigger goal of mine,” Bush said. “I could see myself down the road doing something entrepreneurial, even in Erie. I think the biggest thing for me is to keep growing and keep learning.” — Sarah Stemen
Gisele Littrell learned a lesson at age 15 that’s defined her professional life. “I wanted to ride horses, and my parents didn’t have money for anything like that, so I went to every farm I could and handed out flyers that said that I would work to ride horses,” she said.
At 19, she became an entrepreneur. She started French Maids in 1999 — named innocently enough for her heritage. “My mother is French Canadian, and when people thought it was something else we started saying ‘cleaning business; no funny business,'” she said with a laugh.
“It’s something everyone needs, and I grew up as a military kid in Santa Ana, California, but we moved a lot, and every place had to be spotless,” she said. Cleaning also required some physical labor, and the McDowell High School graduate shared that a connective tissue disorder she has put some urgency into her entrepreneurial plans. “It will only get worse, so I wanted to be physical while I could, but I knew that I could manage the company and people and still be an entrepreneur,” she said.
She wanted to learn more about business and put the cleaning company on hold. Then she bought a Curves franchise with two locations in Meadville and Edinboro from 2001 to 2011. The franchise experience also taught her important lessons. “I had a lot of ideas, but with a franchise, you have to stay within the franchise rules,” she said. She sold the franchise and reorganized the cleaning company in 2012, and she expanded it to include Strongman Services, which offers commercial services and general repairs. The companies now employ 15 people.
Along the way, Littrell went back to college and graduated from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 2015. She enlisted her mom, Suzie Littrell, as her office manager and her boyfriend, Nathan Saraceno, to lead Strongman Services. She also bought two buildings, at 2425 Peach St. and 2431 Peach St., with the help of Bridgewater Capital.
Along the way, she remained debt free. Littrell said she failed at some things and noted that you learn from failures. She got a life coach, Andy Kerr, from the Erie City Mission, who helped her define direction in her life and career, and she networks with other area entrepreneurs.
What’s next? She plans to open a cafe that serves coffee, wines and pastries. French pastries, she said, will bring her full circle to her heritage. And she’s a singer and a songwriter as well. The cafe will give her and other artists a place to showcase their talents. — Pam Parker
Creating opportunity in higher education
Fai Howard thrives on and cherishes diversity. “Meeting other people that are different from me and learning about them, I enjoy that,” said Howard, 36, of McKean. “At my core, that’s why I do what I do.”
Howard has been the assistant vice president for academic success and student retention at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania since 2014. In her role, she provides resources and services to students to ensure they graduate.
Howard grew up in southern New Jersey and graduated from Montclair State University in 2002. She obtained her master’s degree in sociology from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond in 2007 and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in public policy and administration. Her dissertation focuses on higher education and immigration, and she will return to Richmond to finish her degree.
“There’s a lot to be told about any family, any society, about any college or university in how they treat those that are the most vulnerable and the most marginalized,” Howard said. “I’m a strong believer in equity and diversity and a believer that any institution needs to take steps that we all have the same opportunities. Not that we all have the same thing, but the same opportunities.”
As a woman and a minority, Howard has created opportunities for herself often in her career in higher education.
“I wasn’t always in positions that led to promotions. Often times, positions were created for me,” she said. “If you’re waiting around to see your hard work and your good work get noticed, good luck. It’s important for women, especially ethnic women, to work constantly and diligently for their work to be noticed, to showcase their skills and make sure they’re getting opportunities others have.”
But just getting to where you want to be in your career isn’t enough. “It’s not enough if you get there. You have to assist other women in getting there, too,” she said. “You have to create these opportunities for yourself because there’s a pipeline of women that will come behind you wanting the same thing. We’re all allies.”
She has enjoyed her time at Edinboro working on her dissertation. “To have those kinds of long-lasting relationships with students and feel like you’re really connecting with them is invaluable. I learn just as much, if not more, from them than they do from me,” she said. — Sarah Stemen