Women Who Broke The Glass Ceiling To Build Standout Businesses

By Lauren Williams
The Orange County Register

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) TThree leading women in business from Orange County are being honored with “Remarkable Women Awards” for their business acumen and ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. To give you an idea of the level of achievement with these women, one attorney who is being honored, created a law firm in a ridiculously short amount of time… going from zero to $1 million and 14 employees in one year!

The Orange County Register

Opening a business and building a steady customer base is a challenge that few entrepreneurs can surmount.

When Debbie Dickson opened her own accounting practice in the 1980s, she not only had to to build her roster of clients but prove she was a capable accountant. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for her bosses to ask customers if they felt comfortable with a woman looking over their books.

“We have come a huge distance from then,” Dickson said. “They thought a woman couldn’t do it, wouldn’t be smart enough.”

Since launching Smith Dickson, she’s built a career as an expert witness in litigation as a forensic accountant. Her Irvine firm employs 13 people, mostly accountants.

The National Association of Women Business Owners Orange County chapter tonight will honor Dickson with a lifetime achievement award. Financial adviser Loreen Gilbert and attorney Cindy Hackler Flynn also will be recognized at the organization’s 20th annual gala for the “Remarkable Women Awards” for their business acumen and ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.

“These are incredible women because they exemplify intelligence, courage,” said Penny Fox, the president of the Orange County chapter of NAWBO. “So many women business owners are afraid to step off the cliff. They’re afraid to take that step to become very, very successful. These three women will show by their stories what can be done if we don’t let fear block us.”

Flynn, who opened her law practice just a few years after passing the bar, knew from an early age that she wanted to be an attorney. By the time she was 15, Flynn was working part time at a law firm. She stayed at that firm through law school, putting herself through college.

Done with school, Flynn didn’t feel satisfied with her work.

“I was driving from L.A. to Orange County every single day, three hours a day in the car,” she said. “It gets draining, and you start to feel like you’re just another paper pusher. Like you’re not getting anywhere.”

Two years ago she opened her own practice and specializes in corporate law. Hackler Flynn & Associates has offices in Irvine and Monterey Park, although they’re not filled with mahogany furniture, filing cabinets or shelves of leather-bound books.

Most of her 10 employees work remotely, and files are stored virtually.

Four of the employees who joined Flynn’s practice came from the law firm from her college days. NAWBO-OC has named her the Entrepreneur to Watch.

“How do you do that? How do you go from zero to $1 million and 14 employees in one year?” asked Fox, who said Flynn “created a magnificent law firm in a ridiculously short amount of time.”

Gilbert, this year’s Business Owner of the Year, knows something about growing a business. Irvine-based WealthWise Financial Services, where she is president, grew by 100 percent in gross revenue over the past three years.

In 1997, while working in financial services, she was told she would never be able to get to the next level in her career. So she launched her own company, acquiring clients one at a time by building relationships and achieving a status seldom reached by women in her field.

According to a 2013 report from PricewaterhouseCoopers women in financial services hold 19 percent of senior-level positions and 2 percent of chief executive roles. Gilbert is among those select few.

“It’s not easy building from zero,” Gilbert said.

And she has grown her business from that of a solo practitioner to employing six people, making a strong comeback after the Great Recession, Fox said.

“It was really one client at a time, talking with a lot of people,” Gilbert said. “Everything I’ve always done has always been relational.”

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