By Marcia Heroux Pounds
Despite objections from parents who meant well and negativity from friends, three South Florida women found their own paths to successful careers by embracing risk.
They shared their stories at the first Office Depot Foundation Women’s Symposium on Tuesday. About 300 people gathered at Office Depot’s headquarters in Boca Raton to talk about innovation, collaboration and other keys to success for women in business and life.
Palm Beach County wine shop owner Virginia Philip overcame a male-dominated industry to become a Master Sommelier, one of only 11 women in the world to earn the accreditation. She has since won the title of “Best Sommelier in the United States” from the American Sommelier Association.
She initially learned about wine by working in an Aspen wine shop and then enrolled in a hotel-management program, much to her parents’ chagrin.
Philip was the first woman sommelier for The Breakers Palm Beach hotel. But when she started, some customers would request a male sommelier. She tried not to feel hurt.
In 2011, she ignored naysayers and took a financial risk by opening the Virginia Philip Wine Shop and Academy in West Palm Beach, which she designed to help people learn about wine “without all the hoopla.”
“Everyone kept asking, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re at the top of your career.’ I said, ‘If I don’t do this, I’ll always regret it’,” she said.
Victoria Rixon, managing director for J.P. Morgan Private Bank in Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Vero Beach and Jacksonville, said it initially took her time to find her passion and path in life.
After college, she took a job in banking against her mother’s advice, who had worked in the industry.
“I had the courage to say, ‘this is what I want to do,’ ” said Rixon, who later worked for Bank of America for 17 years.
But when she was 30, she applied to be president of a community bank. “I just did it for fun,” she said, candidly telling the board what she would do. Rixon got the job.
“I learned more about banking in the two years at that institution than if I had stayed 30 years in banking,” she said.
Rixon said she continues to take risks, citing her reluctant participation in a dance contest for charity. “As women, we have a tendency to be fearful and stay with what we feel comfortable. Be open to opportunities,” she said.
Michelle Villalobos, founder of The Women’s Success Summit in Miami, said that she followed parental guidance to study mathematics and teach high school math for two years. But she hated it.
Since then, Villalobos has become a different kind of teacher, helping clients with branding and developing their communication skills to increase opportunities. Last year, she collaborated with Jessica Kizorek and won The Miami Herald’s 2013 Business Plan Challenge with their “Make them BEG” products to help business owners expand their reach.
“You can intentionally brand yourself so the world can see you as you wish to be seen,” she said.
The Women’s Symposium raised more than $70,000 for the Office Depot Foundation, the charitable arm of office-supply giant Office Depot, said foundation president Mary Wong. They plan to do the event annually.