ATHENAPowerLink Empowers Women Entrepreneurs Across Central Florida

A flagship program through the Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship at the Crummer Graduate School of Business, ATHENAPowerLink Orlando has been guiding female entrepreneurs for over ten years.

One of the best kept secrets at the Crummer Graduate School of Business is its long-standing commitment to guiding women business owners to accelerate their organizations’ growth and increase profitability.

Since 2006, when the Central Florida chapter of ATHENAPowerLink was started, hand-selected women-led businesses in Central Florida have benefitted from the ATHENAPowerLink program. With an average increase of 37% in business net income and 36% in number of full-time employees upon completion of the program, ATHENAPowerLink clients are successfully leveraging the program to take their businesses to the next level.

Offered through Crummers’ Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship, the program facilitates relationships between local business and community partners to provide the women entrepreneurs with tailored guidance and support to grow their businesses.

The local panel members that serve as the mentors to the women entrepreneurs are all volunteers and serve a 12-month period at no charge to the women business owners.

Crummer News spoke with three ATHENAPowerLink alumna from a variety of backgrounds who shared their experiences with the program.

Athena Powerlink
How did your company get started?

Donna Best, CEO of Merit Fasteners, an industrial distributor with products ranging from nuts, bolts, screws and electric/pneumatic tools, plus services:
Our business is a 41-year old family business started by my dad in our garage in Apopka. My sisters and I ended up buying the business from our father in 2007, right before the economy crashed. Overnight we lost almost half of our business. Since then, we’ve built the business back up to 38 employees in two branches, one in Longwood and one in Tampa. We are thriving again, thanks to ATHENAPowerLink.

Claire Evans, CEO of Amazulu, providing thatched roof products and turnkey services to the theme park, hospitality, entertainment and other commercial industries:
I wish I could say one day it was a dream I had and it all came to life, but it wasn’t like that at all. I was a computer programmer for Intel in South Africa, and they were looking for international transfers. They offered Toronto or Seattle, but I had never seen snow, so that wasn’t an option.

I knew one American in the whole country, and they were in Fort Lauderdale, so I was staying with them. They were selling natural materials like I do now. I was with them for a year when they had a falling out, and took another direction. I thought to myself, I want to continue doing this, so I started my own business and came to Orlando. It was closer to the theme parks and I believed in the growth of the area.

Diana LaRue, CEO of Appleton Creative, an award-winning full-service marketing & advertising agency working with local, national and international clients.
After working in publications and then in the agency world, I opened my own design firm and ran it for about 10 years before merging with a video/film production in the late `90s. I took over the company and restructured and rebranded to Appleton, Inc., and we became a full-service advertising agency in 2006.

How did you get connected with AthenaPowerLink?

Diana LaRue, CEO of Appleton Creative:
Around the time of the company transition, my banker, who was a woman and VP of my bank, had been connected to ATHENAPowerLink’s board, and she just thought it would be a real benefit for me.

It was a very interesting experience. They assign each recipient with a team focused on your needs, which can be anyone from a finance person or a lawyer to a human resources expert, and so on. The team was a very well rounded. That was a time that business was booming, so it was a good time to plan for growth. It is always good to have a support group to bounce things off because you don’t feel like you are going through it alone.

Claire Evans, CEO of Amazulu:
I was playing golf with three other women, and one of the women on the golf carts was telling me about ATHENAPowerLink. At that stage, I was hitting so many business hurdles and didn’t know who to talk to about it. When you run a business on your own and you hit roadblocks, it stops you from moving forward.

They were closing the competition in a day, and I told the girls in the clubhouse this was an opportunity of a lifetime. I dashed home to complete the forms in the hope I had a chance to be selected. I was lucky enough to be a recipient.

Donna Best, CEO of Merit Fasteners:
I did not know anything about ATHENAPowerLink, previously. I received a random e-mail, and it caught my attention because it was from Rollins College. When I got that e-mail, the name of the school attracted me, because of their reputation. I had no idea what it was aside from that it was for helping women in business leadership and growth. Little did I know what I signed up for!

How was your experience with AthenaPowerLink?

Donna Best, CEO of Merit Fasteners:
After I got accepted, we were at a point where it was make or break. Being a 40-year old business, we have had to reinvent ourselves many times, but this time we really had to do it. Our sales had flatlined, and we hadn’t seen any growth. Our first year of ATHENAPowerLink was the first year we had seen growth in five years. They really brought us to the next level.

I cannot say enough good things about ATHENAPowerLink. I would not be in the position I am now with our company without them. We are up 38% over last year, and it helped us keep our business profitable so we can employ more people in Central Florida. It truly was the turning point of our 41-year old family business.

Claire Evans, CEO of Amazulu:
I would recommend ATHENAPowerLink to any businesswoman. It was absolutely wonderful; the experience for me was taking a giant elephant and having people guide you through it in small doable bites at a time. The Board of Directors that were especially selected from my business needs, gave me clarity, helped me work through the hurdles and most importantly, designed an actionable business plan of accountability. I honestly fell in love with my business again!

Diana LaRue, CEO of Appleton Creative:
It was very positive and a great benefit having a group you can call on, as you grow, and as your network grows. The ongoing relationships and connections have helped personally and in business. I am now on the ATHENAPowerLink Governing Body. I wanted to give back, so Appleton created all their branding and marketing materials, such as their website, messaging and collateral, etc.

As a female entrepreneur, how important is it for you to have that support?

Diana LaRue, CEO of Appleton Creative:
It’s a benefit to be able to talk with other female business owners and women in business who share many of the same experiences. Since this experience, I have joined the first group of Women Entrepreneurs (WE) powered by CEO NEXUS (also partnered with Crummer). This group is made up of all ATHENAPowerLink graduates. It’s great to have that continued perspective as you grow.

Claire Evans, CEO of Amazulu:
There’s a reason they say it’s lonely at the top. You can’t go to employees about employee issues and business issues. To have that board and other CEOs to sit with and talk about issues, is essential for every business owner’s 101 Guide to Entrepreneur Success. The best part about ATHENAPowerLink is that the support doesn’t stop after you graduate, you become a family member of a Sisterhood support system.

Donna Best, CEO of Merit Fasteners:
It was the first time I really had mentorship in business. To have a group of business people locally that had expertise that I needed, was the most amazing experience you could ever have. I took the experience very seriously and made myself very coachable, and with the accountability of meeting with them monthly, I wanted to make sure them volunteering their time to help my business was worth it. They have helped me achieve growth and profitability. Athena was my partner for growth.