By Tessa Greenspan

I want to salute all the business women in every profession, from essential workers to entrepreneurs. The times are a-changing, and more than ever, it’s important for us to support and mentor each other. Business challenges, both for men and women, are more interesting than ever, but for women, it’s still an uphill battle despite the fact that we stand on the precipice of the second century of women’s suffrage. 

I’d like to share four important lessons for women in business today that I think will help everyone navigate the ever-shifting business climate.

First, let’s take a look at the gutsy girls who paved the way for our right to be equal in business and life.

Second, I want to share with you key events in my personal and professional journey that may help you succeed when faced with personal and professional obstacles.

Third, it’s important to pivot your marketing and think outside the box to grow your business. Even the smallest gesture can make a difference.

Fourth, change starts with you, in choosing the right attitude of gratitude and purpose and giving back to the community that sustains you.

Lesson 1 – Gutsy Girls, from Suffragettes to Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Woman Suffrage Movement: In September,  we celebrated the hundredth anniversary of women earning the right to vote. What started out as an idea over tea to hold a two-day meeting to discuss women’s rights in 1848 led to the Women’s Suffrage Movement.  Women just like those gathered here today—courageous and forward thinking, fought to advance women’s rights. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the early businesswomen who went to work in the factories during World War II while their husbands served in the military.  American factories and other jobs were filled with Rosie the Riveters doing their part to advance the war effort. And even though they left their jobs when their husbands came home and resumed their role as housewives, they paved the way for women everywhere.

I do have to tell you; I think that women belong in the house. Well actually, they belong in the House of representatives, the Senate and the white house.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Another courageous woman who paved the way for all of us is was Ruth Bader Ginsberg Ruth, who attended her first day of Harvard law school in 1956. On her very first day, a young, but determined Ruth was asked to stand up in class by one of her professors and explain to her classmates why she deserved to be in law school and take a seat away from a man.  In those days, few women attended law school, especially at the prestigious Harvard Law School.  But luckily, she persisted. She made it through law school and became first a lawyer, then a judge and then a Supreme Court Justice.  You might know her better as the Notorious RBG. 

Ruth Bader Ginsberg spent much of her life as a fierce advocate for women’s rights.  She fought to open doors for women so that they could receive equal treatment not only at work, but in society.  Among her many accomplishments include allowing women to obtain a credit card without a male co-signer, being able to work or be hired while pregnant and not be fired, simply the ability to open a checking account, or even get a personal business loan without a male co-signer and perhaps most important, is her leadership in helping women getting equal pay.

Among the cases that Ginsburg is best known for is her support of and ruling in favor of women finally being admitted to state funded colleges.  She changed all of this. “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception,” she said.

There are many more things that Ruth Bader Ginsburg did for women everywhere, and I want to take a moment to recognize a life well lived.  Justice Ginsburg once said, “If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself.  Something to repair tares in your community, something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what a meaningful life is—living not for oneself, but for one’s community.” 

Lesson 2: Believe In Yourself and Your Dreams – My Personal and Professional Journey & Tips for Success

These are powerful words!  I have always believed this myself.  To be successful in life, one must help others.  I have made it my goal in life to touch as many people as possible in a positive way.  I have worked not only to better myself, but to help others in the process.   I am truly in awe of the women who have gone before me and I am so in awe of all of you!

Through small businesses and corporate leadership, women provide a variety of powerful skills in the business world. They set examples for young women driven to become leaders themselves.

Thanks to my mother’s early teachings and encouragement, I have been a successful business owner, serial entrepreneur and mentor to many businesswomen. I’ve had the honor of being named one of the top businesswomen in America and I am an active member of Women’s Presidents Organization and E-Women Network.

I have been a businesswoman for over 40 years, and I am here to tell you that success comes from hard work and determination.  I owned Sappington Farmers Market (very similar to Whole Foods) for 28 years and when I sold it, it had ten million dollars in sales.  But I didn’t start out on top, in fact, my store was one million dollars in debt when I took over sole ownership from my partners in 1986.

 It was hard work and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that took me from one million dollars in debt to ten million dollars in sales.  My hope is to leave you with a dose of inspiration that that you can take with you today.

You don’t have to come from money or a position of privilege to be successful.  In fact, I came from quite the opposite.  I was born into extreme poverty.

My story starts in the back hills of Arkansas in a shack with a hard dirt floor, no electricity, no running water, and an outhouse in the back where I was born.  My mother was one of seven children growing up in that small house when her own mother died.  It was the Depression Era and it wasn’t long before my grandfather, a sharecropper, re-married a woman with three kids to help cook and to help with the little ones. The little shack was bursting at the seams with 10 kids and 2 adults.  

In those days, it was tradition to attend the fall picnic once a year after the crops came in.  The year my mother was 14, she met a cute guy at the picnic who was a few years older than she was.  They immediately hit it off.  They walked, they talked, and pretty soon they found themselves deep in the woods.  Once away from the crowd, he suddenly covered her mouth and raped her.  After raping her, he told her that she had better not tell anyone or he would come kill her family.  Traumatized by the rape and in fear for her family’s lives–she told no one.

Nine months later, I was born into that same shack with the hard, dirt floor, no electricity, no running water and the same faithful outhouse out back.  Her stepmother arranged for my mother to marry a man, because they did not want another mouth to feed. This man, Harry Richard Predeau, knew that he could avoid the draft if he were married with children, so he quickly agreed to the marriage hoping that he would not be drafted to fight in World War II.  Twenty-three months later, my mother gave birth to my sister, Fredda.  Harry Richard constantly told my mother how lucky she was to be married to him.  Although he worked, he spend all of his money on alcohol.  This meant my mother had to labor in the hot cotton fields to keep food on the table so we could eat.  Eventually, she got sick and tired of him making life even harder for them and decided to write the draft board.  She wrote, “I had a baby and he only married me to avoid being drafted, and all he does is drink and take my cotton-picking money. He needs to be drafted.”  Three months later, Harry Richard WAS drafted. 

When her husband got out of the army, he divorced her and said he did not want a family.

My mother immediately decided to move to East Saint Louis, Illinois where her sisters already lived.  She went to work as a waitress while her sisters watched me and my sister.

It’s never about where you came from, it’s about where you want to go. Because of a total rejection by the person I thought was my father, I decided at an early age that I would be so cute and so smart and so successful that no one would ever ignore me.

This moment shaped the rest of my life.  I became an over-achiever and a lifelong learner who always looked for ways to improve myself and show the world that I was good enough, no matter who my Daddy was.

The summer that I turned 5 my mother was working the late shift in the restaurant and my sister and I were visiting our grandparents in Arkansas. Our mother, now 20 years old, planned on taking a bus from East St. Louis, Illinois to Arkansas to come get us when she got off work.  Knowing that it was late, one of her co-workers offered to make the three-and-a-half-hour drive in his car.  On the way, they were going 70 miles per hour and he hit a huge concrete wall at a bridge.  The driver was thrown out of the car, and my mother was crushed from the waist down.  She had to be cut out of the car.

The doctors did not believe she was going to make it.  Her legs were broken and mangled.  She was in the hospital for 13 months.  After 12 months, gangrene developed in her left leg.  The psychiatrist came in to prepare her for what they had to do to save her life.  She said, “Do what you have to do. I have to get out of here.  I have two little girls to raise.”

When she got out of the hospital, she had two kids, one leg and no money.  We were on welfare living in the Gompers, the projects in East St. Louis, IL.

My mother did not want to be on welfare, so she found a government program that taught people with disabilities a new profession.  She went to school, on a bus, on crutches, with one leg for over a year, learning how to be a secretary in an office. 

As I grew up, I saw my mother’s determination.  I watched her continuously pull herself up by her bootstraps.  I saw her work hard to improve our lives—never giving up.  From the beginning, my mother was always my inspiration.  Her strength and her courage lit the way for me even in the darkest times.  She showed me that no matter what life throws at you, it’s your attitude and your determination that will carry you through.  She taught me to always be the victor and not the victim and when you have a challenge to look for the solutions. Anything is possible in life as long as you practice positivity and are willing to work hard to meet your goals.  

My mother was my mentor.  She led the way for me.  Be sure to take time to find a mentor, someone who can help you on the road to success.  Look around you, there are many people in your everyday lives that could play the role of mentor for you.  Groups like this one are bursting with incredible women all who would make great mentors; if you don’t have one already, just ask.  Take advantage of what life offers and work to be positive in all you do.  My response to life has always been finding a way to look at the bright side and overcome every challenge. 

After I married, my husband and I bought a small fruit and produce store. With two young children, I went to work in the store.  Soon after, I began looking for a way to earn extra money for my mother who was now watching my children so I could work, and also for my sister’s children who were now living apart from their parents due to my sister being an alcoholic. 

My husband serviced many peddlers, supplying them with fruit and produce each day.  I saw that these men made a lot of money. I said to myself, “I can do that.”

Once I decided to open the fruit stand.  I bought a big bread truck to haul the daily produce, but there was a little problem.  I could not drive a stick shift…but I learned fast!

 I rented a big, empty gravel lot in Pontoon Beach, Ill and was in business.  I displayed produce on milk crates and plywood.  I advertised specials on a big black A frame sign that I painted the special of the day on with white shoe polish.  My business took off and I ran it successfully for five years.  I am eternally grateful that I was able to build a thriving business on an empty gravel lot, and I was able to help my mother, niece, and nephew.  I made a lot more money doing that than I could ever have made working in an office. 

In 1980, my husband and I sold the store and he opened a produce buying office. In 1981, I was looking for a new challenge and I asked a father and son, who owned a chain of grocery stores in Belleville, Il. If they would like to partner with me in a small store in St. Louis, Mo. That store was Sappington Farmer’s Market. They liked the idea and we agreed that they would manage the store since they had more grocery experience than I did.  I got busy with life and volunteering and began paying less attention to the store.  I just let them run it, not checking the books, choosing to trust things were going well.

Then came October 30, 1986.  My partners wanted to have a meeting.  They handed me the keys and said they were declaring bankruptcy. This turned my life upset down.  I was left with a million dollars of debt.  I had to act quickly.  I began working night and day to pay off the huge debt that I was left with. 

I want to explain what I think was the most important thing I did.  I forgave my partners. I believe that I would not have survived and been so successful if I had not done this one important thing. This does not mean that I forgot the betrayal, but I did forgive them.  I know that holding a grudge and refusing to forgive is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.  It only hurts the person who is angry and resentful.  By the Grace of GOD and a lot of prayer and hard work, I was able to pay the entire debt in full.

I then decided to open a second store three times the size. My daughter Terri and Son-in-law, Peter moved back to St. Louis to help me run the business.

I used the business skills I learned from working in the fruit stand to build my business from a million dollars in debt to ten million dollars in sales.  I kept the lessons that my mother taught me in my mind and came up with creative solutions to attract new customers. Here are a few ideas that worked to grow our business….and gave back to the community.

  1.  When I decided to open the store, I knew I wanted to attract families with children who would love the experience and would want to be my repeat customers.  I marketed to them, even putting a toy train at the top of the shelving which ran around the entire store showing the specials of the day.  Children loved the train so much that they would follow it through every department of the store.
  2. It’s important in business to be creative and find ways to grow your business.  Don’t just do what everyone else is doing.  Find something new and different.  Be a leader, think outside of the box.  Be the person that everyone is following.  I always worked to be creative and to serve the community when I owned my store.  I am still working to serve others every single day.
  3. It is also important for you to find a niche that keeps people coming back.  When the Bosnian community grew in St. Louis, I decided to find foods that would remind them of home to put in my store.  After searching, I found an importer who shipped Bosnian food to me from New York City.  I also found a farmer who could grow Cubanelle peppers; which the Bosnian people loved.  These peppers and could not be found locally.  I had a huge selection of them.  Finally, I advertised in the local Bosnian newspaper in their language.  Bosnian families were thrilled with the taste of home that I created for them and my store continued to grow. 
  4. I also knew that as a small business owner, I had to be creative in order to compete with the big chains.  It was creativity that put me in the cheese business.  I wanted to offer different types of cheese at the store, yet to buy it wholesale already sliced and to then resell it would have meant my selling it at too high of a price for customers to want to buy it.  In thinking about how I could lower cheese princes, I found a company in Wisconsin and who specialized in making cheese and began ordering large blocks of cheese from them.  I would order 3000 (yes, I did say thousand) pounds of cheese at a time and I hired girls who would slice, wrap, and price the cheese individually.  This allowed me to sell my cheese for $2, 3, 4, $5 a lb. less than other stores and allowed me to offer many different types of cheese.  In business, you must find a way to continually change the status quo.  I did just that!  I flipped the script and had countless varieties of cheese that sold for much less than the chair stores.
  5. However, my creativity did not stop there.  I also decided that since I had unused food at the end of each week, that instead of filling the landfills with old food, I would save the food in a huge dumpster used for composting.  And this time, I partnered with the Department of Agriculture and the Parks Department. Once enough waste was saved, the agencies would ground it up and mix it with horse manure to make organic dirt.  This was a huge savings for me, and I saved the landfills 40,000 tons of food waste.

Lesson 3: How can YOU make a difference with your business? Think outside the box.

Research, listen and learn to innovate and reach your customers. How can you become a leader in your field? What can you do to get noticed?  Sometimes, even a small gesture helps you stand out in the crowd.  These gestures are memorable and help drive business your way. 

Being a leader means standing up and standing out.  Here are some of my favorite ideas.

  1. When was the last time you received a handwritten note?  For most of us, it has probably been a while.  Yet, think back to when you did get a card or letter in the mail.  Do you remember how special it was?  Consider sending handwritten cards to your customers or clients. 
  2. Be sure when you do so that it’s not during holiday time when your card will get lost in the shuffle, instead find a time when it will stand out.  And then keep sending them every 3 months. 
  3. You could put something small inside of it so that you are remembered.  For example, in the spring you can send a note with a package of forget-me-not seeds.
  4.  I love putting the Optimist Creed on the back of my business cards.  This has been so well received over the years that I have been told that people never threw my cards away.
  5.  You could also put a saying, or verse, or the Optimist Creed on the back of a bookmark or another small item that you put inside the card.
  6. I used to buy small inspirational cards that contain inspirational quotes and I would place them inside the card that I had handwritten. 
  7. If you have ever unwrapped a piece of Dove chocolate, the sayings are similar.  Business is all about marketing.  Decide who your market is and find a way to reach out to them.
  • Give back to the community. I always wanted my store to be a place where families came and hung out.  I wanted it to be a community gathering place.  I would do what I could with this goal in mind.  I held blood drives, invited the mammogram van, would do wine tasting; really anything that would bring people into the store. 
  • If you want to grow your business, don’t forget the power of giveaways.  Everyone loves to get something for free and the best part is that it doesn’t cost you much to have a contest.  You can make a sign that says, “register to win” where people can fill out their information. This will allow you to collect people’s e-mails while doing so.  This then allows you a chance to market to them later. 
  • The other thing that I feel is very important to having a successful business is how you treat your employees.  If you are good to your employees, they will be good and faithful workers.   I used to recognize them on their birthdays, as well as giving them bonuses for a job well done.  I also entrusted my cashiers with extra money to help customers who were short a few cents or even dollar or two at the checkout.  They had my permission to help out people that needed it without checking with me. Your employees are the face of your company.  They can be the difference between a good review and a bad one.  Treat them right and it will show.

Lesson 4: Change starts with you, in choosing the right attitude of gratitude and purpose and giving back to the community that sustains you.

Success is not about the circumstances you are given in life; it’s how you choose to see life.  Do you seize opportunities to learn from mentors?  Do you try to better yourself?  Character is defined not by how a person acts during good times, but how they act when things get tough.  I never forgot the lessons I learned from my mother when I was growing up.  I grew up in poverty with a mother who was determined to make my life better.  I saw the strength of my mother who chose to see things differently than everyone else around her.  I drew my inspiration from my mother.  I was a successful businesswoman during a time when few women were in the spotlight.  I had determination, and a willingness to do what it takes.  Nothing is impossible in life.  It’s all about the choices you make and your ability to stay positive and not give up.  If I can go from 1 million dollars in debt to 10 million dollars in sales, you can too! 

One of the most important things I did as a business owner was giving back to the community that supported me.  I had a wishing well in the front of my store where people could put money in.  I pledged to match the money donated each month up to $400.  I would select a different charity to donate the money to.  I would make up a big check with their name on it and invite them to the store for the presentation and a photo opportunity.  I asked each charity to advertise this event in their newsletter and invite people to the presentation.  This allowed me to bring new people into the store while also giving back.  It was a win-win situation.  I am grateful that the store was so successful.  I was able to build it to 10 million dollars in sales; I was even made Woman Grocer of the Year Nationwide out of 5000 women grocers.  I eventually sold my store to a group of investors.  

My work with charity did not end there, I have continued to give to others anytime I can.  I wrote my book, From the Outhouse to the Penthouse, lessons in Love, Laughter and Leadership, to encourage others, which by the way, is available on Amazon.  My book allowed me to find more ways to give to charity.  Shortly after the book was published, I went on a book signing tour and giving to charity was the first thing on my mind.  I decided to have a reception and ask everyone who attended to pay a cover charge.  With the fee, they received my book and all the drinks and Hors d’oeuvres they could eat.  I then took the proceeds and donated $1000 to Childrens’ Hospital here in St. Louis.

There are so many businesswomen past and present who have shaped our world for the better; each of them helping to shatter the glass ceiling and guide the way for the rest of us.  A reporter once asked Ruth Bader Ginsberg when she thought there would be enough women on the Supreme Court, she looked the reporter in the eye and said, “When there are nine.”   I leave you with this thought—you are never too old to try something new, and it is never too late for you to make a difference.  It truly is never too late, and we can all make a difference.  It begins with you.

St. Louis author and motivational speaker Tessa Greenspan’s international bestseller, “From Outhouse to Penthouse – Life Lessons on Love, Laughter and Leadership,” is available on Amazon here.  This inspired personal story, struggle to overcome obstacles and life lessons is especially poignant during these difficult times.  “Failure is not an option,” is Greenspan’s motto. Tune into Tuesdays with Tessa podcast.  Read my latest blog on Thrive Global.  Follow her on social media and her website  Email her at [email protected]