Thank You, Big Business

It gave these women the skills they needed to strike out on their own

For those who want to one day run their own shows, Corporate America turns out to be a pretty good training ground. The women on our list agree that their years at big companies gave them important skills they're now using as entrepreneurs.

Myrtle Potter, former president of commercial operations at Genentech, is among those who say her big-company job made her comfortable running a complex organization. Chapman Development Group, Potter's 20-employee, San Jose (Calif.)-based business, aims to provide high-quality affordable housing. It handles most aspects of the business, including buying land, managing construction jobs, manufacturing prefabricated steel frames, and even providing mortgage brokerage services. "I knew this vision required having many pieces [operating] at once, and I had experience managing complexity," says Potter. "It would have been an unmitigated disaster if I had not had that."

Ann Buivid, co-founder of spa products maker Artemis Woman in Wilton, Conn., says she knew to plan for the expansion of her company's line from the start. "You understand what the infrastructure has to look like at the end of the line, so you build it that way from the beginning," Buivid says. In 2003, when Artemis was just starting out, the company began contracting with large manufacturers in China. So when it landed a deal to sell at Wal-Mart in 2006, the company was prepared for a rapid ramp-up.

Of course, who you know can be just as important as what you know, and these women have the right names in their BlackBerries. Build-A-Bear Workshop founder Maxine Clark recalls that she used distributors favored by her former employer, retailer May Co., when she started her St. Louis-based make-your-own-teddy-bear business. And when it was time to pick store locations, she already knew many of the landlords at some of the country's biggest shopping malls.

By taking charge of a new division or leading a fledgling initiative at their large companies, many of these women gained experience putting a team together. Gwen Edwards, who is now starting a wireless and Internet company, was tapped at former employer Bell Canada International to create a software-based networking services offering. She led an r&d team that created a prototype and then put together a sales force to market it. Although it may seem contrary to conventional wisdom, Edwards says a big company can be a great place to learn how to take calculated risks. "A small company only has so much money, so every business decision counts," Edwards says. "A big company can afford to take greater risks."

Of course, no big-company experience can truly replicate what it's like to launch a business. Every woman on our list admits that some things required a major adjustment. Gone are the days when they had a staff to make their travel plans, schedule their meetings, and write their correspondence. Adrienne Choma, a former senior executive at Hoffmann-La Roche, who co-founded Bethlehem (Pa.)-based medical testing startup Saladax Biomedical, was accustomed to being picked up at the airport by a limo when attending trade shows. But at a recent show, Choma and her business partner were setting up the Saladax booth themselves. "They don't turn the air on [in the conference center] before the show starts," Choma laughs. "I didn't know that."

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