Female Entrepreneurs Mean Business

Women are taking over the world! OK, that might be a slight exaggeration, but according to the website www.entrepreneur.com, women own 10.6 million businesses in the United States, employ 19.1 million workers and account for $2.5 trillion in sales. So while it may not be global domination, the mark that female entrepreneurs are leaving on the business world is pretty impressive.
San Antonio is not immune to the trend. Women-owned businesses are abundant in the Alamo City. We spoke to four women who have made their way onto the playing field in diverse ways. From a woman offering a “why didn’t I think of that?” line of handbags, to a female holding her own in the male-dominated field of plumbing, these women have got what it takes to succeed.

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Christi Lang,
Christi Lang Designs
If you have ever spent uncomfortable minutes digging through the vast, dark, endless abyss of your handbag searching for those elusive keys, pens or sunglasses, then prepare to rejoice — right after you kick yourself for not coming up with this idea! Christi Lang Designs is a handbag line that successfully marries function and fashion where others have fallen short. The exterior is a sleek Italian leather satchel-style shoulder bag, while the interior is an OCD dream, with a place for everything you need, and even things you don’t. ‘There’s something so calming to me about opening my purse and having everything organized,” says designer Lang, a woman who, like her bags, radiates a stylish sophistication. A self-described highly organized individual, Lang explains that she has always had a love of handbags, but could never find one that met her needs. In fact, her obsession and quest for the perfect bag led her to keep a file filled with ideas of what that would entail.
“My home is organized, my desk is organized, but my purse never was, and that was very disconcerting to me,” she says of the genesis for her line.
However, it wasn’t until Lang found herself laid off from her 17-year career with Bristol-Meyers Squibb that she began to seriously consider a career change. She pulled out her file of ideas and began to put pen to paper. She researched the top 10 things that most women carry in their bags, and then the spunky 58-year-old designed a purse with a place for each and every one of them. First on the list, a super-strength German-made magnet that holds keys on one side of the interior and a sunglasses case that attaches with a snap on the other. Both can be easily reached when the purse is closed, thanks to the innovative zipper design. “These are the two things that women reach for most often,” explains Lang. “They have to be easily accessible.” Next up? A “minipursette,” or small zippered pouch, that is just the right size for a driver’s license, hotel key, credit card and similar incidentals. It is easily removed and can be fastened around the wrist, making it ideal for travel. “My husband and I travel a lot internationally, so it was important to me that the bag made that process as simple as possible,” explains Lang.

Other features include 10 individual interior pockets specifically designed for things like a fingernail file, reading glasses, lipstick, cell phone, pen, checkbook, brush or comb, and other essentials that women need to get through their busy days. A large exterior side pocket is just the right size for an iPad or other tablet, while “feet” on the bottom keep it from ever resting on the ground. The bags are created in Italy using pebbled calf leather and are available in a range of colors. The spring collection will feature an alligator/crocodile print and a color palette that includes red, cream, green, navy and, of course, brown and black. They retail for $395-$445 and can be found at Aesthetic Options Spa as well as on Lang’s website, www.christilang.com. However, her goal is to take her line to the next level á la Tory Burch or Kate Spade, expanding the styles and quantities, and selling them in large department stores. With her determination and drive, that seems possible. “Getting laid off turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” laughs this bubbly grandmother. “I learned that you are never too old to do something and that you grow the most when you take risks. It’s very liberating!”

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Dixie Bishop,
Texas Plumbing Diagnostics
Friends of Dixie and Norwood Bishop refer to the couple as “serial entrepreneurs.” That’s because whenever these two see an opportunity to start a business, they can’t seem to stop themselves. They have owned and operated several family businesses over the years, from glass fiber plants to a shale mine and a custom cabinet shop and have traveled to such exotic locations as Moscow, London, Amsterdam and India on business trips. Bishop has held bars of gold in her hands and seen the “unexpected beauty” of the tile mosaics that decorate Russian subway systems. So why would she and her husband come to San Antonio to start a plumbing business with absolutely no experience in the industry and at a time when the economy was tanking?

“Because we are crazy,” she laughs. After selling the brick paving plant and shale mine, the Bishops made the decision to move to Tulsa, Okla., to attend the Rhema Bible Training Center. It was there that two important things happened: First, the buyer of the paving plant and shale mine decided to refinance the purchase, and second, they met a plumber from San Antonio and realized an opportunity in the Alamo City. “The water problems here are myriad,” says Bishop. “The ground in San Antonio moves, and there is a high mineral content, which creates plumbing issues.” Although neither Bishop nor her husband had any prior experience, they got their licenses and opened Texas Plumbing Diagnostics, a company that has received the Super Service award from Angie’s List every year since 2010. The company provides service and repair on existing commercial and residential properties and has a business model in place that Bishop credits with their ability to make it through the economic downturn.

“What pulled us through to where we are now is that we have some of the best techs in San Antonio in terms of character and integrity,” says Bishop. “Our business model promotes that by paying our techs a salary rather than having them work on commission from sales.” Bishop tells how two of her techs were serving a veteran who had been incapacitated in service. They were so moved by his situation that they voluntarily paid for his plumbing service. “We would never ask our techs to do this, but it was their decision and done on the spot at the veteran’s house,” says Bishop with pride, adding that the veteran never asked for the help either. “Our challenge is to find more of those types of plumbers.” It’s not the only challenge Bishop faces. Being the female president of a company of a typically male-dominated industry has presented a few issues for some people. “Sometimes you get old school clients who have a problem with that,” she says good-naturedly. “But I can usually handle them.” A member of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and Women’s Executives Leading Empowering and Developing (WeLead), Bishop finds support from associating with other female business leaders and sharing ideas. She also finds support in working and playing side by side with her husband. “We serve as youth ministers at our church,” she says, adding that together the couple has a blended family of five children. “And we love to travel.” A day off might find Bishop relaxing at Inks Lake, Blanco, or a state park with Eva, a German shorthaired pointer that the Bishops rescued. “Basically, we love to do anything by the water,” she laughs. “When I think about it, that’s a funny thing. Plumbers who love the water!”

As the business continues to grow and thrive, Bishop continues to take pride in the level of service her company provides, as is evidenced by the rave reviews on Angie’s List. “If I can treat the customer right while paying my techs a good wage, making a profit for myself, and if we are all blessed, then that’s a God thing,” she says. “That’s my philosophy of business and of life.”

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Michele Allen,
owner, iRun Texas
San Antonio is often ranked as one the top 10 “fattest” cities in the United States. However, with the addition of initiatives such as the B-Cycle bike-sharing program, Siclovia and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, residents have more opportunities than ever to get up and get moving. While anything that gets people excited about exercise is good, the problem comes when people jump into a sport without any prior preparation or training. “You can’t just go from being inactive to jumping into a half marathon,” cautions Michele Allen, owner of iRun Texas. “You could very easily get hurt.” Allen knows what she’s talking about. A serious runner for the past 35 years, the petite, fit 51-year-old dynamo has always been active. She has participated in marathons, and Ironman competitions and was selected to represent Dallas in a half marathon in Sendai, Japan, as part of a “sister city” program. “Running just always came naturally to me,” she explains of her commitment to the sport. As the former director of employee fitness and cardiac rehab at Arlington Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Allen understands firsthand the health benefits of running, as well as the precautions one should take to avoid injury in the sport. Combine that knowledge with her years of experience working for Run On Texas in Dallas as a buyer and her passion as a dedicated runner, and you have someone with a thorough comprehension of what it takes to succeed. When her husband’s job relocated the couple to San Antonio, it seemed only natural that she should take that knowledge and expertise and share it with runners at every level. She opened iRun Texas (formerly Run On San Antonio) in Stone Oak in 2009 and began realizing that dream. “I wanted my shop to have more of a boutique feel than an athletic store feel,” explains Allen, who opened a second location on Bitters Road in 2013. “I didn’t want to have the same things you see at all the big box stores.”

To that end, Allen stocks everything from stylish running clothes that can go from the gym to lunch without missing a beat to sports bras, shoe inserts, pedometers, reflectors, hydration accessories and even nutritional supplements. And, of course, she carries running shoes. Nearly one entire wall is lined with styles from Nike, ASICS, Saucony and Mizuno, just to name a few. While the brands may be familiar, Allen is less concerned with names than with fit. She and her staff have raised helping a customer find the correct shoe for his or her needs to a science. They evaluate the customer’s gait and running form and take into account the level of experience and the event for which the customer is training. By compiling all the information, the staff is able to fit the customer with the correct shoe for the safest and most effective running experience. “Our level of customer service is what sets us apart,” says Allen, adding that twice a year she and her staff hold a women’s event designed to help with proper sports bra fitting. “We like to educate our customers, and communication about their goals is the key.” That education extends far beyond fit and function of running clothes, shoes and accessories. Allen offers training and group runs for every level from beginner to marathon in order to help all runners get the most out of the experience. “Getting started is the biggest challenge for some people,” she says. “Finding the right group can help because of the camaraderie.”

When she is not running or overseeing the operations of both of her iRun Texas locations, Allen can be found coaching the group Girls on the Run, as well as attending community events, health fairs and other grassroots efforts. She also spends a great deal of
time networking with health care practitioners and establishing good relationships for cross referrals.
Having learned every aspect of this business from the ground up, Allen realizes that there is one thing that no amount of tools or training can provide, and that is the will. “Getting people to get moving is not easy,” she says. “They have to want it.”

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Jan Tilley,
owner, JTA Wellness
A 40-year-old woman weighing more than 350 pounds came to see Jan Tilley for help. With a body mass index (BMI) of 67, the young woman was on oxygen, used a walker to get around and had trouble sleeping. Today, she no longer needs oxygen or a walker. She attends water aerobics classes. Her weight has dropped by 60 pounds and counting, and her BMI has receded into the mid-50s. More importantly, her self-esteem increased by 100 percent.. “She just blossomed,” says Tilley. “She is smiling and confident.” Stories like this one are common in Tilley’s line of work. As the owner of JTA Wellness, the no-nonsense dietitian, author and motivational speaker spends her days advising her clients on how to achieve and maintain a healthy way of life. With a Master’s of Science in nutrition, Tilley worked as a clinical dietitian at a Methodist Hospital in Lubbock before becoming the corporate dietitian for United Supermarkets. A position as the culinary manager at H-E-B brought the mother of four to San Antonio, where eight years ago she decided to branch out on her own.
Applying her nutrition and culinary knowledge, Tilley began changing lives, one meal at a time. Her nutritional counseling program allows her to work with people and explain to them the impact that food has on their lives. The majority of her clients come from physician referrals, and Tilley has set up her business like a clinic. She even accepts insurance. “If people can change the way they eat, they can change the way they feel,” she explains. “Food is medicine.”

The first step in the program is to assess a client’s current eating habits. Tilley then determines the client’s caloric needs and creates a meal plan that includes eating every three hours and proper food combinations. “It takes 90 minutes for the body to digest food,” she says of her method. “When you go longer than three hours without eating, you are basically asking your body to function on no food. When you let your hunger get ahead of you, you tend to overeat and make bad choices,” she adds. Tilley, who loves to entertain and cooks with real butter and cream, says that no food is off limits to her clients. She simply teaches them moderation. “You are always only one meal away from success,” she explains. “The only meal you have to get right is the next one.”
In addition to nutrition counseling, Tilley offers her clients tips on how to recognize when they are full, and she advises them to exercise 60 minutes a day, six times a week in order to lose weight. That exercise can come from walking, running or, in some cases, any other activity that gets people moving, including some unorthodox methods. “Most of the people I see are not ready for hard exercise yet,” says Tilley, herself an avid runner. “For them, I suggest something as simple as pushing a cart through a large store like Sam’s or Hobby Lobby.”

Her methods work, and as a result, Tilley is in demand as a public speaker, a role she says she relishes. She spends approximately 25 percent of her time working with corporations on wellness programs and travels the country speaking on health and wellness topics. She is the author of the book Getting Your Second Wind, which addresses ways to live a balanced, healthy lifestyle, and she has also penned two cookbooks featuring delicious, nutritious recipes designed for the entire family. Of course, her biggest successes come through the successes of her clients and watching as they begin to understand that it isn’t just about weight, it’s about lifestyle. “If you are only focused on weight loss, you won’t make it,” she cautions. “You have to focus on building a healthy lifestyle, and then the weight loss is a great side effect.” Tilley, who once dreamed of going to medical school, says that watching her clients’ health improve as a result of their efforts is immensely satisfying.“I love it when I can get them to a point where they can either decrease or get off their medications,” she says with her trademark enthusiasm. “Seeing people get their lives back is the biggest reward of all.”

By Bonny Osterhage
Photography by Casey Howell