Top Women Business Owners 2015

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by Rita Palmisano

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Moving from Experts to Owners

The Stories of 10 Women Who Had Enough Faith in Their Experience to Take the Leap and Succeed

Whether it was the next step to move forward in their careers or a ‘golden ticket’ idea that led to the 2015 Top Women Business Owners leaping into ownership, they have certain commonalities. All 10 women carry with them industry expertise, business savvy and a drive to continuously push forward by breaking down barriers everyday. Through moments of hardship and successes alike, these women concentrate on reaching goals and setting new standards, shaping their industries and the St. Louis business community. Learn where this year’s Top Women get their tenacity in the following feature section.

Emphasizing Quality at Every Chance - Jane Hilboldt | Hilboldt Curtainwall, Inc.

Although Jane Hilboldt had never dreamed of working in the construction industry, after she had raised her three children and was ready to rejoin the workforce, construction became her industry of choice. With a background in business administration and mortgage banking and a husband who had successfully owned a commercial construction company with other family members, Hilboldt decided to combine her talents and experience with her husband’s, founding Hilboldt Curtainwall Inc., a commercial construction company specializing in the engineering, fabrication and installation of exterior wall systems, in 2005.

In spite of her experience, Hilboldt went into her new career open to continually learning to find success. “I don’t think you open a business thinking that you already have all of the answers,” she says. “It is a humbling experience. But you learn something new every day, and it’s important to just move forward and do the right thing every day.”

To better learn the ins and outs of her industry, Hilboldt joined WCOE (Women Construction Owners & Executives, USA) even before incorporating Hilboldt Curtainwall. “One of the best lessons they taught me was to set my company up right, but don’t apply for WBE certification right away,” she says. “Wait to see if you like working in the construction industry first.”

Hilboldt also learned the value of her diverse background and more from WCOE. “These women continue to be my support network,” she says. “I reach out to them with bonding questions, contract issues, account receivable problems and such.”

With this support, Hilboldt has grown her team to 25 employees, all while making sure to maintain her focus on doing what’s right. “We started the company with a focus on quality and continue to emphasize quality at every opportunity,” says Hilboldt. “Ten years later and we are still going strong. Hilboldt Curtainwall is known as a regional expert, and we currently have a $20 million backlog.”

In order to continue finding success for herself and her clients, Hilboldt makes sure to surround herself with good people and suggests that other entrepreneurs do the same. “Treat your employees well and make sure they know how much you appreciate them,” she says. “Get a great banker, a great insurance and bonding agent, and a great attorney.”

Recognizing how much is tied to her company’s success, Hilboldt stays motivated in business. “There are many, many people counting on you to keep it working,” she says.


Gaining Loyalty by Showing Respect - Diane Fennel | American Staffing

Diane Fennel started her career as an associate for a firm in the staffing industry, and her aptitude for the industry was quickly recognized, as she was hired directly by that agency in 1980. Fennel has been dedicated to the staffing industry ever since, learning by holding almost every role the industry has to offer. “Working as a recruiter, placement coordinator, outside sales, management and traveling to open offices has allowed me to be well-versed in the staffing industry,” she says. I have worked with national, locally owned and franchise agencies.”

In her last role for a national staffing company, Fennel opened three locations in St. Louis. But when the owners sold the business, the new owner closed the St. Louis offices, as they only wanted to staff in the IT industry. “It was then that I decided to open my own company, as I love this industry,” says Fennel. “After applying to the SBA, I opened my own company six months later, sharing all my knowledge and experience with my own staff. I was always an employee; therefore, I know what I would look for as an employee from an employer.”

Since she opened American Staffing in 2002, Fennel has grown the company to employ an average of 500 to 600 associates a week with a staff of 12 in two offices. “We do everything in-house, such as our own payroll and billing, all medical, insurance, taxes, workers compensation’, and forms,” she says.

While Fennel has successfully grown her business over the years, she continues to struggle against the loss of businesses that she has serviced for a long time to national agencies because of national contracts. “I have not been able to overcome this due to their ability to offer service in multiple cities,” she says.

In spite of this competition, lessons Fennel learned from mentors Sally and Mel Schneider, prior owners of Dunhill Staffing, earlier in her career stick with her and help her continue moving forward. “They taught me to treat customers and employees with respect,” she says. “If you hire great employees and train them well, your customers will remain loyal to you and make your job easier.”

Doing What’s Right for Clients and Employees - Dede Strano | Strano & Associates

In 1976, Dede Strano began to think about what more she could do with her life. That’s when a friend of Strano’s told her she had received her real estate license. “I decided to try it,” says Strano.

After Strano honed her skills at a family-owned real estate company, the leader of the company died unexpectedly, leaving his family in charge. “It wasn’t the same company, and it became clear to me that I couldn’t work there anymore,” she says. “My husband was a stockbroker at the time. We weighed our options and decided to open Strano & Associates.”

After they started the business in 1981, it quickly took off. “We thought it would be a small business,” says Strano. “In one year, though, we reached our five-year goal. We have continued to grow. We have 100-plus brokers today. We are in most southwestern Illinois counties, and we have six offices. We sell residential and commercial properties. We do property management with over 1,100 properties. We also offer relocation and mortgage and title services, and we’re in the process of adding auction.”

While Strano & Associates has achieved success over the years, it hasn’t been without challenges. “My greatest challenge was when my husband suddenly passed away in 1999,” she says. “I became president and had to prove my value and capability and continue moving the company forward.”

From that point, Strano worked hard to prove herself as the company’s leader, growing the company from 60 brokers to 100 and opening new arms of the business. Strano believes she achieved this success by following a simple rule. “It’s treating others the way I like to be treated,” she says. “One of our mottos is the Golden Rule.” When brokers come to me with problems, I often ask, ‘If this situation were reversed, how would you like this to be handled?’”

Strano encourages others looking to join the industry to follow the Golden Rule too.


Serving Minority and Women Business Owners - Sandra Marks | Marks and Associates

When Sandra Marks had her first son, she knew she would need to make a career change – one that would accommodate her life as a mother, wife and professional. “I made the decision not to go back into corporate America but to become an independent contractor,” she says. “I began by working as a consultant for my former employer.”

As both a minority and a woman, Marks found her niche as an independent consultant working with minority- and women-owned firms in the world of small business. She developed relationships with the St. Louis Business Development Center at Saint Louis University and with Washington University, building programs to support workforce development, supplier diversity, and minority- and women-owned businesses as well as her company, Marks and Associates, along the way.

Then Marks began to get opportunities to work with private owners, removing blocks for private businesses to work with minority- and women-owned businesses. “An example of this was working with the Mississippi River Bridge Project design team,” she says. “I helped them to include minority- and women-owned businesses.”

Marks and her team of eight contribute to workforce development and, in turn, create new jobs for minorities and women by working as diversity consultants on Barnes-Jewish Hospital’s Kingshighway construction project, for Isle of Capri and for Clayco, to name a few.

While finding the balance between being a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter and business owner is still Marks’ greatest challenge, being a woman also helps her achieve results for her clients. “Being a woman, I understand firsthand the challenges women face in business, so I can advocate for my women clients with the same challenges,” she says. “And I can help clients understand why they aren’t where their male counterparts are. I can also help clients to understand why just because if a woman has a family doesn’t mean they’re not the brightest, most valuable employee they can have.”

Today Marks truly views her role as serving other people. “Everyone who has a business has something they want to make better than it was,” she says. “Mine is the lives of minorities and women. I hope clients feel better with me than without me. I hope they see me as a servant.”


Using Their Size as a Strength to Compete - Faith Varwig/Wendy Wilke | Faith Group

Faith Varwig and Wendy Wilke started out in the consulting and engineering field at traditional architecture and engineering firms, and they joined their industry well before it was common for women to do so. Growing up in an industry with few female leaders meant creating lasting bonds with other women while earning their respective expertise.

Varwig and Wilke met each other while they were working for different companies on the design of Concourse D for what was then Ozark Air Lines at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, and they eventually ended up working for the same firm. When security regulations issued by the federal government for all airports in the country began to increase, Varwig’s focus at the firm turned to security work. “I thought, ‘If we were doing it for Lambert, why weren’t we doing it for all airports across the country?’” she says. “I took the federal mandate and created national business.”

As technology and security systems began to emerge as a critical part of facilities planning, design and engineering, the line of business and clientele Varwig had earned became a business in itself. By 2004, Varwig had decided it was time to step out on her own and Wilke was eager to join her as her partner. “I knew what Faith had built, so I said, ‘If you are going out on your own, I am going with you and running the business side,’” says Wilke. “So we created a partnership.”

Today Faith Group has 32 employees and has expanded from one small office in St. Louis to include offices located in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Gaithersburg, Maryland. “In 2013 the firm acquired another small mechanical, electrical and plumbing/fire protection consulting/engineering company, which has greatly expanded services capabilities,” says Varwig. “We were doing plumbing and fire protection on every project, so we decided to keep those services in-house and not parcel them out. By bringing these services in-house, we are truly offering our clients full-service technology and security.”

From a technology and security standpoint, the firm is constantly changing. “What we’re doing today is totally different than what we started doing 11 years ago,” Varwig says. “We’re expanding to meet clients’ needs and meet compliance initiatives on a constant basis.”

For the future, the partners look to continue expanding their business reach in the Midwest while expanding beyond transportation in their other regions of service. “We will continue to look for new ways to meet clients’ needs,” says Varwig. “We can do this because we are nimble and flexible as a small business.”


Supporting Clients and Employees - Jane Louer | Louer Facility Planning Inc.

After graduating from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree specializing in interior design, Jane Louer concentrated on developing her skills and learning her industry, working for commercial furniture dealers and design/build contractors in commercial construction. At her third firm, Louer headed the interior design and furniture division, which included hiring and managing other people. “I found that I enjoyed the creative part of my work, but I also liked the general and project management aspects as much,” she says. “It was during this time I started working on my MBA at SIUE, which I was able to complete working full time and going to school part time.”

Eventually Louer began to feel that she was doing the same thing over and over and that she was not progressing any further in the organization. Soon her restlessness combined with her experience had Louer considering starting her own commercial interior design firm. “Then I was asked to do some interior project development for a large mail-order pharmaceutical company by some associates at another company, which gave me confidence to leave my job with enough work to start my own design firm,” she says. “After about three years of doing interior design on a fee basis, I expanded to become a commercial furniture dealer, to provide more of a turnkey service that I had grown to love and respect at my former employer.”

Today Louer Facility Planning Inc., which Louer founded in 1996, is a dealer for Haworth, one of the major office furniture manufacturers in the world, and other furniture lines, notably National and OFS Brands. Its clients include the corporate, financial, health care, education and public sectors. “We offer our clients smart workplace solutions in the form of furniture, design, service and support,” says Louer. “Each of our projects is completely different from any other, which is what makes it so much fun.”

Louer attributes her success earning clients to lessons learned from terrific teachers over the years. “I suppose the best lesson and the one that I use and think of the most is that the client is always right and that sometimes you just have to take some losses to maintain your reputation and peace of mind,” she says.

Louer also makes sure to hire employees who are able to best serve her clients. “Find great talent in your employees, give them the tools and support they need, and give them as much responsibility as they want,” she says. “Try not to micromanage. Maintain a sense of humor.”

Building Businesses With Top-Tier Talent - Teri Jacobson | Jacobson Staffing, Inc.

After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a personnel degree, Terri Jacobson began to build her now 25-plus years of experience in the placement of information technology professionals and contract solutions for clients in a variety of industries. Early in her career, IT consulting was new and there were very few women in the information technology space. For Jacobson, that meant working twice as hard to prove herself and her capabilities to place the right candidate. “I put in double the effort than my peers to prove myself,” she says. “I really prescreened my candidates to find the best person. I kept this attitude that it’s about quality, not quantity.”

In 1999 Jacobson’s career took an unexpected turn when the startup that she was placing IT consultants for was purchased. “It changed to have more of a commodity process,” she says. “I didn’t like that. At the same time, I had a 2-year-old at home and was pregnant with twins. I decided to leave and wait out my noncompete.”

Soon, though, Jacobson was contacted by past clients with staffing needs. “I told them I was at home and that it would just be me, but they said I had done great work before and they wanted my network. So I started out working for a few clients out of my basement.”

Jacobson parlayed those few clients into Jacobson Staffing Inc., which is now a market leader in IT staffing placement for Fortune 500s, midcaps and even some startups. “We offer unique opportunities with different companies or those that are not usually seen by the public,” says Jacobson. “Previous firms I worked for only wanted to offer direct hire or consulting. I wanted to offer clients direct-hire, consulting and contract-to-hire services.”

Though she is working in an industry not known for ethics, Jacobson is devoted to providing the best to her clients. “I find it very motivating to successfully help organizations build out their teams with top-tier talent, which in turn helps them grow their organization and meet their goals,” she says. “In addition, I also find it very motivating to help people advance their careers, and we do that by exposing them to a variety of career opportunities including some exclusive and semi-exclusive IT roles.”

As an expert in hiring, Jacobson believes all business owners should learn to hire with an emphasis on aptitude and attitude, not just skill set. “We often take people from other industries who have the right aptitude and attitude and teach them our way of doing business,” she says. “It works well.”

Earning Clients’ Confidence - Emily Castle|Castle Design

Always hungry to learn, when Emily Castle chose a career in interior design, she dove in full force, getting involved in every aspect of design. After earning an education and experience in interior design as well as architecture, Castle’s focus turned to her family. “I met my husband while at PGAV Architects and Engineers,” she says. “Always wanting to give anything I set my mind to do my all, I left design in 1979 to raise children and support Bill’s demanding career as vice president of design.”

It was not until 18 years later that Castle re-entered the workforce, joining a friend in her retail store selling French furniture. “I assisted her in building her business and interior design clientele,” says Castle.  

By 2003 Castle was ready to make her next move, opening Castle Design in her home with the knowledge that she was ready to fully dedicate herself to her own business. “I had seen what to do and not to do in business, I had a good design sense, my children were grown, I had life experience, my husband’s support, and I had the time to work at the business full time,” she says.

Over the past 12 years, Castle has grown her business to include 10 employees, most of whom are fellow designers who came to her for assistance in running their own businesses. “Later they determined design work was their strength and working for me would allow them to get out from under the business side,” she says. “Today I employ eight designers, many of which bring their own clients.”

To grow her business over the years, Castle relied on carefully chosen advisers, whom she credits with leading her through the purchase of another interior design firm and the advancement of her business as her design staff grows. “I know that I don’t know it all, so I rely on others who have gone through the same challenges I have as a small-business owner,” she says. “My business shot through the roof up front. Most designers are one-man bands and didn’t experience the same growth or the issues that come with it.”

With this support, Castle has been fortunate to have earned the trust and confidence of her clients. “They rely on my experience and knowledge, and they’re confident I’m continuously looking out for their best interests,” she says. “That’s the kind of partnership we strive for at Castle Design.”

These partnerships are what keep Castle Design growing. “My first client is still my client,” she says. “The repeat business and referrals of my clients have built my reputation and client list over the years beyond anything I could have imagined.”


Making an Ultrapositive Impact - Shawn Khojasteh, PhD| ABC, Electus Academy, and Nurses To Go

While in her early 20s, working as an engineer for AT&T, Shawn Khojasteh attended an AT&T workshop with the purpose of identifying your anchor in life. “What I identified is that my main motivation is to make an ultra-positive impact in the life of others,” she says. “When I’m happiest is when I have faced and solved a problem and made a difference in the life of others and created progress.”

Throughout her career and her life, Khojasteh not only found truth in this realization but also continually kept it in mind. So when she and her husband, who is in health care, began to notice what they viewed as a major failing in the industry, they teamed up to do something about it. “We saw voids in the continuum of care, especially when it came to mental health and care for those who couldn’t leave home,” says Khojasteh.

Nurses To Go, a home health care company with the goal of enhancing the quality of life of patients and their families, was founded in 2002. “Our arms are around the patient from the beginning to the end of care,” says Khojasteh.

As the Khojastehs continued their work in health care, they noticed further areas with gaps in care. “We founded ABC, Alternative Behavioral Care, in 2004 as a PHP, partial hospitalization program, and IOP, intensive outpatient program, treating chemical dependencies and mental health in children, adolescents and adults,” she says. “We founded Electus in 2004 as a small and intimate private school program for those children with behavioral, emotional and mental health challenges who can no longer function successfully in the public school setting. It is a nonprofit offering individualized education.”

Khojasteh and her husband operated and grew all three ventures over the next decade. They grew Nurses To Go to 225 employees, with four branches covering Missouri and serving those with Medicare, Medicaid and commercial insurance; moms and babies; and the medically fragile before deciding to merge with Epic Health Services in November 2014. “We grew tremendously,” says Khojasteh. “In 2013 our revenue was up to $11 million.”

Having found entrepreneurial success three times over, Khojasteh says the focus isn’t just about financial success and wealth for your business. It’s about doing good business with integrity, honesty and passion, caring for her clients and her team both. “A successful entrepreneur is someone who can do all of that together,” she says. “Then the financial success follows. I often hear people talk about winning. It’s not about the winning to me. It’s about making a difference, and when you do that the financial success follows.”

Doing Whatever It Takes - Julia Escandon-Rozin | AW

Immigrating nearly 25 years ago, Julia Escandon-Rozin, Irina Bursak and Susan Bursak all began to go after what they viewed as the American dream. The three women attended Saint Louis University and graduated in different fields: Escandon-Rozin in nursing, Irina Bursak in occupational therapy and Susan Bursak in business. “I went to high school with Irina,” says Escandon-Rozin. “We graduated in 1992, without knowing the other’s plans to come to St. Louis. So it was meant to be.”

After gaining years of experience in and exposure to the health care field, Escandon-Rozin and Bursak noticed a profound need for home care for culturally diverse clients, especially for the Russian, Bosnian and Chinese population in St. Louis. “There were not providers accommodating for the language barriers with the right skill sets,” says Escandon-Rozin.

In 2001 the three women joined their skills to found AW (Aging Well) to provide in-home care for patients with post-hospitalization, physical or occupational therapy needs while addressing each specific language and culture. Since then AW has grown to 500 employees and into a full health care provider, serving 2,000 clients per day in three branches in St. Louis, Wentzville and Collinsville. “We want to be a bridge between multiple health care providers,” says Escandon-Rozin. “We began to see the gap between these communities and health care delivery. It becomes very fragmented. The doctors do what they are going to do. The pharmacists do as well. Through home care we are giving maximum resources at home to bridge this gap and helping people to stay in their homes independently as long as possible.”

They came from a different culture themselves, so finding the confidence to embrace entrepreneurship as women and grow their business did not come easily to the partners. “We were used to a society where our freedoms were limited and you couldn’t be too outwardly confident,” says Escandon-Rozin. “We had to learn to overcome stereotypes and be leaders. We had to learn to say, ‘I’m good at this, and I will succeed.’”

One way Escandon-Rozin did this was by saying Vistage and learning from fellow entrepreneurs. “I found my major mentor there,” she says. “She has been a huge asset. From her I learned the importance of believing in myself, being passionate about whatever we do, looking at the big picture instead of getting caught up in the small things, leading by example and having accountability to myself and others.”

In addition to following her company motto of doing whatever it takes and maintaining a clear vision, Escandon-Rozin relies on a strong, motivated, engaged core team. “Together we create accomplishments,” she says.

 To See A List Of The Past Year Top Women Business Owners, click here.