Director of Florida Tech’s Women’s Business Center
The number of women-owned businesses with $1 million or more in annual revenue grew 2,000 percent between 1977 and 2002. In fact, on the Space Coast there are 13,000 women-owned businesses – nearly one in three local companies. Nevertheless the challenges facing women entering the workforce or starting a business can still be daunting. Identifying and developing their business potential is something that Donn Miller-Kermani has spent her career doing and of which she herself is an incredible example. The Director of the Women’s Business Center located on the campus of Florida Institute of Technology, Miller-Kermani, earned her PhD in Operations Research, with an emphasis on women-owned small businesses, along with an MBA and MS in Computer Education.
SCB: Which came first, the interest and inclination towards business, which led to the academic application, or did academics lead to the business application?
DMK: I fit perfectly into one of the groups we target at the Women’s Business Center. I was a single mother, not highly skilled and doing clerical work at Florida Tech, without a clear sense of direction. Though I had always wanted to go to college, at the time it seemed out of reach. However, as an employee of the university I was able to take classes, plus the faculty I was working for really encouraged me to pursue my degree. Well, I discovered I had an aptitude for the work and particularly for computer applications. Business was a natural outlet for my skill sets and a place where I could help other women who, like me, were struggling to enter or re-enter the workforce.
SCB: The academic exposure seemed to provide an “ah-ha” experience for you, which identified potential and obvious motivation.
DMK: Absolutely, when you find what you are good at, what you are passionate about and enjoy doing, work is fun. I meet a lot of young people and the first question they ask is, ‘How much money will I make in this career?’ That is important, but if you don’t like what you’re doing the money will never be enough to compensate for being miserable. It is finding the intersection of skill, passion and financial reward that makes it work.
SCB: What advice, then, would you give a college freshman who is just starting out?
DMK: Take classes that are outside the box. One of my most memorable classes was archeology, though I had no intention of being an archeologist. It helped me understand how history can be re-examined and re-evaluated and not be the sole domain of wealthy males, who usually were the writers or patrons of history. Secondly, take advantage of training where you work, which exposes you to new skills and experienced professionals. I also encourage young people to travel, which is the best ways to expand your perspective.
SCB: There are a number of highly successful businesswomen in our community. Has that helped the WBC?
DMK: Definitely. Also consider the fact that all of the Chamber of Commerce CEO’s in this county are women. Our WBC is one of only three in the entire state and of 110 in the entire country. This reflects on Brevard County’s uniqueness, and its efforts at collaboration and thinking as a region instead of parochially in terms of ‘my city’ or ‘my business.’ Here at the WBC we talk about place, people, partners and products. ‘Place’ refers to our location on the campus of Florida Tech. By its very nature the university offers an environment conducive to thinking broadly and building alliances.
The ‘people’ are those both from the faculty here that give their time, but also the many women business professionals that share their invaluable expertise. They are the driving force that helps sustain the Center – people like Carol Craig and Betsy Farmer. These and many other extraordinary women share their successes and their failures, with a genuine desire to help others.
SCB: What are the biggest challenges faced by women professionals?
DMK: It has to be balancing life and work. When I first entered the workforce, a significant portion of my check went to cover daycare expenses. It was hard to get ahead. Today, things have changed a little, but I encourage women to build a network of support – relationships with people that you can help and can help you. You have to look for available resources like parents and friends who don’t work, who are willing to lend a hand. The thing women have to realize is it can be done, but you have to do it, it takes discipline and dedication.
Also, like men, women need a special kind of motivation and encouragement. Men have a tendency to see potential, where women tend to see their flaws (smiling). Therefore, they often work harder and work longer because they feel the need to prove themselves. One thing we do is persuade women to identify their ‘extraordinary self,’ who they have the potential of being and what keeps them from that potential and how they can attain it.
SCB: Where have you seen the biggest changes in the last twenty years?
DMK: The number of women-owned businesses has increased dramatically. Nationally, over 1.9 million firms are owned by women, employing 1.2 million people and generating $165 billion in revenue. One of the major changes, however, is in how we define the workplace. Technical advances like computers, Internet and teleconferencing have made ‘working from home’ take on a whole new meaning. I think we are just beginning to see what a revolution this can mean in cost savings to companies and employees, while at the same time transforming the role of the ‘stay at home mom’ completely. Now, international markets are accessible to any business with Internet access; tracking data is easy to use and access. One other change I have observed is the number of women who are moving into consulting positions, verses being employees.
SCB: Is developing the entrepreneurial side of women in business an emphasis at WBC or do you lean towards training in marketable skills?
DMK: Both, and by the way, 20 percent of the people that take our classes are men. ‘Start Up America’ is a White House initiative to encourage small business development, along with the Senate and House committees on small business which have encouraged all the universities to push entrepreneurialism. More and more women are looking at their own business, whether that is a typical business model or a home-based sales approach, to fulfill their dreams and meet their financial needs. Also, where people have been displaced due to layoffs, there is a keen interest in exploring what is involved in starting a business. In addition, the new Federal contract laws actually set aside a certain number of contracts for businesses owned by women. This is a great opportunity.
SCB: What advice would you give to a woman who feels her career has hit a plateau?
DMK: I would ask, ‘What have you always wanted to do? Is this area going to grow? Is pursuing this direction a match with your experience or skill sets?’ People also have to ask themselves if the dream realized is different than how they saw it before they were personally involved. There is always a gap between how we thought it was going to be and how it is.