Profiles in Business
She Helps in the ‘Upward Climb of Entrepreneurship’Dianne Doherty remembers the urgent tone in the voice of Bai Qing Li, a client and friend who was looking for some help — and not the kind Doherty was used to offering.
Lee was looking for someone to teach a course in Marketing at Shandong University in Jinan, China. The individual who was slated to take that assignment had to back out of that commitment, and only a few weeks before the start of the spring semester. Lee wanted to know if Doherty could recommend someone with the skills and desire — and flexibility — to step in.
To make a long story short, Doherty wound up recommending herself.
“I was driving somewhere in Vermont with my husband [Paul], and I asked him, ‘what would you think of me taking that job?’” she recalled. “He reminded me that I’d never taught anything before, but then said, ‘if that’s what you want to do, go do it.’”
And she did.
Doherty quickly arranged a leave of absence from her job as director of the Mass. Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Regional Office, obtained a visa, and by early March she was in front of two different classes of 70 students each. She actually wound up teaching Finance 101 — another American woman took the Marketing classes — an assignment that became a learning experience on many levels.
“I learned about the country, the people, the economy — and a lot about myself,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, while she thoroughly enjoyed her stint in Jinan, by the time the semester was over, she was certainly ready to come home.
“I was very happy to be back, happy to be an American, and happy to be back in this job,” she said, adding that, among other things, her time in China provided her with great appreciation for everything she left behind when she got on the plane. Meanwhile, she added, her leave was “very renewing — it definitely recharged the batteries.”
Not that Doherty has ever lacked for energy. In addition to her more-than-full-time duties with the Small Business Development Center, she’s also involved with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Plan for Progress, sits on the task force for the high-performance computing center planned for Holyoke, and volunteers her time for Digital Divide Data, a social enterprise that provides jobs and training to youths in Laos and Cambodia, among other activities.
And she says she gets the energy for all that from her work and, more specifically, her clients. These are entrepreneurs, or would-be entrepreneurs, who come to the SBDC looking for assistance with everything from writing a business plan to securing financing, to pricing a product or service.
In her 18-year stint with the SBDC, Doherty and her staff have assisted budding entrepreneurs such as Stanley Kowalski, president of FloDesign and its subsidiary, which is working to bring a new wind-turbine design to the marketplace; Suki Kramer, who has developed her own line of cosmetics; Li, who immigrated to this country from China a decade ago and now has several business ventures, including China Access, which arranges visits for transfer students and others interested in that booming nation; and BusinessWest founder and ABC 40/Fox 6 owner John Gormally.
But there are hundreds of other stories, many of which haven’t generated headlines, but that, together, add up to thousands of jobs and some much-needed strength and flexibility for the local economy.
Through her work with several successful businesses, as well as her involvement with the computing center, the WestMass Area Development Corp., the Plan for Progress, and other economic-development-related agencies, Doherty is understandably bullish on Western Mass. She thinks others should share in this optimism, and believes, overall, that one of the things holding this region back is a self-confidence problem.
“There are a lot of exciting things going on in the Valley, and I really believe we need to change our attitudes about Springfield and believe in it again,” she said. “We need to change some attitudes about Springfield and this region, and put our inferiority complex behind us, because there is such great potential for this region, and it’s not just potential — it’s real.”
Doherty told BusinessWest that she wasn’t quite sure what to think or do when a writer for the New York Times called her back in January and asked that she be a subject for an ongoing series called Preoccupations, which is essentially about people and twists and turns in their career paths. The slant for this particular piece was someone working well past what most would consider retirement age — and why.
For starters, Doherty wasn’t sure why she was being considered for this subject matter or how the Times knew about her. And she wasn’t exactly keen on talking about her age or the fact that she was working past 70. Eventually, though, she acquiesced, and in early February, her story, complete with the headline “When She’s Ready to Retire, She’ll Know,” appeared in the Times’ Jobs section.
“If I left now, I think I’d miss the structure and the intellectual challenge of the job and the people,” Doherty told the Times when asked why she was still working. “My feeling is that, as long as I am doing something of value, why not continue doing it?”
It is because of this mindset that Doherty, who told some people a few years ago that she might retire in a few years, doesn’t make any more comments or projections on that subject, other than to say that the Times headline sums it up nicely — and she’s definitely not ready yet.
Instead, she wants to add more chapters to a professional career that began shortly after earning an MBA from Western New England College, exactly two decades after graduating from Mount Holyoke with a degree in Philosophy. By then, her four daughters were all in their teens, and she had the time and the desire to go back to school.
“I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, so I decided on an MBA because it was a versatile degree,” she said. “That was interesting, going back 20 years later and taking classes with people half your age and with professors younger than you.”
She would eventually take a job handling business development for a marketing and public-relations firm in Hartford, and, after doing that for a few years, took a job centered on marketing and promoting downtown Springfield.
“MassMutual, SIS [Springfield Institution for Savings, now TD Bank], and Steigers put up a quarter of a million dollars to do a marketing campaign for the city,” she said. “This was after there had been a lot of bricks-and-mortar investment in downtown, but no one was coming. They wanted to change people’s attitudes about Springfield and downtown.
“What we discovered was that $250,000, while it sounded like a lot, was nothing for a media campaign, so we turned it into a PR campaign,” she continued, adding that she worked in conjunction with current Spirit of Springfield director Judy Matt, then working for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and others to create programs including the Taste of Springfield, the Big Balloon Parade, and the holiday lighting initiative.
“All of those things brought people downtown,” said Doherty, adding that, 25 years later, the Spirit of Springfield continues many of those programs and has added others. “That was a fun job, and I never worked harder in my life.”
Eventually, though, the entrepreneurial spirit that Doherty fosters at the SBDC prompted her to start her own business. She partnered with Marsha Tzoumas (now Marsha Montori) to start a marketing and PR firm that would take their two names.
Between 1983 and 1992, the firm grew from its two principals to 12 total employees, and handled work for many prominent businesses, including Colebrook Realty Services, SIS, Fontaine Brothers, Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, and others. It was once named Agency of the Year by the Ad Club of Western Mass.
Getting into Gear
Doherty had just entered into some commitments for marketing projects when she saw the job posting for the directorship of SBDC’s western office, so while she was intrigued with the job and its description — she was very familiar with the SBDC, having served it as an advisory board member — she didn’t think she was in a position to pursue it.
“But a friend told me, ‘just apply — you don’t know the university’s search process,’” she said, adding that she did, and her friend was right; the search took several months, and when it was over, Doherty gained the nod.
She thought she would only be in that position for perhaps a few years, but instead it’s been almost two decades and counting, and for the reasons she outlined for the Times; the people and the intellectual challenges keep her coming back for more.
“It’s such a great job, because of the diversity and variety and the great staff I have,” she said, “and because of the great people I have to work with; it’s very rewarding to help people take their dreams and make them reality.”
When she came to the SBDC, Doherty brought with her a wall ornament from the marketing firm — a brass bicycle, almost life-size. She has it hanging in the agency’s front lobby, at an upward angle, and tells everyone who asks (and that’s most people) that this is to illustrate what she called the “upward climb of entrepreneurship.”
Helping people negotiate that climb is the unofficial mission statement for the SBDC, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, said Doherty, noting that, while roughly half of her workload with the SBDC involves one-on-one consultation with clients, the rest involves economic development, a subject she’s passionate about.
This is evident from her 20 years of involvement with the Plan for Progress, a commitment of similar length to the Affiliated Chambers, work with the former Regional Technology Corp., and, most recently, the high-performance computing center, a project she believes has enormous potential to change the business landscape in Holyoke and the region as a whole.
“That’s one of the biggest things to ever come to this region, and I’m really excited about what can come from this,” she said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for our area.”
Overall, Doherty says the region has an enormous amount of intellectual and entrepreneurial energy that has not been adequately tapped, a situation that she says must change.
“Here in the Pioneer Valley, which I think is aptly named, we have so many pioneers in terms of entrepreneurship and small business and good ideas around wind and energy and other things,” she told BusinessWest. “There’s such intellectual capacity in this valley, between the colleges and the businesses we have. We have an enormous amount of intellectual energy, but we have to harness it, package it, and market it, and these are things we haven’t done well.”
Doherty said she has no regrets about putting aside her work at the SBDC, as well as her economic-development exploits, for three months to take that aforementioned teaching assignment, one that gave her a detailed look at how China is growing, both outward and especially upward. Indeed, this was her fourth trip to that country and the first since 1998. She marveled at how the landscape had been altered in a dozen years.
“It was absolutely astonishing the changes that had taken place,” she explained. “As one friend said as we were driving from the airport at night into Shanghai, ‘this makes Manhattan look like a Third World country.’ The lighting is incredible in all the cities, but especially Shanghai. There were clusters of high-rises everywhere.”
As for the teaching assignment itself, Doherty said it was eye-opening, but also challenging. Her students had six years of English behind them, and were both hardworking and disciplined, but trained to essentially learn by memorization.
“It’s very hard to get them to be interactive,” she explained. “If you asked a question generally, there would just be dead silence. If you called on someone directly, they’d stand up very properly and try to answer as best they could. But they just weren’t used to speaking in English, and they weren’t used to dialogue or the Socratic method, which I was naive enough to try to explain to them during the first class.”
She said the Chinese people are very interested in the U.S. and Americans, and, upon learning what Doherty had for a day job, they wanted to know about entrepreneurship and owning a business.
“That’s just starting to happen there, so they were very interested in knowing about American business,” she said. “Meanwhile, the women there wanted to know about the women in America, because they’re going to be the first generation of women in the workplace, and they didn’t have colleagues and mentors and mothers and grandmothers who had been in the workplace.”
She came home with new respect for teaching, greater appreciation for the opportunities people in this country have, and recharged batteries with which to help clients make that upward climb of entrepreneurship.
“I blogged about the experience, and while doing so I talked about the external journey of China, but there’s also an internal journey that accompanies that, and it’s very important,” she said. “You get to see who you are in a foreign environment and who you are in this environment, and it’s an interesting process of introspection.”
Signs of the Times
Doherty told BusinessWest she was pleasantly surprised by the number of people, from this region and far outside it, who read the Times piece and commented to her about it in one way or another.
“I couldn’t believe the response … I had a woman call me, whom I’ve never met, who said, ‘I just want to thank you for that story; I’m going to start my third career now,’” Doherty recalled. “She said she was going back to get a master’s in Education and start teaching because she thought that was the most important thing she could do — something of great value to the community.”
Doherty believes she’s doing many things that are of value to this region, so she has no intention to stop or even slow down. Aside from the occasional break to teach in China, she’s going to keep working on ways to harness all that entrepreneurial energy in the Valley.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]