Cleveland's Fab Five Featured

5:38am EDT March 22, 2005
In January, Smart Business invited five talented women from different backgrounds and different fields to sit down together for a luncheon.

Dr. Denise Reading presides over Cuyahoga Community College's Corporate College. She's the perfect fit for leadership in academia, combining business savvy, colorful anecdotes and an understanding of the issues facing the college and the surrounding community to reach her goals.

Eliza Wing started Cleveland.com and survived the dot-com bust, growing through partnerships with organizations such as The Plain Dealer. While she attributes much of her success to being "in the right place at the right time," it's difficult to believe that's true. Wing has many characteristics vital to business success -- she's an articulate speaker, an intent listener and a skilled manager.

Margaret Wong, an immigrant from Hong Kong, founded Margaret W. Wong & Associates, one of the nation's premier immigration law firms. She's the antithesis of all lawyer jokes, simultaneously talented, warm and humble.

Stella Moga immigrated from Romania and, appalled at the daycare options she found here, started Le Chaperon Rouge daycare and education centers. Her success is no surprise; with her bold personality and overflowing energy, Moga gives the impression that she can do anything she sets her mind to.

Dr. Holly Thacker founded and directs one of the first women's health fellowships at the Women's Health Center at the Gault Women's Health and Breast Pavilion at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. She is straightforward and direct, pleasant and kind without the schmooze. In a world of big talkers, Thacker is a doer.

These women hold varied titles, varied levels of education and varied dreams. They champion very different causes, including women, children, immigrants, education, even the city of Cleveland.

But under the surface, these women have common bonds. They're all intelligent, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial thinkers. They're engaged in their communities. They're driven to succeed.

And, what may be the most important characteristic of all, they are passionate. Passionate about what they do, what they believe and what they want to see accomplished. Passionate about improving lives. Passionate about improving Cleveland.

Education for a better Cleveland

"Look at our region," Dr. Denise Reading says, "and you look at the opportunities and the barriers. The more we do to help people start their businesses, because they are loyal to the region -- this is where they grew up, this is where their family is -- to me, that's our best chance at growing our economy. To me, it's a better risk, if you will, than trying to attract other corporations to relocate here."

Listening to Reading, two things are quickly apparent; one, she has a sharp business sense, and two, she's passionate about what she does. And as president of Tri-C's Corporate College, Reading applies her business sense and passion to a new cause -- driving Cleveland's economy through education.

"I came here 17 years ago," says Reading, "and my sense is the people who grow up in Cleveland love their home. They want to come back to it, they want to be a part of it. So let's let them build it. Let's let this next generation build our future, like the American Greetings or Sherwin-Williams or other companies that have been here."

Reading is taking an active role in making that happen, not just because of her affection for Cleveland but also because of her work ethic.

"I think those of us who can, should," she says. "We cannot lean on any other leader from a corporation or political places. I come from a model that says talk less, do more, and I think our region has had a lot of summits, a lot of conversation, a lot of talking. It's time to get up and do. Do something, do anything."

Reading's "anything" is helping Cleveland through Corporate College.

"You can never separate education from economic development," she says. "An educated community is a more productive community."

By teaching more business leaders and hopeful entrepreneurs solid business skills, businesses will have a better chance of flourishing in Cleveland, improving the local economy. But what are those skills that managers, leaders and entrepreneurs need?

"There are two things from my own career," Reading says. "One is you need to have vision. And that vision is not only for what your organization can be and do but it's also the vision to see the talent within your organization and draw it forth. Making that connection is really important.

"And I think the second thing, for my own sake, is I know clearly what I'm good at, what I stink at and what I detest doing," she says. "I have always, luckily, been able to draw the talent to work with me in a leadership team to augment that."

A common leadership mistake, she says, is believing that, as a leader, you must have all the answers. It's a mistake she, herself, has made. But today, she knows that she doesn't have them all.

"I know what I've got," Reading says. "Now who can I go get to come and help me do this thing?"

In addition to having the right skill set, entrepreneurs need to be prepared to tackle common business issues. A big one is striking a balance between work and the outside world -- family, vacations, personal time. But Reading suggests that "striking a balance" may be the wrong approach.

"It's not a matter of balance," she says. "I think this is part of my entrepreneurial way of seeing the world, but if I'm with my nieces and nephews, there's something to learn there that helps me the next morning with my job."

Reading uses her nephew, Tyler, as an example.

"He's selling shots of cologne in the boy's locker room -- 50 cents a shot -- to these middle school boys after gym," she says. "The next day, I'm in my job, and I'm working with this guy who's been in sales for all these years, and I'm thinking, 'How do I give Tyler's energy to Tom?'"

Reading found that the trick to staying upbeat and excited about work is to ask, "How does this enrich all my life?" Life, she says, is many things -- work, yes, but also family and community service and even herself.

Sometimes, Reading says, she wants "to lie on the sofa and do nothing for three hours but read a book, and not read just journals from my industry. The book of fiction I'm reading today may do more for my work tomorrow than those journals could."

Another common issue leaders tackle is drawing a line between being the boss and being a friend.

"We think that all the people who work for us are going to be our friends and our pseudo-family, right up until the point when you tell them no, or you have to discipline them or you have to make a decision," she says.

Developing a buddy-buddy friendship with employees, Reading says, is actually doing them a disservice.

"If they went to the movie with you on Friday night and thought you were best friends and everything was great, and then on Monday, they come in and you tell them, 'No you can't do this,' then you're giving them two different messages," she says. "It hurts more to be disciplined by your friend than by your boss."

Above and beyond all these things, Reading believes that Cleveland's leaders need one key element that can't be taught in a classroom -- passion.

"There are women at the highest executive levels saying, 'You know, I think I'm going to do something for myself,'" Reading says. "There's also the people behind the checkout counter saying, 'Maybe I should open my own business.' Who will succeed? It's not a class issue; it's a passion issue."

Because of this passion, Reading is confident she can help Cleveland.

"You know, I was a record-breaking coffee and orange juice seller for Procter & Gamble," she says. "But I kept driving along in my car going, 'Does this make a difference?' You know, we all have different talents, and where we apply our talents is what makes a difference.

"If you love what you do, if you have passion for it, you don't need any motiv ational speakers," she says. "You don't need anybody else at your job to say, 'Get up and let's go.' You don't say, 'I'm burned out.' You might get tired, you might get weary in the journey ... but if you've got passion, if you believe it's going to change our region in some way, you're going to want to do it."

Cultivating community

That passion is precisely what keeps Eliza Wing going each day. She carries the belief that she can and will help create a stronger sense of connection and unity in Cleveland.

As the president and CEO of Cleveland.com, she's utilized the Internet to do just that. But Wing isn't just concerned with the city's community; she's also concerned with her company's internal community and corporate culture.

"What I like the very best is community relationships -- forming relationships with people and supporting Cleveland, because we're never going to leave Cleveland," she says. "And that's a big thing for us. The Plain Dealer is one of our core affiliates. We can't go anywhere, so we have to help the city.

"I also just love working with people, and I love managing people. And I never understand people who are at the top of the business and aren't like that. And you do hear that. Personally, I make it a point to let [employees] know that work doesn't always have to come first. We're very family-oriented."

And not just family-oriented. One might say Cleveland.com is also oriented toward camaraderie. Wing makes a point to foster relationships and a sense of community among employees, especially among people in like-minded positions, not only for their sake, but for her sake, as well, because as the boss, she can't be everyone's friend.

"It was a hard lesson for me to learn that not everyone is going to like me," she says. "Especially when you're in the middle of a tough negotiation and it's not going the way the person across the table wants it to go. It's just business, and people aren't always going to get along."

But for the most part, the atmosphere around the Cleveland.com office is positive.

"I love coming to work every day," Wing says. "And so do my managers. And that rubs off on everyone. It's that sense of openness, willingness to listen to people of all different types. That's another thing that I've tried to teach my managers, who sometimes get frustrated by people who are different. Well, you know, did you think that their process might be a little bit different than yours? And what might they bring to the table? That helps people feel valued."

And cultivating valued employees is what great management is all about.

The drive to succeed

In certain fields, talented management only gets you so far. For attorney Margaret Wong, founder of Margaret W. Wong & Associates, one of the nation's premier immigration law firms, it was other factors --most notably her steady and determined drive to succeed -- that got her where she is today.

"I let my work consume me," Wong says. "If anything, that's my weakness. But that's life. You want to be a great lawyer, you don't get balance. You get out, you cry, you scream, you get your job done, and then you walk away smiling and you say thank you."

It's no secret what keeps her so driven and determined to succeed when it comes to law -- she loves what she does.

There are other benefits to being so passionate, so driven, not the least of which is being the boss. And being the boss is a position that suits Wong well. As boss, she gets to decide what cases the firm will take, and sometimes it takes a case just because Wong wants to.

"I'm the boss," Wong says. "She's my friend, he's my old-time client, it's just someone I want to help. Because I say so."

It's not always smooth sailing as the boss. Some cases Wong accepts don't turn out as expected; other times, she passes on important cases. But she doesn't balk at making a mistake. and she's learned to accept these errors with grace.

"I'm the first one to say, 'Oh, I'm sorry,'" says Wong. "I'll say, 'Oops, we shouldn't have done this, but we're all in it together ... it's done. Let's go.'"

And her drive keeps her looking forward, moving on to the next case and the next great challenge.

Inspiring change

A good challenge never scared Stella Moga. In 1982, she founded Le Chaperon Rouge daycare and education centers with three children in the basement of a church.

"The reason I started my first school was I enrolled my son in a daycare center and they let him cry all day," Moga says. "They didn't care about his condition there, and when I came to get him, he was handed to me like a package they didn't want."

Moga started her business because she saw a need for better childcare in Cleveland.

"I want to upgrade the standards of daycare in this country," she says. "[There are] too many children in the classroom, not the right food, not the right stimulation, and the teachers don't want to engage with the children."

Today, with eight centers, more than 120 teachers and almost 1,000 children under her care, she's doing her part to make change.

Moga attributes her success to one main factor -- the spirit of sacrifice. It may sound daunting, but sacrifice is what it takes to keep a business running well.

"If you don't want to put 180 percent into the project you have or you want to stop to work on something else, you won't make it," she says. "You have to have that sacrifice. You have to wake up at 6 o'clock in the morning -- I hate to wake up at 6 o'clock in the morning. If you're not ready to do that, then don't be in business."

For Moga, it's just that simple. She made the sacrifice -- put in the long hours and the hard work, and she's been very successful.

And yet, Moga finds her work rewarding.

"You get to a point in the business where it's not a matter of money anymore," she says. "I make a good living. I work very hard. I started from nothing, now ... I have an amazing house. I could stop right now and relax. But I have the desire to help. I want to help; I want to do a good job."

Her desire to help has grown past just the children in her care to all the people in her organization, even brand new ones.

"What I do with my new employees or when I hear that somebody needs a job is, I look that person in the eye and I ask, 'What are your near-future plans?'" Moga says.

If that person doesn't have an answer, she directs them toward teaching.

"I can guide that person, step-by-step," she says. "What to do about getting accredited to be a teacher, how to present yourself to my clientele, how to reach that child in the classroom. It's amazing how you can inspire somebody to do better."

And inspiring her employees to better things is where Moga's talent really lies.

A healthy partnership

Dr. Holly Thacker knows exactly what inspires her -- women's health. In fact, she's taken on the challenge of improving health care for all women in Cleveland.

Thacker helped develop a collaborative center that brought general physicians and specialists together for an interdisciplinary approach to women's health. Opening three years ago, The Women's Health Center at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation became kind of one-stop health shopping for all women. And the center crosses traditional lines by offering more than just plain old health care -- it also sponsors educational events for women and physicians.

"I'm very interested in community outreach," says Thacker, "It's so important. We're here in Cleveland; we're staying in Cleveland. And as part of our community outreach here in Cleveland, I partnered with Speaking of Women's Health (a nonprofit organization that sponsors women's health conventions across the nation). I think it speaks to women, because they really want to know about their health, and they really want to be educated and entertained and pampered, and it's been really fun to partner with different businesses and companies that support our event. It really is such a win-win opportunity."

In reality, the partnerships Thacker cultivated create more of a win-win-win-win opportunity. Every one involved benefits: The Women's Health Center, The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Speaking of Women's Health, the women of Cleveland and even the city of Cleveland. Thacker's story is a great example of how strong partnerships can create rippling benefits -- not just for a single company or organization, but for the entire community.

How to reach: Corporate College, (866) 806-2677; cleveland.com, (216) 515-2525; Margaret W. Wong & Associates, (216) 566-9908; Le Chaperon Rouge, (440) 930-9040; The Women's Health Center at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, (216) 444-4HER

Editor's note: To hear these five dynamic women speak about leadership, management and how they run their organizations, join them and Smart Business April 19 at the Women in Business Conference. For more information, visit www.sbnonline.com.