Single Bright Females

Three entrepreneurs share their secrets and their struggles in one of America’s best cities for women-owned businesses.

By Catherine Matusow November 30, 2014 Published in the December 2014 issue of Houstonia Magazine

In 1996, June Ressler, a mother of three with a law degree, had the dream of starting her own energy consulting firm. “I didn’t know anything about the industry,” she tells us. “I thought you got gas by turning your heater on.” But Ressler forged ahead anyway, creating a company around her kitchen table, a company known as Cenergy, a company that would help her support her kids through divorce and remarriage— and one that last year made $280 million. “It’s insanity,” she says from her bursting-at-the-seams office off Hwy 290.

At first, “it probably was difficult for some of my clients to think I would know anything about a drilling engineer or a geologist or a rig supervisor.” (Among other things, Cenergy places professionals with specialized knowledge in projects that require their expertise.) But “as the oil field has evolved and procurement is in place,” Ressler adds, “they don’t care who you are, they just want the best price.” So, the energy industry is completely gender-blind? Uh, no. “I’ve had several [male] employees that just couldn’t handle me being their boss,” Ressler admits with a shrug. “It just didn’t work out. There’s nothing I can do about that.” 

Edna Nelson has experienced her share of sexism in the workplace, telling us that she once walked out of a meeting after a man confused Nelson’s male assistant for her boss, and she was asked to fetch coffee. These days, no one confuses her for anything but the head of Richland Investments, not least because she insists that the 25 employees of her commercial real estate firm—of which her older sister is one—call her Mrs. Nelson. “It gives a definition of who’s the boss,” says Nel— Mrs. Nelson. 

She has wanted to be the boss since at least 1993, back when “it was so difficult to make the good old boys understand that a woman wanted to start a business.” In the wake of a divorce and a 21-year career in banking, she started Richland anyway, building a company that took in close to $25 million in 2012, according to the Houston Business Journal.

As reported in a study released earlier this year, the number of women-owned businesses in Houston increased by 52 percent from 2002 to 2014, making us one of the top five metro areas in the nation in that regard. The Women-Owned Businesses Report goes on to say that the Houston area’s 178,500 such companies experienced a 112 percent increase in revenue during the same period. The report did not say how many of those businesses were run by meek women who have a problem speaking frankly, but it’s a safe bet that the number is a small one.  

“I know my reputation out there,” says Nelson with a smile and wink, “that I’m a little hard to deal with. But if I give you my word and tell you something’s going to happen, it does.” A man who is blunt is just a man who knows what he wants. But a woman, well, “sometimes you get that little B word,” says Nelson with a smile and shrug remarkably similar to Ressler’s. 

For her part, Donna Fujimoto Cole has done her share of shrugging too in the more than three decades since starting her own chemical company. Like Nelson, a divorce was the catalyst, that and the need to support her 4-year-old daughter. It was while working in an administrative capacity at GoldKing Chemical Intl. that she learned much of what she needed to start Cole Chemical, which last year made $78 million in revenue. Along the way, she learned to ignore the men who doubted her. You probably don’t even know how to spell diethanolamine, one told her. I just don’t see how you’ll be successful. Another refused to sell her stock in a company “because I was a woman,” she says, and “worst of all, a Japanese woman.” (By the way, when Cole—who is Japanese-American—walked out of that particular meeting, more than one man went with her.) 

Cole knows that unlike her rivals, she will never be able to “entertain customers at certain places”—strip clubs, in other words—but that’s one of the few ways in which she can’t compete. “Being a woman is a double-edged sword. I was able to get a meeting that a man couldn’t get because the man on the other side of the line wanted to see what the woman looked like.” 

So: three women, three success stories in industries dominated by men. Each have had men who helped them along the way, who mentored them, promoted them, or just believed in their wild ideas. And each too has known men who were impediments, men they had to ignore, shrug off, walk out on. Do they consider themselves feminists, we wondered? “No, I don’t think so,” Nelson tells us. She likes a man to get the car door, and “I enjoyed somebody lighting my cigarette”—back when she smoked, that is.

“Yeah,” says Cole. She thinks a moment. “Yeah.”

“I’m quietly asserting myself as a woman,” Ressler says, “so I would say yes.” 

Any advice for female entrepreneurs of the future? “Be determined,” says Nelson. “Show tenacity. Don’t be afraid of taking chances.” 

“You have to have a good attorney, CPA, insurance person, and a banker,” says Cole, “and besides that you need to figure out if you’ve got the drive and the guts to have your own business.” Also: “Ethics and values go a long way.”  

“Use your maiden name, don’t take on any married name,” says Ressler. “Be fearless.”  

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