4 Woman Executives Share Their Paths to Success

Four Fort Worth executives — in biotech, dentistry, accounting and finance — take different paths to business success.

The statistics are startling. Fifty-eight percent of the U.S. workforce is female, yet there are just 26 women among the Fortune 500 CEOs. Likewise, just 12 percent of last year’s Inc. 5000 were led by women — a low point for female founders in the modern history of the list. There are a few local bright spots: Jill Soltau at JCPenney was just named the first female CEO in the company’s 116-year history. In December, Cheryl Bachelder was named interim CEO of Pier 1.

But those running the show are still largely an older, white-male boys club. So where do ambitious women in Fort Worth end up? Here are four women who have taken different paths to reach business success.

Kicking the Corporate Can Elyse Dickerson had an abrupt end to her 13-year corporate life as a global senior director, managing a $1.7 billion portfolio of products, for the Fort Worth-based Alcon. In 2015, she suddenly was terminated while on sick leave. She filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the company and its parent Novartis for $10 million that was later followed with a $100 million suit that included 14 other women in a class action, citing gender-based pay discrimination, denied career opportunities and firing in retaliation of complaints. Five years earlier, Novartis was ordered to pay more than $253 million in a class action suit over gender discrimination (the largest monetary award ever made by a jury in a gender discrimination case). Both suits were settled, Dickerson’s for an undisclosed amount in 2017.

“I thought I would retire there,” Dickerson says of her Alcon career. “For me, every action I took was about trying to make a positive change.” These days, the 44-year-old Dickerson is making such changes as CEO of her own fast-growing ear-care products company, Eosera, co-founded with former Alcon colleague Joe Griffin. Its first product, Earwax MD, for impacted earwax, launched in 2017. Eosera now has a suite of ear-care products in CVS, Target and Rite Aid stores and on Amazon. Revenue doubled in 2018 from 2017, she said, and is expected to double again in 2019. Dickerson raised more than $2 million in capital and last year took her manufacturing in-house with 15 employees in a building just west of downtown. Thirteen employees are women, including her team leader Gabby Barrientos. “It wasn’t necessarily intentional to have mostly women,” Dickerson said. “We certainly wanted a diverse workforce. We wanted to be an inclusive environment. We interviewed both men and women, but the women just rose to the top.”

Is there still a glass ceiling in corporate America? “One-hundred percent,” she said. “It’s not going to change until boards change, and boards are still primarily white men. I don’t know how you solve it; that’s why I decided to go around the system and start my own business. I did as much as I could internally to make changes in big corporate America. Then you get let go or fired or whatever because people don’t want to hear the truth.”

Now Dickerson has what she calls a happy work environment, a priority for her and Griffin when establishing the company. “I don’t want to discourage young women from seeking big jobs and big positions, but then there’s that reality there that they need to understand,” she said. “I was less aware of it. I couldn’t fathom that a man would get paid more in the same job. But the reality is, it still happens. I think if we can educate this next generation to say you have to push and ask all these questions and make sure you’re starting out at the right salary. Now I wouldn’t trade it. But I’m not sure I would have done it on my own.”

The Solo Professional Being a woman dentist in the 1970s was a barrier to break through in and of itself, but Dr. Marie Holliday had a second major hurdle — she’s also African-American. An established dentist for 42 years, 26 in Sundance Square, Holliday was named Dentist of the Year by the Fort Worth Academy of General Dentistry in 2017. It turns out the 66-year-old Holliday was ahead of her time: In the next decade, dentistry is expected to be a female-dominated profession in the U.S.

“I wouldn’t say it was hard, but it was interesting being a female and then also being African-American and being part of a male profession,” she said of starting her practice back in 1976 in her hometown of Fort Worth after going to Tufts University School of Medical Dentistry in Boston. Holliday said she always wanted to be in private practice because it would be more compatible to raising a family. “Dentistry affords the woman of child-bearing age to set their own hours so that when their children are in school, they can set their hours to their children’s schedule,” said the mother of two sons and three stepsons. “Dentistry is very conducive if you want to be that kind of participatory parent, which most women do.”

In 1991, Holliday got the entrepreneurial bug and started Parfumerie Marie Antoinette retail shop and spa, now located in Sundance Square. In 2005, she started Flowers to Go, now the only floral shop in Sundance Square. “My passion for things has gotten me in a lot of interesting situations,” she said with a laugh. “It’s was very challenging, especially the first few years. I’ve gone from a product that lasts forever if you don’t break the seal to one that dies in a few days.” Like many women-owned businesses, Holliday mostly hires women. She has 12 female employees in the three businesses and one male driver.

Her advice to the next generation of women? “They should look at what their goals are both personally and professionally. In looking at that, they need to look at the different job or position opportunities that are available that will allow them to fulfill themselves in both ways. There’s only a certain period of time when women can bear children, and the joy of having children is impacted by the amount of time that you can spend with them and be involved with them. So they should not feel that they can’t do it all.”

Holliday isn’t finished growing. Starting March 1, she is subleasing space downtown from Metroplex Medical Group at First and Commerce streets. Metroplex Medical is an integrated medical clinic with lab and pharmacy, physicians and nurse practitioners. Holliday will offer exams and cleanings at that location and at her other dental office on Second Street.

Back to the Family Darlene Boudreaux had a heck of a corporate ride. Starting as an accountant in 1976 with the giant accounting firm Arthur Andersen, just two years after it began hiring women as accountants, Boudreaux climbed the ladder quickly, becoming the first female partner west of the Mississippi by 1987, one year after the first female partners in the company were named. In 1990, she was the first female Andersen partner to have a baby.

“They didn’t quite know what to with me,” she recalled with a laugh. “As a partner, there was no leave of absence.” Boudreaux negotiated her time off and with it insisted on a private room to lactate — another first in the company that later won them top ranking for best place to work by a woman’s magazine. Boudreaux was pumping breast milk while handling multi-million-dollar real estate transactions with Japanese and Korean clients out of the Los Angeles office, including a deal that included Pebble Beach that was at the time the largest real estate transaction ever done.

But Los Angeles traffic and smog got to the new mother, so when a chance to move to the San Diego office came a year later, she jumped on it — and met her first significant road block: “One of the audit partners didn’t think women should be partners. I’d get a message I was being removed from a client because they didn’t like me on their job. I was taken off the account of a Korean company because a partner there said he didn’t think it would be appropriate. Things were being thrown in my face.”

In 1993, she left a $650,000-a-year job to go work as CFO for her dad’s small pharmaceutical manufacturer in Fort Worth for $40,000. “I wanted more time with my kid. A better quality of life,” she said, also realizing she would never make managing partner at Andersen. “It never crossed my mind,” she said. “I had hit my own personal ceiling. I had broken through enough glass ceilings by then.”

A year later, Boudreaux and her brother started PharmaFab, another Fort Worth pharmaceutical manufacturer, this time of prescription tablets, capsules and liquids of cough and cold medications. She recalls going to Barnes & Noble for a book on how to incorporate. The company grew quickly — by 2001 it made Inc.’s then 500 list, then again in 2002 and 2003. “At that time, only 9 percent on that list had ever had women CEOs; only 30 percent ever repeated; only 3 percent were in manufacturing.”

But she hit a personal roadblock in 2003: Her son needed a heart operation, and her husband was diagnosed with a rare neurodegenerative disease with behavior so violent that she and her son had to go into hiding. Boudreaux said she walked away from running a company of 300 employees with $30 million in sales. “I finally realized I wasn’t superwoman,” she said. She stepped away, only to be recruited as executive director of TechFW, an incubator firm from which she recently retired. At TechFW, Boudreaux founded the Cowtown Angels investing group and nurtured numerous startups, including Dickerson’s Eosera and a biotech company called Encore Vision, which sold recently for $465 million to Novartis. Today, Boudreaux teaches a course in family business at TCU and serves as a coach to TechFW members.

“I never could have just gone into being an entrepreneur in the beginning,” Boudreaux, 64, said. “I needed to build skills in the corporate world, not just business skills but standing up and talking to people. I don’t know if I would have been ready 20 years earlier or the world would have been ready. What surprises me today is that we women aren’t further along in these corporate careers. Not as far along as I would have thought. Why aren’t there more following in my footsteps?”

Trying a Startup Lisa Cobb had a different experience in corporate America after college at the University of Houston in Clearlake. She started off in tax department of Ernst and Whinney (now Ernst and Young) in 1985. Three years later, when she told her boss she was pregnant, his response was, “At least it’s not during tax season,” she said. To prove herself, she worked more billable hours than anyone else in the department. After a short maternity leave, she returned, only to hear the partner in charge of the tax department say, “I didn’t think you were going to come back.”

Cobb had two more children and worked for a handful of companies that eventually brought her to DFW, where she eventually headed the accounting office of a large, multi-state health care claims company. But that company failed, and after 25 years in corporate America, Cobb found herself suddenly unemployed in 2010. Almost immediately, she and her husband decided to start an oil and gas parts assembler. “I went from a big corner office in Los Colinas, managing 60 or 70 people, to a small company working from home,” she said. She found her years of experience in accounting, payroll, health and contracts fit her new duties of an entrepreneur CFO wearing multiple hats.

Precise Energy Products took off, and sales quickly rose from $40,000 to $1.2 million, and it moved to offices in the Exchange Building of the Stockyards. By 2014, the company was named Small Business Exporter of the Year for DFW and a seven-state region. Today the company has $4 million in sales with 15 employees. “The cool thing is the flexibility in running our own company,” Cobb said. “We have a picnic table in our offices for the grandkids and will take them out to see The Herd.”

Cobb is also chairwoman of Women Influencing Business, a networking branch of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. Among their programs are Dine & Discuss, where a table of women discuss a single topic they sign up for, such as time management or negotiating salaries. “It enables them to take a deeper dive into the topic and helps their networking because they’ve spent time with a small group,” Cobb said. WIN is also focusing on more programs for women entrepreneurs.

She encourages women to speak out more. “We have a tendency to believe that if we do our work, we will get noticed,” she said. “But we have to be outworking colleagues at such a level, it’s ridiculous.” Cobb suggests there are other paths to visibility. “You’ve got to get out of the office.”

While Cobb, 56, said her corporate life brought her personal and technical skills that lead her to be able to run her own successful company, entrepreneurship is a solid path out and up for many women today. “I believe that corporate America is changing; some companies are better than others; some departments are better than others,” she said. “But what women are doing on their own is amazing by not going through corporate America. They’re jumping ship and working their own way.”

by Teresa Mcusic / Photography by Olaf Growald