Retirement didn’t suit Penni Nafus. How could it? She has known nothing but hard work since she started her own business, J&C Zamboni, in an unheated garage and along with her husband, grew it into a multi-million dollar enterprise that sold Zambonis, the vehicles used to smooth ice rinks. They sold it in 1999 after 22 years, but that wasn’t the end of Nafus’ career by a long shot.

Instead of retiring, Nafus used her experience to help other women get lift off with their own businesses, at the helm of the Women’s Center for Entrepreneurship Corporation.

The WCEC, based in Chatham, focuses on education and empowerment for women looking to start their own business. The organization has founded a new meet-up group for women who, like Nafus, have a garage and dreams of starting their own businesses.

Nafus is particularly excited for the Start-up Meet-up, which will take place on Wednesday, May 14, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at DeVry University, North Brunswick. The free meet-up is for women either looking to start a business or who have only very recently started up. The event will feature Diana Kyser McNeff, founding partner of COO on Demand. Visit or call 973-507-9700.

“Meet-ups are really hot right now,” Nafus says. “We’re looking to hold the start-up meet-up every other month. It’s great to bring folks together. You can learn so much at these events.” Because the start-up program is new, the center is still considering logistics such as best locations and times, but those details will work out as the meetings become established. Registration for this meet-up as well as WCEC’s other events can be made at

Nafus was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Irvington and Roselle. She studied sociology at Rutgers. It’s no surprise that Nafus’ background included a business-minded mom. “In the 1950s and ’60s, when I was growing up, mom was not the housewife worrying about the vacuum cleaner not working, but a business owner, and she had been since 1943.” Her mother ran a beauty shop and provided a steady income for the family.

Her father was a coal miner, and later, a bartender, and never earned a lot of money. “From him, I learned the value of a supportive spouse, the importance of shared family responsibilities, and a generosity of spirit that came with understanding who you are.”

She took life lessons from her mother as well: “I learned that gender stereotypes need not define me, that working six 12-hour days per week was sometimes a prerequisite for success, that a woman can raise successful, happy children while working outside the home, and that entrepreneurship was not something to fear, but to celebrate, while reaping the financial, social and spiritual rewards.”

After selling the Zamboni business, Nafus joined the center in 1999 as a project coordinator, and in 2001 moved to the top position, and in the years that followed, helped to build the organization, using the same know-how from her days in her unheated garage. When Nafus joined WCEC, the organization was helping about 300 women a year. These days the numbers are closer to 5,000, and she, as well as the center, have won some prestigious awards, in that time. (While the center was founded with women in mind, Nafus says “because we receive funding by the federal government, we cannot discriminate,” and some of the clients are men. There are no charges for the center’s services.

Nafus, who now lives in Chester, New Jersey, with her husband, Jim, says that her business know-how gives her calm during challenging times, like these days. It’s a tough economy, and money is not as available as it once was, which affects everyone and everything. With a group like WCEC, its own ability to plan and execute its mission is affected, and yet, because of the high unemployment numbers, the WCEC continues to see an increasing number of clients.

Unemployment is high in New Jersey, and while there have been new jobs created, they aren’t the same type of jobs we once had, Nafus says. After a layoff, people don’t want to go through that again. “People are looking for self-employment,” says Nafus.

But as the volume of people coming through her doors increases, government money is harder to come by. For many years, the WCEC has received state funding to help low income women start up businesses, but “legislation expired, and new legislation was not written since then,” Nafus says. “I recently testified in front of both budget committees about what we do. I don’t know if it worked yet.”

In the meantime, WCEC’s federal grant money must be matched, and without the state’s funding, there are challenges. “That’s a problem right now. Money that used to be available is no longer available,” Nafus said. Even obtaining event sponsorship is more difficult these days. “Sponsors like to sponsor individual events with big exposure,” Nafus says, so the smaller events are hard to fund.

Nafus is confident WCEC will get through this austere financial times. “We’ll just have to be as dynamic as possible. And I’m always willing to try something new,” she says.

Her clients, ready for change, have the same fire these days. “People are really creative now,” she says. Back in 1999 when Nafus started with the WCEC, many of the clients were looking for help with their traditional women-run businesses: cleaning, childcare, and music. Helping women successfully start up and run their dream companies — regardless of the type of business — has been a great source of pride for Nafus, but she is also pleased to see women stepping out of their customary roles.

Some of the more recent, non-traditional start-ups that WCEC has helped get running include a company called Nobody’s Bitch, an apparel company for women motorcycle riders (not passengers!), and another firm called VidaAire, a sanitizer/disinfectant made from lemongrass and other natural ingredients. “It’s great for sports bags,” Nafus says.

What’s the difference between those that make it and those that don’t? Know-how, says Nafus. She was recently speaking with a business lender who had determined that experience was the difference between success and failure. “I would advise nascent business owners to have a substantial knowledge of, and background in, the industry they are planning to enter,” she says.

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