Lisa Ascolese is not shy. This is a woman who wrote a song she thought would be just right for Dionne Warwick. So she called her. She didn’t know Dionne Warwick at the time. She just thought: why not pick up the phone?
Warwick loved the song, which soon got some input from Burt Bacharach and Isaac Hayes, and was lined up for Whitney Huston to record (because Ascolese called Huston’s mom, too). It was not to be, ultimately, because the timing coincided with Huston’s downfall.
Ascolese eventually had another singer record the song for just her, which is fine, because Ascolese never had an urge to be a musician. She’s content with being married to one — her husband travels the world with CSNsongs: A Tribute To Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young.
But first it should be noted that Ascolese made a coinciding impression on Dionne Warwick with that initial phone call. The Dionne Warwick Institute, a K-5 school in the East Orange School District, was named for the singer in 1996, and she retains a professional connection with the school. Part of what Warwick likes to encourage is creativity, inventiveness, and entrepreneurship. Warwick saw Ascolese, an inventor since age nine and later the founder and CEO of both the Association of Women Inventors & Entrepreneurs (AOWIE) and Inventing A-Z, as an ideal person to talk to the kids.
So began a 20-year friendship that often brings Warwick to the conferences Ascolese puts together to inspire women inventors.
The next incarnation of Ascolese’s conference is “Celebrating Women Mind, Body, and Spirit,” set for Saturday, September 9, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Double Tree Hotel, 4355 Route 1. Speakers include keynoter Brandon Andrews, head scout for the show “Shark Tank”; Shakira Brown, founder and CEO of SMB Strategic Media; Stephanie Burroughs, president of Stephanie Speaking; author Melanie Bonita; and Tara Ackaway, founder and CEO of Social Wise Communications. There will also be a performance by singer Audrey Davis-Dunning. Warwick might show up as a guest. Cost: $60. Visit www.AOWIE.com.
Ascolese is known in inventor circles as the Inventress. She was born in London while her father was stationed there in the military but grew up in Brooklyn. Her parents both came to the U.S. from Jamaica, though her father, a career radiologist, was born in Panama. Her father wanted her to be an attorney (he even nicknamed her that), but she studied computer science at Brooklyn College and then followed him into radiology.
But she never stopped inventing, even as a radiologist. It started with glue-tipped shoelaces when she was nine — it kept them from coming untied — and stayed with her in the ultrasound room. Before long, she says, she told herself she had to get out of the field.
Being a professional entrepreneur started while she was nursing, but Ascolese says that her pregnancy was the era of her life when she came up with ideas for products at an endless rate. While she was nursing, she once told the television program “Beyond Focus,” she made a blanket that allowed her to feed her daughter and maintain her modesty. She figured that if she found a use for it, so would other mothers who might not be comfortable nursing in front of others.
When she attacked the world of marketing her products — because she came up with lots of them — Ascolese stayed true to her proudly unsubtle self and went straight to QVC. She, of course, heard “no” all the time. But those rejections were the first valuable lesson she learned as a businesswoman:
If you get a no, ask why. Ascolese says she got to be successful “by falling on my face over and over and over” and asking a lot of questions. “Why not?” was a common one when someone said they weren’t interested in what she wanted to sell.
“(I was) not begging,” Ascolese says. “I took the information and turned it into a yes. Often I went back and I pitched again.”
The thing about no, she says, is that if you ask people why they’re telling you that, they often don’t have a good answer. Press them, and they will either admit that or give you something you can use. That is the short version of how she became a regular on QVC. Today she is often the face of other inventors’ products for the channel because she knows what the producers are looking for.
“They want to know everything,” she says. If she were to take them a can opener, “they would want to know, does it start your car? Does it open your sister’s door?” After two-plus decades of working with QVC and Home Shopping Network, she has figured out that if someone says no, the next question is “What did I miss?” And then explain what they want to hear.
QVC’s producers, she says, like to see her instead of the clients themselves, which leads to a second piece of advice:
Don’t fall in love with your product. Inventors, Ascolese says, put so much of themselves into their ideas, they usually can’t bear to hear the criticisms. Plus, they are not savvy enough to ask what they might have missed in their pitches. Being in love with your products, she says, is a sure way to be driven by emotions, and that’s not conducive to selling.
So what makes a good invention? “A good invention is something everybody needs,” Ascolese says. “Create a solution to a problem everybody has.”
Start by asking, what does everyone have to deal with every day, or what does everyone interact with every day. A car? A cell phone? A wobbly table leg? Try to keep something in mind:
“Every day, something happens in life where you modify something,” she says. Like, say, you stuff a matchbook under that table leg. Problem, modification, invention.
Inventive women. As Ascolese mentioned, her most creatively fruitful time was during her pregnancy. This helped her understand just how inventive and creative women really are. The problem is that a lot of women are still affected by the mentality that their place in this world only relates to the men in their lives, Ascolese says.
“Women are the most creative creatures on the planet,” she says. “But women are downplayed in business. Women are just now finding out that they are relevant.”
This is not a generational issue, by the way. Young women come up to her all the time, telling her how they need to get their husbands’ permission to start a business.
“That drives me up a wall,” she says. “I understand consulting with your husband. But to ask permission to be your creative self is, to me, absurd.”
Getting women past those absurdities is part of the reason she puts on a women-focused conference every year. The conference, she says, is heavy on music designed to pump the blood and inspire the mind and soul. A fitting attitude, perhaps, for someone who didn’t even want to be a songwriter and still got Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach, Isaac Hayes, and Whitney Huston involved.