They Took Her to Work

Nell Merlino did not create “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” for her own progeny, but rather in thanks to her parents. “I created it because I was a daughter,” she says, explaining that she got the idea after going to her father’s retirement dinner and realizing how much she had learned from seeing both her own parents do the work they loved.

Her father, Joe Merlino, was a lawyer and politician in Trenton who was a state senator for a decade, an assemblyman, and the city attorney. Her mother, Molly, is a painter, craft shop owner, and activist.

Merlino describes watching her parents ply their trades as “the most magical moments in my relationship with my parents.” Regarding her mother, she uses the word “magic” literally; as a tiny child she used to wonder how the paint magically came out of the paintbrush. Her father’s magic, or his creativity, she says, was that he “drafted pieces of legislation that still impact the state of New Jersey today.”

Merlino’s 1993 “Take Our Daughters to Work Day” initiative was one of many she has organized in support of women and other minorities. In appreciation of her efforts Merlino will receive the 13th annual Barbara Boggs Sigmund Award from Womanspace on Thursday, October 11, at 6:30 p.m., at the Princeton Hyatt. Register online at www.womanspace.org or call 609-394-0136.

Merlino, who lived in Trenton during her first 28 years, had a personal relationship with the late Barbara Boggs Sigmund, Princeton Borough’s former mayor, who had taught her history and religion in ninth grade at the Stuart Country Day School. As Sigmund moved into politics, Merlino’s father became her mentor in state and county politics, and she stayed close to the family.

It was not until 1988 that Merlino, an Antioch College graduate, became an entrepreneur. After having worked as a union organizer, in state government, and on political campaigns, she found herself unemployed. Unable to find a job that suited her talents as a social activist and entrepreneur, she created her own. The company whose name she made up on the way to the bank, Strategy Communication Action, designs public education campaigns.

The company she had in mind would do something she had done hundreds of times for Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis — translating a concept into an actual physical event — but in a different arena. She dexcribes her work as being much like producing a Broadway show. “I have the unique skill of thinking of things and figuring out very practically how to make them visible and possible for other people to participate in,” explains Merlino, speaking on her cell phone while on a business trip.

An early contract of the company was with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to create an event that would recognize the 10th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic in New York. The campaign she developed managed to distribute 100,000 condoms in one week, along with “leaflet attacks” reminding people to use condoms if engaging in sex. There was also a huge memorial service at St. John the Divine for everyone who had died.

One thing leads to another, and it happened that leaders of the Ms. Foundation for Women saw an ad for the AIDS campaign on the subway and found their way to Merlino. They wanted her to run a campaign that would increase girls’ self-esteem. Soon after she attended her father’s retirement dinner and wrote the five-page concept paper for “Take Your Daughters to Work Day.” The leadership at Ms. loved the idea, and the only change was a linguistic one—Gloria Steinem crossed out “your daughters” and replaced it with “our daughters.”

The event mushroomed, particularly after Merlino took the concept paper to the publisher of Parade magazine. After he published a little story about the event, its organizers received 10,000 letters from girls around the country as well as from some important people with young daughters. One was Gary Trudeau, who had seen a drop in his daughter’s self-esteem as she entered adolescence; he helped out by including the event in several cartoons. Arthur Sulzberger had a nine-year-old daughter at the time and got the New York Times involved. The event got going in 1993, and by 1995 40 million people had participated.

In 1995 Merlino created the YWCA Week Without Violence with the help of her brother Joe. Its goal was to get people to envision a world with no violence. The period was a particularly violent one for the United States, with drive-by shootings at the height of the crack epidemic and the O.J. Simpson case on the air waves.

With an eye to reducing gang violence, domestic violence, and child abuse, the week presented alternatives to violence, like mediation or talking through problems. The week was observed for five years running throughout the United States and in international venues as far flung as India and Australia. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton did television public service announcements for it.

In 1995 Merlino’s company also ran the communications for an international meeting of 40,000 women from 180 countries in China. In 1999, at the height of the dot.com boom, Merlino started to ponder her own experience of not being able to find a job in combination with her realization of “the liberation of being entrepreneur.” She decided to create Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence, a not for profit whose mission is to promote economic independence and the growth of women owned businesses. Count Me In provides women entrepreneurs with online business loans, resources, and community.

Merlino calls the effort to help women start and grow their businesses “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” First of all, success or the lack thereof is clearly measurable. The second issue is social and psychological: “You have to be able to help women over a lot of barriers in the system and in their heads.”

Although achieving success is a struggle, women have come a long way since 1974, when they first got the right to business credit in their own names. At that time, only five percent of businesses were owned by women, whereas now, 34 years later, women own over 40 percent of all businesses. The problem is that the majority of these are very small, with only 3 percent of the 10.5 million women-owned businesses at a million or more in revenue.

It has been an uphill battle. Although organizations like Rotary and Lions Club that men depend on to start or grow their businesses may now include women, “they are not designed with us in mind,” claims Merlino.

Another problem typical to women who start businesses is that they go into business “to create their own jobs” and then think they have to do everything themselves. But even though you have created a great job for yourself, observes Merlino, “you can’t get much farther than that unless you get more brains and bodies involved.” Merlino says she quickly figured that part out, and her staff at Count Me In has grown from 2 to 12 people.

Count Me In makes business loans of up to $5,000 available on the Internet. But what has been most effective in helping women to grow their businesses is a competitive program, Make Mine a $Million Business, that Merlino describes as “American Idol meets Queen for a Day.” It was started in 2005, with Open for Small Business, the division of American Express that focuses on entrepreneurs, as a founding partner.

Contestants provide an executive summary of how they got the business to its current size and how they plan to grow it to a million dollars. For an October 23 event planned at Pace University in New York, Count Me In has received 700 applications that will be narrowed down to 22 finalists. These women will each deliver a three-minute “elevator pitch” to a live audience, which will vote on the winners.

The program has received support from corporations. “They realize it would be good for everybody if more women can get to a million or beyond,” says Merlino. “About a million men are at a million, and our goal is to get a million women to a million dollars in revenue so we are on par with men.” She claims that a minimum of 4 million new jobs would be created if Count Me In reaches its goal.

The packages that the winners receive include business coaching and mentoring for a year; a $50,000 line of credit; a technology audit of their business, and information on insurance and consulting from a family benefits counselor; and training on how to package their products.

The winners also are joining a community of women with the same goal. They are part of a Yahoo group that shares information on a daily basis, by phone or E-mail, about the issues they are facing.

The program started with a pilot in 2005; out of the 63 winners, 10 got to a million. Of the 87 who won the package last year, Merlino estimates that 34 will get to a million. Count Me In is still gearing up and plans to do 15 events across the country in the next year. The interview for this article, in fact, was over a cell phone, because Merlino was in Arizona, at the invitation of its governor, who has set up a steering committee to have an Arizona competition.

Merlino graduated from Antioch College, having attended its Washington, D.C., campus, and in 1977 she won a Fulbright Scholarship to study health care-related labor relations in England. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, Gary Conger, a printing consultant who is also a painter. He has already sold a couple of paintings in a series depicting water towers on top of New York buildings he can see from the window of their loft in Chelsea. Merlino has two stepchildren — a son and a daughter.

Merlino has two brothers and two sisters, two of whom have helped in the business. Her older sister — Merlino is the second of the five siblings — works as her chief financial officer. “She came on to help in 1993 with Take Our Daughters to Work Day, and we’ve been together ever since.”

In her career Merlino has been able to translate her strong family connections into national initiatives that inspire millions. The 9-year-old daughters of 1993 are now the 23-year-old young women who are starting their careers. These young women went with their parents to work, as Merlino had envisioned it “on a New York subway as full of girls as adults,” where the adults “would see the future work force.” And now they have arrived at the threshold of that future.

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