Are you ready to take your company to the next stage? But are you running out of equity? Are you in the right industry with the right product or service? Are you familiar with the pros and cons of taking on an investor? How long do you plan to keep your business? Have you considered an investment from family or friends?

These are just a few of the issues that approximately 350 women entrepreneurs, small business owners, and government decision-makers will consider at the free half-day How Women Succeed in Business conference on Wednesday, April 5, at 8 a.m. at the Trenton Marriott. Register at www.prosperitynj.org. This third annual Empowerment & Inspiration conference is sponsored by Prosperity New Jersey, a non-profit organization that brings together business, education, and government entities to foster key state economic goals. The keynote speaker is Virginia S. Bauer, CEO & secretary of the NJ Commerce & Economic Growth Commission.

The conference’s main event features a panel discussion in which five successful New Jersey business women share their personal stories and discuss what it takes to succeed in today’s business climate. Panelists include Debbie Hart, president, Association Associates; Lorraine M. Kay, president, Kay Construction; Nancy K. Smith, CEO, Masterminds Advertising; Betsy Alger, director of operations, the Frog and the Peach restaurant in New Brunswick; and Karol Corbin Walker, an attorney with St. John & Wayne.

Kay, founder and president since 1995 of Kay Construction, a construction management, design/build and general contracting firm based in Mt. Laurel, counts Lockheed Martin, Commerce Bank, Comcast, and Toll Brothers, as customers of her $50 million-a-year operation.

With over 30 years experience in building commercial, industrial, retail, health care, residential, and senior living projects for contractors and developers, Kay has been named Business Woman of the Year by NAWBO South Jersey. Raised outside of Philadelphia, she attended night school at Spring Garden College to study construction engineering technology.

Initially, Kay admits, she was not interested in starting her own business. “I enjoyed running someone else’s business.” But when the company for which she was working was sold, she “decided to start my own so I could call the shots and focus on delighting the customers.”

While Kay credits former bosses, including Bill Rouse, the developer of One and Two Liberty Place in Philadelphia, for launching her career in a male-dominated industry, she says that “you have to earn the respect of those around you and take control of events for the good of all involved. You won’t gain results without knowledge, skill, and the respect of others.”

Asked what advice she would offer women who run, or hope to run, their own business, Kay stresses:

Always be yourself.

Be professional and never compromise your reputation.

Do what you say you will.

Don’t over-commit.

Help others along the way.

“Being a woman in a non-traditional role — or even a traditional one for that matter — does not mean that you are at a disadvantage,” says Kay. “Align yourself with those who believe that being a woman can be an advantage. Those people will give you the opportunities required to help you succeed.”

Fellow panelist Alger is the proprietor and director of operations for the Frog and Peach restaurant in New Brunswick. Alger, who grew up in Morris County, established the restaurant 23 years ago with her husband, Jim Black. After earning a degree in plant science from Cook College, Alger changed careers and attended the New York Restaurant School. She is certified in both restaurant management and culinary skills.

Alger was the restaurant’s executive chef for its first three years, winning accolades from the New York Times. She now manages day-to-day operations, or as she says, “manages the managers.”

Alger says that some women identify one mentor who helped them to chart their paths. “I don’t have any one person,” she says. “Of course, I credit my mother as an example of hard work who also believed in me, and gave me the freedom to explore. But also, my culinary, pastry, and management instructors were very encouraging and believed in me. They gave me the knowledge and the confidence to change careers. This was back in the ‘80s, when remarkable American chefs were preparing nouvelle cuisine, including Alice Walker and Charlie Trotter. I really admired Charlie for his management philosophy of excellence and service.”

Asked who inspires her today, Alger responds, “I find inspiration in everyday things — my professional staff, my PR person, my accountant, and my competition.”

She also believes that you have to be open to inspiration, because if you’re not, nothing will seep in. “For me, inspiration comes from someone who gives me the tools and the permission to make decisions and do my job. I believe I can be a mentor by coaching others, and being an example for those who work with for me.”

Alger recommends that women interested in business should do their research. “Know what people who are successful in your industry are doing. Know what the competition is doing. Ask for ongoing feedback from your staff, vendors, and customers. When you own your own business, it’s easy to see it from only your perspective. Also, embrace change. Change is good. Without it you’ll become outdated and overrun by the competition.

“And, don’t be afraid to make mistakes — they’re opportunities to grow. If you don’t make mistakes, you probably aren’t reaching far enough. Clean them up and grow from them.”

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