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An Interview with Desma Reid-Coleman
by Rachel L. Miller

Desma Reid-Coleman has a way of making the newest of acquaintances feel like old high-school pals.

Sitting down for an interview with Desma on an overstuffed couch feels more like a late-night chat with a girlfriend, only without the comfy pajamas and the requisite pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia.

But even through her genuine smiles and friendly banter, it's perfectly clear Desma is all business. A born leader with an entrepreneurial spirit, she owns four impressive Detroit-based businesses, is the president of the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and is a single mom of four adult children.

With a disarming smile and an air of confidence, Desma's presence is easily felt the moment she steps foot into a room, whether it is our small office (the setting of our interview) or a 500-person auditorium. The reality is that this woman, dressed and accessorized with panache, complete with large Jackie O sunglasses and a flowing black coat, has charisma (and a boatload of style). She's a people person, someone to whom other people are drawn, a quality that made her 2001-2002 NAWBO reign all the more natural.

Her main goals during the one-year term, which began June 14, 2001, were to diversify and double membership.

"I started off wanting to develop NAWBO to reflect the community it represented. We went from having five to seven percent women of color in our organization to having 25 to 30 percent," Desma said. "Our membership went from 260 to 500. My missions were accomplished."

The Detroit chapter of NAWBO, the only dues-based national organization representing the interests of all women entrepreneurs in all types of businesses, is now the largest chapter in the country. Desma's tactic in recruiting new members was smart, yet simple: each member brings in one new person.

"I wanted to make sure I encouraged membership," Desma said. "I asked everyone to bring in one member, and I promised I'd bring in 30 to 50 by myself, which I've done."

"There are women running businesses out of their basements as well as those running large conglomerates. NAWBO is a common denominator, a sisterhood."

In addition to recruiting members, Desma also wanted to keep current Detroit-area members in the organization. "I know we needed to develop programs that would be attractive to new members, but would also help retain our current members."

So Desma sprung into action, her hard work resulting in a string of seminars, panels and programs that saw high levels of success and record attendance.

"I try to choose topics and locations to excite people," she says, adding that the NAWBO programs on attaining press for business and becoming a certified woman business owner received Destination Reviews from the membership.

One of the most well-received programs focused more on the personal aspects of being a women business owner, addressing the growing trend of women earning more money than their husbands (or significant others). Randi Minetor, author of "Breadwinner Wives and the Men They Marry," captivated the 400-person audience with her experience as a breadwinner wife.

"A whole other level of women are thinking, 'Why can't I find Johnny who makes twice as much as me?' Now you may be Johnny...or Johnetta," she laughs. "This is a big issue now as men are being laid off and trends are shifting. Women are catching up, outearning men. They want to know their choices when it comes to divvying up financial responsibility in a relationship."

And NAWBO's program not only brought these new trends to light, it educated women on how to better deal with them. "Women were very enlightened," Desma comments, pride apparent in her voice.

Next on her agenda is a departure from typical NAWBO seminars — a resort retreat aimed for family-style relaxation and education. "Women can get away, bring their kids...there's even a spa."

Between the productive seminars and getaways, it's making sense why women join NAWBO, but I ask Desma anyhow.

"They're looking for a support group because they don't want to feel alone," she said. "There are women running businesses out of their basements as well as those running large conglomerates. NAWBO is a common denominator, a sisterhood."

Not only does NAWBO offer camaraderie for women, it also offers formidable business opportunities, Desma says.

"It's a great way to network and to get contacts in other businesses," she said.

Desma is an eight-year veteran of the women-owned business community. In 1994, she left the corporate life at Modern Engineering as the manager of human resources to begin Quality Professional Services, her own human resources consulting firm. From there she started Innovative Staffing Services, a personnel supplier; Kary Kart, a luggage cart business at Detroit's Metro Airport; and in 1998, began the business she describes as her "passion."

Fashion $en$e, a resale shop in downtown Detroit, caters to people of all classes, races and backgrounds, but Desma emphasizes it is also there to bring some pride in shopping resale to the urban African-American community.

"These are the people who grew up going to the Salvation Army — they don't want to shop resale now. As soon as they come into my store and see the quality merchandise, their minds are changed," she said.

"My dream was to one day have a store to serve a lot of the indigent people in our community," she continues. "They come to our store, which is well-lit and attractive and they feel good about buying from us. We've changed their mind set."

"Some people put $14 of merchandise on layaway and take six weeks to pay it off," Desma continues. "We take their $1.50 payments like it's $500."

Resale shopping had become a way of life for Desma as a single mother raising four children.

"At first I was embarrassed into to it by friends by overspending instead of visiting garage sales or resale shops," she recalls. "It kept my kids well-dressed on a budget. And even as I started making money, I still shopped resale — it was a way of life."

One of her major goals is to spin Fashion $en$e off into a national franchise.

"People have expressed interest in it," she said. "I'd like it to be the Play It Again of resale clothing stores, especially in urban areas."

As much as Desma loves her businesses, her face takes on a real glow as soon as she mentions her children. "They are my joy," she expounds. "It's the first time I've been able to function with four adults — it's redefining Desma."

She pauses for a moment, then smiles as a thought occurs to her. "This is the first year I didn't have to go through all those back-to-school circulars...."

For her 48th birthday, she flew her children (who range in age from 19 to 27 and are scattered about the country) to Puerto Rico, where they had a relaxing getaway/reunion.

"It was fabulous, wonderful, a defining moment," Desma remembers. "It was good for me to see that they're alright."

And every Sunday she makes time to have dinner with her brothers and sisters at her mother's house. "My mom is still the matriarch of the family. Our dinners are a lot like (the movie) 'Soul Food' — a big table with greens, cornbread and fried chicken."

With family obligations, four businesses to run and her work with NAWBO, you'd think Desma wouldn't have time for anything else.

Think again.

Just mention the word "golf" and watch Desma perk up. The sport is Desma's "ultimate love outside of my children and the resale shop."

"The way I unwind is to play golf," she said. "I'll get up on a course by myself or walk on as a single in a heartbeat."

She plans her vacations around golf and tries to work it in with her business trips. A natural golfer, her handicap is an astounding 19. "My goal in life is to be a low single-digit scratch golfer. It would be great to be on a senior women's tour, to be playing still when you're in your 70s."

Golf is not only a passion for Desma, it's also proven to be a great way to network and do business. "I think that it was on the golf course that I got involved in the airport luggage cart business," she says. "I was on the golf course, the opportunity presented itself and interests were sparked."

Networking is one of the most important factors in making a business succeed and the easiest way to make contacts is by joining NAWBO, Desma claims.

In addition to networking, NAWBO provides a strong support system for its members. "My number one piece of advice for women business owners is to join NAWBO," Desma says. "It provides inspiration in dark times, and believe me, there are dark times."

But Desma made it through those dark times and is now basking in the glow of success. And a woman couldn't be more deserving.