How To Succeed In Business–Insights From WBDC CEO Emilia DiMenco

Emilia DiMenco knows how to grow businesses.

As a trailblazer in corporate and commercial banking, she oversaw a $200 million budget and 600 employees in commercial banking as an Executive Vice President at BMO Harris N.A. Now she heads the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC), a nonprofit organization that provides workshops, business counseling, connections and access to capital for women at virtually every stage of business growth.

With the WBDC’s annual Entrepreneurial Woman’s Conference (EWC) and Women’s Business & Buyers Mart just around the corner, on September 26, Make It Better asked DiMenco to share her insights on what it takes to succeed in business now.

To what do you attribute your business success?

Hard work, initiative and support. I was always willing to raise my hand and take on new initiatives. While working at the bank, I sought out mentors and advocates who spoke on my behalf about my job performance and literally helped me climb up the corporate ladder. In turn, I served as a mentor, supporter and guide for numerous young women and men during my 31-year career at the bank.

What are the greatest changes you’ve seen since you started your career?

The relationship between employer and employee has changed dramatically for both men and women. When I began my career, you had to act as though you were prepared to die at your desk, even when family was really a stronger priority. The Family Leave Act, with its maternity and paternity leave options, and more child care options, didn’t exist. These changes were important steps toward a workplace with more creative, committed and satisfied employees with commensurately-higher productivity levels.

Also, today, instead of being committed to one company, most employees literally have one foot out the door. It’s a good thing. They must be prepared to identify for themselves when it is best to stay and when to move on to the next opportunity. They can’t assume that sheer hard work will lead to promotions and job security. Workers today must become specialists, always on the lookout for that next job.

One of the most positive changes I see is diversity in the workplace, specifically as it relates to racial, ethnic and gender diversity. This inclusion has led to greater diversity of thought, creativity and acceptance. Ironically, communication vehicles have also become much more diverse. Typewriters and pagers have given way to laptops, tablets and smartphones. The internet, websites, email and social media have changed the entire way business is conducted.

What other issues do women in business face?

Everyone wants a more holistic life, physically and mentally. Healthier lifestyles not only positively impact an individual’s lifestyle, but the quality of work. Individuals are more open to admitting and changing unhealthy behaviors, and taking advantage of employee assistance programs. Family roles have changed. Both parents are more likely to be involved in household chores and taking care of the children. All these changes are very positive for women and families.

Is this a good time for a woman to start a business?

Today, 3 out of every 4 businesses are started by women. That’s a dramatic increase from 30 years ago. But while the climate is much more welcoming to women business owners, the challenges they still face permeate our culture and prevent them from being all they can be. Women entrepreneurs need access to information, access to contracts and access to capital. That is what we strive to provide at the Women’s Business Development Center.

What is your best advice for business startups?

Do your market research. Know where you can bring unique value to the market. Keep your focus narrow. Analyze every aspect of starting or growing your business, and create a business plan in writing–even if it’s just one page. From day one, you need to begin planning your exit strategy, hopefully, planning for the day when you sell your business or turn it over to family. Finally, manage your cash flow carefully. Profitability isn’t what puts people out of business—it’s running out of cash.

How important is networking for women in business?

When you grow your network, you grow your business. This is true whether you are employed or self-employed. At the core of effective networking is expanding your circle by attending events, hosting events and leveraging strong relationships you already have. The internet and social media may have provided new opportunities for networking, but face-to-face contact is still the most important tool in the marketing toolbox.

Do you believe that women in business should make time for public service?

Businesses need to consider how they can give back to the community that has supported them and their employees. Women bring a special perspective, expertise and strengths that can make an enormous difference in the communities where they live and work.

Personally, I am active in several councils and committees that I believe help women in business and create jobs. These include the City of Chicago’s Small Business Advisory Council, State of Illinois’ Workforce Investment Board’s Entrepreneurship Task Force, Illinois State Treasurer’s Job-Creation Advisory Board, and Women Impacting Public Policy. These committees and councils are committed towards full participation and inclusion in the business world. They strive to create jobs and ultimately contribute to building stronger, healthier communities. When people are working and small businesses are thriving, local communities are strong. And at the end of the day, all of these things increase the standard of living for everyone.

This question has been around for a long time, but it’s still relevant: Do you believe women can have it all?

We, women and men, can have it all and should strive for full lives, however we define a full life—but in most cases, having it all at the same time is rare.

For more information about the Women’s Business Development Center and its programs and services, visit or call (312) 853-3477.

Emilia holds B.S. and M.B.A. degrees, both in finance, from DePaul University. She also studied international finance at Loyola University’s Rome Center.

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