News Column

Million-Dollar Idea

May 2, 2011

Joya Thomas--HispanicBusiness

Within her first week of moving to the United States with her family, Amelia Ceja began laboring in the vineyards of Napa Valley. That same week, she met her future husband and found her life's work. Ms. Ceja, newly transplanted with her family from Mexico, was 12 years old. The year was 1967. Ms. Ceja still spends her days in those fields of grapes -- running the place.

Ms. Ceja is the president of Ceja Vineyards, a family-owned business that produced over 10,000 cases of handcrafted wine last year.

In 2006, Ms. Ceja was invited to participate in a competition called Make Mine a Million $ Business (M3) through the nonprofit organization Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, sponsored by American Express Open.

By providing female entrepreneurs with a toolbox of resources, this program, created by Count Me In founder Nell Merlino, aims to help female business owners reach $1 million of annual revenue within 24 to 36 months. With the help of resources that include business coaching, mentorship, a credit line with American Express and a community of peers, Ceja Vineyards did just that.

A Unique Sensibility
But for Ms. Merlino, the creative force behind Take Our Daughters to Work Day, Ms. Ceja's story goes beyond the success of one woman. Ms. Merlino believes that women are heard less than men because they don't make as much money, and feels that female business owners like Ms. Ceja will be the ones to change that. For M3 this is not simply an issue of gender inequality, but the basis of its mission: to change the country and the world using women's unique set of values.

Due to a different "sensibility," explains Ms. Merlino, women almost invariably use power and influence to benefit schools, art and music programs, community services and government.

A Woman's Touch
The area of impact for recent M3 Awards Package recipient Lorena Siminovich is the world of art. Through Petit Collage, Ms. Siminovich's line of modern wall décor and accessories for children, this young woman from Argentina is redefining graphic art with her unique blend of illustrations and collage used by Target and Martha Stewart Living brands, among others, and in stores such as Anthropologie.

Ms. Ceja, for her part, has taken a cultural approach to her business influence.

Capitalizing on her upbringing in rural Mexico and her love for cooking, Ms. Ceja pairs Mexican and even Asian foods with wines to complement the flavors of these non-European cultures, which she claims to be the first to do. "Up until now the wine industry has ignored all demographics except for white," explains Ms. Ceja. One of her favorite pairings is pozole, a traditional Mexican soup made with hominy, with a crisp chardonnay. This year the company will launch "Salud Napa," a bicultural online cooking show.

Ceja Vineyards employs 12 people and has surpassed $1 million in annual revenue but declined to release current financial information.

Thinking Bigger
While there seems to be no shortage of creative thinking, one of the main challenges Ms. Merlino sees women as having with their businesses is that they tend to think on a small scale.

Of the women who participate in the M3 program, 25 percent reach the $1 million mark within 18 to 24 months, compared to 2.6 percent of female entrepreneurs overall.

M3 makes this difference possible not with cash, but with confidence.

For Ms. Siminovich, this confidence boost resulted in doubling her employees from two to four, leading to the pending release of four new children's books.

She began taking collages she made to baby showers and parties as gifts, and then selling them in a friend's store. In 2006, Petit Collage was born. For Ms. Siminovich, the business coaching she received as part of the awards package has given her the confidence to start thinking bigger. In 2010, Petit Collage took in $350,000 in sales. Her plans for of Petit Collage include diversifying her line and expanding her international market.

The goal of M3 is to get 1 million women to the $1 million mark by 2020.

Entrepreneurial Pluck
Even as far back as 2007, a survey by the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility (HACR) found that Hispanic women were starting businesses at six times the national average.

Ms. Siminovich attributes some of her own entrepreneurial pluck to her upbringing. "In a Third World country you have to get your hands into everything," she says. She adds that she often gets "extra points for effort," although she hardly needs them, for having accomplished so much and overcome so many challenges in comparison to many women.

As for Ms. Ceja, while she admits that many people are surprised to learn that a Hispanic woman is the president of her company, it does not bother her. "This whole lifestyle fits me perfectly."

Giving Back
Ms. Merlino is already seeing her vision come to fruition. Once given the slightest bit of help, she says, in addition to "uplifting their entire communities" with their accomplishments, the women of the M3 community give back to the program in order to contribute to the future successes of more women like themselves.

Now, how about a nice glass of pinot to toast female innovation!

Source: (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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