Q: In your earlier career days, what did you do?
A: I obtained an advanced degree in physics while my children were in school. Afterward, I thought I would go for a doctorate. But then I realized that at age 50, there was no chance of getting an interesting job as a woman. The only field I could see myself in then was teaching. But temperamentally, I'm unsuited for it. Then I saw an ad in the paper for a patent attorney who wanted someone with a math or science degree to write patent applications. I did that for five years.
Q: What skills did you acquire in that occupation?
A: The job requires writing very concisely and paying great attention to what the various parts of a product are called. If a part is misnamed, it could be a fatal error because someone might pounce on it and contest the patent. So the job taught me to be very precise.
Q: How did you eventually become an inventor?
A: After I looked at some of the inventions of other people, I thought, "My gosh, I can invent too." One of my ideas was a product that would quickly heat food. But by the time I had developed the design, the microwave oven already had come out. Then, because my husband gave so many speeches and I'd sit in the back of the room and shout out when his voice couldn't be heard, I thought there must be a better way to let him know. And then I thought of [the idea that has become] Visivox. [The device monitors a speaker's voice and flashes light signals showing the speaker immediately whether he or she is being heard.]
Q: What has been the most difficult part of running your business?
A: Inventing is easy. I get lots of ideas through serendipity -- in the morning. Somewhere between sleep and wake, the ideas just come. It's the marketing that's hard. Inventors have to find a distributor for their products. I'm looking for distributors in rehab facilities, universities and [companies in] industries that do a lot of speaking and training. Selling is a hard point because you have to get others to see they need your product. That's hard.
Q: What kinds of attributes are necessary to be an entrepreneur?
A: That's a difficult question. Everyone has different gifts and talents. But one of the important attributes [of an entrepreneur] is perseverance. Being an inventor can be very discouraging. Very often, you're alone. You also have to be in good health. I work out by playing tennis three times a week, if I can. I also go to the health club and work out, do track walking, run and mountain climb in the summer. I'm in good shape physically.
A: It depends on one's financial situation. Many people who've been downsized can't start a business. They have to eat. You can't be an entrepreneur without some financial security. You have to make sure your cost of living is paid. During the first year or two, you won't make any money. You're lucky if you come out even. And if you're a single person, I'd say it's very risky .
Q: What role can HR play in helping employees think like or become entrepreneurs?
A: People often say they want to find something that interests and engages them. But the idea doesn't go anywhere. So HR [professionals] can encourage those people to focus their interests in very specific areas by asking specific questions related to their interests.
Workforce, December 1997, Vol. 76, No. 12, p. 57.