8 Women Who Turned Their Passions Into a Small Business

passion-led small business owners

Wouldn’t it be nice to get up every day knowing that you’re doing work that really matters — something you’re truly passionate about? Unfortunately, new statistics released from Gallup indicate that not many people feel that way: Only 13 percent of workers say they are “engaged” in their jobs or emotionally invested in their work. 
If you’re not among them, you might consider striking out on your own. No matter what it is you love doing, there’s likely a way to turn it into a vocation. Here’s how eight women did just that. 

What Do You Love Doing?

Wouldn’t it be nice to get up every day knowing that you’re doing work that really matters — something you’re truly passionate about? Unfortunately, new statistics released from Gallup indicate that not many people feel that way: Only 13 percent of workers say they are “engaged” in their jobs or emotionally invested in their work. 
If you’re not among them, you might consider striking out on your own. No matter what it is you love doing, there’s likely a way to turn it into a vocation. Here’s how eight women did just that. 

Katie Niemeyer, 41, Austin, Texas

Her passion: Katie Niemeyer, a nurse anesthetist, loves running. But after she was diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (SJS), which causes skin to blister to the point of second and third degree burns, she had difficulty training for her first marathon because the sweat dripping onto her face and eyes was extremely painful.
Turning it into a business: To solve her own problem, Niemeyer designed Handana, a fashionable, highly absorbent sweatband designed to wrap around your hand like a glove. Wearers can use both sides of their Handana to wipe sweat off their necks or foreheads. After accomplishing her own goal to run her first marathon, Niemeyer began selling Handana at expos, online and in retail stores in spring 2012.
Finding success: After a year in business, Handana is now sold online in five countries and in retail stores across North America. The Disney Corporation invited Niemeyer to represent Handana at the Disney Princess Half Marathon earlier this year.
Maintaining the passion: “Handana keeps me moving even with the sensitivities I often suffer from SJS,” Niemeyer says. “The passion behind the product is to inspire others to cross their finish line no matter where it is in life and empower others along the way.”

Lori Cheek, 41, New York, N.Y.

Her passion: Lori Cheek says she spent decades on a “relentless pursuit for love.” Hundreds of times during her commute to work as an architect in New York, she’d “spotted that intriguing stranger on a train, in a café, crossing the street, at baggage claim,” she says. “And nearly 999 of them got away.”
Turning it into a business:
After watching a colleague smoothly slip an invitation to dinner on the back of a business card to an intriguing stranger, Cheek had an idea. The personal details included on a typical business card seemed like “too much information to hand to a total stranger,” so she designed a set of clever cards that members can use to introduce themselves to individuals they encounter who spark their interest. If the interest is mutual, the recipient can reconnect online with the card’s owner via a private online profile, using the unique code included on each card. Cheek launched the business, Cheek’d, in May 2010.
Finding success: Cheek’d, which Cheek describes as “online dating in reverse,” has been covered by The New York Times and featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The company has customers in 47 states and 28 countries. In the next month, Cheek’d will launch a mobile app, which will allow users to flick virtual icebreaking Cheek'd cards to intriguing strangers they see nearby. (To receive the cards, those strangers must also have the app.) 
Maintaining the passion: After giving up her career as an architect and “bulldozing” through her savings to build her business, Cheek’s own experience is a testament to her product. After decades of “looking for love,” Cheek handed a Cheek’d card to a stranger last summer. The card said, “Let’s meet for a drink.” The two met for that drink, and now they are engaged. “I found the love of my life building my dream,” Cheek says. “I’ve built a brand and a company and thousands of people are using the service all over the world. It’s the most rewarding feeling. I'm no longer building structures. I'm now building relationships, and I couldn't be happier.”

Dori Roberts, 39, Stafford, Va.

Her passion: A mother and a teacher, Dori Roberts is passionate about education — specifically, science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM subjects. Frustrated about the lack of STEM education available for her students and her own children, Roberts started an after-school club to give them more exposure to math, science and engineering.
Turning it into a business: The after-school STEM club was so popular and grew so much that Roberts turned it into a business in 2009. Engineering for Kids provides enrichment programs to children ages 4 to 14 through preschool programs, after-school classes, workshops, in school field trips and birthday parties. Children learn engineering concepts and problem solving through hands-on activities such as LEGO robotics, designing and building rockets and developing their own electronic games.
Finding success: After starting with one location in Stafford, Va., Roberts has built the business into 84 franchised locations across the country.
Maintaining the passion:
“The children inspire me,” Roberts says. “I am always looking for new ways to inspire the next generation of engineers. This is where my passion comes from.”


Gretchen Roberts, 36, Maryville, Tenn.

Her passion: Gretchen Roberts is passionate about green living and making a difference in the world. Working from a home office, Roberts has always controlled her own environment: choosing an ergonomic chair, using natural and biodegradable hand soap and composting her lunch scraps. After working as content manager for a business-to-business e-commerce company for six months last year, she realized most office workers don’t share the same freedom. “I felt sick a lot from the commercial cleaners and terrible chairs and, on a larger scale, the lack of care of our footprint and our vendors' footprints in the world,” she says.
Turning it into a business: Roberts had wanted to open a Web store for a few years, but could never settle on the right idea, she says. After returning to her home office, she had her answer: She launched Verde Direct, a B2B sustainable supply company. She chose sustainable office and cleaning supplies, not only because she could see from Google Trends that they are growing concerns, but because the products also “aligned perfectly with my personal values and interests,” Roberts says. “It's always smart to go into something you care about to sustain the drive even when the going gets tough.”
Finding success: A former journalist and copywriter, Roberts focuses on content to attract customers. Several articles from her B2Green blog have gained significant traction on social media. She spends her time researching new products, formatting them for the site and writing “great product copy for them,” she says. “There's no shortage of products, just a shortage of time to get them live in the store.”
Maintaining the passion: To stay engaged, Roberts envisions what she wants the business to eventually look like and the people she can serve. “I think of the customers whose lives I can make better through my store and products,” she says. “And I remember that I wanted to do this for me, to own a business that can go beyond just me and make a difference in the world.”

Erica Shames, 55, Lewisburg, Penn.

Her passion: As a college student in Florida, Erica Shames wrote for a regional lifestyle magazine. While she held many different jobs during the next 15 years, she “filed away” the goal to someday launch her own lifestyle magazine, she says.
Turning it into a business: When her husband was offered a teaching job at Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania, Shames recognized the opportunity to breathe life into her old dream. She had “a burning passion to educate people who seemed numb to, or unaware of, the positive aspects of life in central Pennsylvania,” she says. “As a new arrival from NYC, I could see bounty where others could not.”
With $20,000 from her savings account, in 1993, Shames launched Susquehanna Life, a quarterly magazine focused on showcasing her newfound hometown: “A little-known area of the country where abundant outdoor recreation and the Amish live hand in hand with the culture and educational opportunities available at nationally ranked universities like Bucknell,” she says.
Finding success: After 20 years in business, Susquehanna Life is still going strong. The magazine circulates to 27 Pennsylvania counties and has subscribers in almost every state.
Maintaining the passion: Shames says her work continues to hold her interest because she still has more goals to achieve, such as winning a magazine award. “Also, there are still so many stories to tell,” she says.

Madeleine Melcher, 41, St. Louis, Mo.

Her passion: As an adoptee and a mother of three domestically adopted children, Madeleine Melcher is passionate about adoption and adoptive families. While some families wait for years to be chosen by a birth mother to adopt her child, Melcher and her husband were chosen and “had each of our children in our arms faster than I could have carried any of them myself,” she says. She believes the difference was in her “adoption portfolios,” which are required by adoption agencies and adoption attorneys to help birth mothers learn more about the potential adoptive family.
Turning it into a business: Shortly after Melcher and her husband adopted their second child, a representative from their adoption agency asked if Melcher would be willing to help other couples who were struggling with their portfolios. Many would-be adoptive families are overwhelmed by the task of creating their own portfolio and determining what to include. “Getting their adoption portfolio completed on their own can sometimes be a prospective adoptive parent’s biggest hurdle, but without it, they will never be seen or considered by birth mothers,” Melcher says. “I liked the idea of leveling the playing field for those who did not know where to begin, and I still do.”
In 2004, Melcher launched Our Journey to You, focusing on custom adoption portfolio and adoption profile design.
Finding success: Over the past eight years, Melcher has created portfolios that have helped place children in the arms of many families across the United States. Based on their portfolios, some of her clients have been chosen within days of completing and submitting the paperwork. Her book, “How to Create a Successful Adoption Portfolio: Easy Steps to Help You Produce the Best Adoption Profile and Prospective Birthparent Letter,” will be released in 2014.
Maintaining the passion: “I need look no further than my children’s precious smiles to remind me what a difference a successful portfolio can make and I want to do that for others,” Melcher says. “I love getting the texts or emails out of the blue that a client I have worked with has been matched or seeing the pictures of the new little blessing that has become their world.” 


Karma Decker, 49, Mason, Ohio

Her passion: After growing up in the kitchen watching her mother and grandmother make treats, Karma Decker has always been passionate about homemade candies. “Who wouldn't?” she says. “It's all cream, butter, sugar and chocolate!” While raising five sons, Decker often used baked goods to tame her unruly brood. Her family and friends have long enjoyed playing guinea pig to her new creations.
Turning it into a business: After her boys were all out of the house, “I found myself with some free time,” Decker says. She launched her business, Karma in the Kitchen, with one product, southern butter caramels, and an Etsy store.
Finding success: Decker’s business has steadily grown with sales on Etsy and her own website, and she has even gained a celebrity following. One Decker son, Ben, lives in Los Angeles and shared some of his mother’s caramels with friends in the entertainment industry. “They must have wanted more, because I received an invitation to participate in one of the Academy Award gifting suites,” Decker says. “It was very exciting for me, and, of course, I squealed like a 13 year old when I saw a picture of Kellan Lutz carrying a box of my caramels!”
Maintaining the passion:
“When you turn a hobby you love into a business, it can drain a lot of the joy out of it,” Decker says. She keeps her work fun by interacting with customers, getting immediate feedback, taking suggestions, experimenting and ordering dessert and calling it “market research,” she says. As she works toward the goal of making Karma in the Kitchen her full-time business (she still works at a defense contracting company by day), Decker is developing new products, building a loyal and growing customer base and educating herself on running a small business. “I love what I do, and every night I dream in chocolate,” she says.

Jane Daume, 66, Phoenix, Ariz.

Her passion: After her elderly father became ill, Jane Daume and her husband were forced to move him from his home in Ohio to an assisted living facility near their then-home in Missouri. While her father received good care, Daume saw how upsetting it was for him to leave his home. After his death, Daume and her husband decided to retire from the printing business they owned and live the retirement life they had always dreamed of in Phoenix.
Turning it into a business: After a year of the typical retirement life, Daume and her husband decided they wanted to do something more meaningful with their time. She couldn’t shake her desire to help elderly people remain in their homes and maintain self-sufficiency as long as possible. In 2004, they launched the Phoenix-area franchise of Caring Senior Service.
Finding success: Daume and her husband chose Caring Senior Service after exhaustively researching home-care franchises. The company’s proven systems of managing operations and marketing enabled the Daumes to learn the industry and maintain accountability for the care provided. After starting in the Phoenix area, the Daumes later added the Scottsdale market, resulting in a large territory to market their services.
Maintaining the passion: After watching her own father leave his home to receive the necessary care, Daume draws on personal experience to remain committed to her business. “The passion in my business comes from clients and families who experience relief from stress and anxiety concerning the welfare of their loved one,” she says.