The common wisdom is that people who love their work are those who find the most success. Here, we feature three women who prove that common wisdom right: By following their dreams, each built a business that has seen more success than most of us would dare to dream for. As John Updike once said, “The refusal to rest content—the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions—is what distinguishes artists from entertainers and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.”
At the age of 10, Mary Engelbreit told her mother that she wanted to be a book illustrator when she grew up. She taught herself the art by copying drawings in her mother’s and grandmother’s books: Raggedy Ann drawings by Johnny Gruelle, illustrations by Warwick Goble, and others from the early 1900s or even older. “When I was little, I sold my drawings like other kids would have lemonade stands,” she says. Many of the drawings she studied had black backgrounds set off by bright colors and quotations—attributes that weren’t common in greeting cards when she started, and which would later help build her brand.
Engelbreit says she was always encouraged by her parents, even though there were no other artists in the family. “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it,” she says, and as it turned out, she had no reason to worry. The artist, whose distinctive style has earned her international recognition, sold her first greeting cards to a local shop as a teenager and worked as a freelance artist before starting her own company. With only a dozen or so cards in her portfolio, she went to the National Stationery Show in New York, where the reaction was immensely positive, she says. “Lots of people wanted to license my art—and I didn’t even really understand what licensing was at the time.”
Engelbreit worked with Sunrise Publications for many years, and licenses much of her art through American Greetings. With the help of a staff of seven, her drawings grace not only greeting cards, but also calendars, calendars, fabric patterns and gift items of all stripes. Her inspirations come from everyday life, and she feels lucky to have never run out of ideas. “It comes from what goes on every day with my kids and friends. They’re things everyone’s going through, so people can relate.” She adds that the Internet age has brought a whole new source for inspiration, along with new tools for digitizing her work, but she still creates each drawing the old-fashioned way: with a sketch that is drawn out in pen and ink, colored in with marker, and topped with colored pencils. “I enjoy the process of drawing; that’s how I like to spend my time,” she says. “Doing it faster doesn’t interest me.”
The craft has opened a lot of doors for Engelbreit that she never expected: She’s visited the White House and met President Bill and Hillary Clinton; she was honored as one of the top 50 women entrepreneurs in the world at Kensington Palace; and this year she will be honored, alongside Dutch artist Marjolein Bastin, with the LOUIE Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Greeting Card Association. It is the first time the award will be given out, and the highest honor the organization has bestowed on an artist.
As a mother of two young children, Pat Whitaker says her main motivation behind founding Arcturis was so that she could be part of the work force while still having time to raise her kids. “The workplace wasn’t very flexible then, and you couldn’t just leave. I knew I might not make as much money, but I would be able to leave if I needed to.” Starting out with a focus on interior design, Whitaker says her natural aptitude was for creating spaces to support the activity that an environment was to be used for. “I could design the space both inside and out to make the workers more productive,” she says.
When the company started out in the late ’70s, commercial interior design was a relatively new field. Whitaker started out working on her own, and within half a year had a couple of employees. The staff grew steadily along with the client list, meeting new needs for loyal clients who were experiencing growth. “I think the challenges were to figure out where the need was, and where it was not being met. It was also in talking to the clients: After you do one small job with them, how do you keep them and grow with them?” For example, the first job Arcturis did for Edward Jones was renovation of an 18,000-square-foot floor. As the company grew, the jobs got bigger, as well—from a ground-up construction of a data center, to the Edward Jones building in Des Peres, along with out-of-state projects in Arizona.
For all of her clients—from Benjamin F. Edwards & Co. to BJC Healthcare and Wells Fargo Advisors—Whitaker says the goal is to reflect each client’s image and aesthetic, rather than making each project look like an ‘Arcturis’ project. She designs “from the inside out,” ensuring that the form follows the function, promoting more efficient use of space, she notes.
Though she remains involved in the company, Whitaker stepped down as president and CEO earlier this year, as part of a three-year succession plan that has seen Traci O’Bryan take the helm of Arcturis’ day-to-day operations. When asked about the proudest achievements she takes with her, Whitaker cites her philanthropic involvement (she serves on the board of St. Louis Children’s Hospital, the Regional Business Council and the United Way, among other endeavors), as well as the company’s many long-term relationships with clients. “You have to really be paying attention to your clients if you want to keep their business,” she says. “If you have that relationship, they know that you understand their business and that you’ll be the best firm for their project.”
When we caught up with Ira DeWitt, she was in the final stages of preparation for a video shoot with Ron Isley of the Isley Brothers. The R&B / hip-hop artist is working on his 45th album, and despite being off the beaten path geographically for the industry, DeWitt’s Notifi Records was the perfect partner.
“Once you establish yourself, you don’t need to be in New York or L.A. anymore,” DeWitt notes. “Computers make it so easy—you can send MP3s back and forth, and I think it says something that other labels can rely on me to consult for their projects.” In addition to managing her own artists (including the likes of hit-makers Ginuwine and Johnny Gill) the 10-year industry veteran consults for Universal Distribution and E1 Entertainment Distribution. “I think what differentiates me is that I can compete with major labels like Atlantic, but on a shoestring budget. I work twice as hard as all the other executives, and I do it with a tenth of the employees. I’m in charge of radio, PR and marketing. It’s a full-time-plus job.”
As a white woman who specializes in hip-hop, that kind of dedication is probably warranted. “I do things differently because I’m a woman, yes,” she says. “Most of the A&R people who do scouting are men, and I had to work harder. You have challenges of dealing with creative people and no set of boundaries and guidelines.” DeWitt is matter-of-fact, knowing that her successes speak for themselves; for instance, Ginuwine’s A Man’s Thoughts just reached No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B and hip hop charts, and his Last Chance reached No. 2 on the R&B and hip hop chart. “Every record I’ve put out has gone Top 10 on Billboard,” she notes. And while the level of her success has been somewhat of a surprise, the fact that Notifi was successful was not, DeWitt says. “I expected it to be a success because I didn’t really have any other choice. It was sink or swim. I wasn’t going to embark on something if I didn’t think I was going to have some level of success.”
As though working with a string of nationally successful artists weren’t enough to fill her time, DeWitt also recently launched her own jewelry line, Sukran. “That’s a labor of love for me,” she says. “I’ve always loved jewelry and that’s what I do when I need a break from music.”
Notifi Records is expanding in new ways, as well. DeWitt recently began a partnership with University of Missouri—St. Louis that will allow students to get a recording degree. Classes start this fall, with industry instructors giving students a hands-on look at engineering and music business.