From the June 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

A triumph often means more when it's a victory over something, whether it be tragedy, prejudice, professional hardship or a personal handicap. The winners of the prestigious Avon's Women of Enterprise Awards have tasted the sweetest of such victories. "There's a courage, a determination, a certain spirit that all these women have in common," says Avon's Kathleen Walas, who adds this is the only award program that recognizes women business owners who have overcome adversity in their lives.

This year, Janet Avery, Georgia Buchanan, Arlene Maus, Teresa McBride, Carmen Munoz and Deborah Naybor were selected from Avon's nationwide search, which included input from the Small Business Administration and more than 200 women's organizations.

"There's something inherent in these women," says Walas. "They want to make other people's lives better because of what they went through."

Here, two of the award winners share their messages.

Deborah A. Naybor's life seemed to go from bad to worse. Her father, an alcoholic, died when Naybor was 13 years old. Accustomed to the perks of an upper middle-class upbringing, her family was thrust suddenly into survival mode. "We had to watch our pennies," says Naybor, who worked her way through college by cleaning classrooms.

Graduating with a degree in forestry at a time when the forestry industry was overcrowded with '70s environmentalists, Naybor took a job at a surveying firm to make ends meet. She worked her way up until 1988, when she started Deborah A. Naybor, Professional Land Surveyor, P.C., a land surveying and planning firm in Alden, New York. As a woman in a male-dominated field, Naybor says her biggest problem was not so much hostility, but rather being taken seriously. "People asked if I inherited the business from my dad or whether my brothers really owned the company," she recalls.

She earns respect in her field by stepping in where others fear to tread. In her early years, one winter job involved pounding stakes into a site when it was 40 degrees below zero outside. "The word spreads that you try harder," says Naybor.

Trying harder has long been a part of Naybor's nature. "When you're going through tragedies, you think there's no way you're going to come out of it a well person," she says. "But when you're thrown into a situation and have no choice but to adjust, you come out a much stronger person."

Though Janet Avery grew up in a New York City housing project, married young, got divorced, and didn't start college until age 29, she doesn't like to dwell on those circumstances. "Those were not the obstacles," she says. "I was the obstacle--my fears, my insecurities, my inability to reach out and say I needed help."

A master's degree and a position as a vice president at Citibank did nothing to conquer those inner struggles. So Avery started to pray. "Shortly after that," she says, "I got the idea for [my business]."

In 1990, Avery took a leap of faith, leaving her corporate position to start Vehicles Inc., a Harlem, New York-based nonprofit organization that offers career training and teaches life skills.

Along the way, Naybor has had to do a few things she's disliked, among them asking for money. At her first fund-raising pitch, she recalls, "I was so nervous, my legs were shaking."

To this day, Avery reaps what she has sown. When a young man just out of prison attended the program and landed his first job, he sent Avery a thank-you note for treating him so well. "When I get letters like that," says Avery, "it confirms over and over again this is the reason I was born."

Avery has received more than she ever expected. "I have to give the glory to God and the credit to the people who helped me," she says. "I get courage from doing the right thing. I can forge ahead knowing I will prevail in the end."

Contact Sources

Deborah A. Naybor, Professional Land Surveyor, PC, 11901 Broadway, Alden, NY 14004, (716) 937-9448.