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A Circuitous Route to Entrepreneurial Success

Mary Crane was a lobbyist and White House chef. Now she teaches etiquette to Generation Y employees.

Mary Crane decided in third grade that she wanted to be the first woman president of the United States.

Although she hasn't realized that dream, two of her three careers landed her in the thick of Washington, DC's, political arena: First she was a lobbyist, then a chef in the White House kitchen.

The third has handed her the presidency--of her own company, that is, Mary Crane & Associates.

Today, Crane consults with Fortune 500 companies and some of the nation's largest professional services firms, offering training programs designed to help younger employees learn the rules of engagement and older employees to become more thoughtful about how to recruit, motivate and retain today's Generation Y workers. Her clients often refer to her highly interactive programs as "edutainment" and give her high praise for helping them negotiate generations of differences.

Crane majored in political science at the University of Missouri, earned a law degree from George Washington University Law School, and later graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. "Believe it or not," Crane says with a laugh, "they're all related. They all taught me something about life and work and people, and following your bliss."

"Everything since high school debate helped me get to where I am today. I had no A-B-C plan; I just knew I was on some sort of path," Crane says. "Magically, it seemed, doors opened for me and opportunities appeared, so I'm a strong believer in following your own vision."

Making a Difference as a Lobbyist
Crane met her husband in a business law class. With only $2,500 left after renting and filling a U-Haul truck, the two headed for DC in the early 1980s, where Crane worked for Tenneco Inc. while attending law school. Being a student gave her the opportunity to focus on legislative research and attend committee hearings on Capitol Hill for Tenneco. " I loved it," she says.

As a government affairs representative for the American Heart Association, she was among those working with Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin on legislation to ban smoking on airline flights lasting two hours or more. She describes the experience as both "hard work and exhilarating."

"This was the kind of change I'd dreamed of," she says.

At the height of her success, Crane decided to go to culinary school. "I had turned 33, and here I was, wanting a mid-life career change," she recalls. She enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America and did an externship at The Greenbriar in West Virginia, where she met Chef Walter Scheib. Scheib went on to become the White House chef and, in 1994, he asked whether Crane would like to work in the kitchen with him.

"I told him I'd scrub pots just to be in the White House kitchen," Crane says. "There was such a strong sense of history there." However, she says, the job was physically demanding. She was on her feet all the time and had to do a lot of lifting.

Developing Rules of Engagement
Thus Crane embarked on her third career. Scheib's brother-in-law had a business that often entertained clients. He asked Crane to help him select restaurants and train his associates in business etiquette. Crane created Rules of Engagement, a training program designed to help young professionals understand business etiquette and get the most out of a business meeting over lunch or dinner.

"I couldn't call it etiquette; that would make hair stand up on the necks of young professionals," she says. "Basically, what I had to do was help young people make the move from carrying backpacks to carrying briefcases. It was more than business etiquette; I was helping young people enter the work force.

"It was an eye-opener, bridging the generation gap," she says. "Young people today have fantastic resumes, but they've never had the experience of having to show up for work at 9 a.m.

She refers to the younger generation as T-Ballers. The older generation learned through games such as baseball that you get three strikes, and then you're out. T-Ballers never learned to deal with failure. "In T-Ball, you swing, swing, swing until you hit the ball. You cannot fail. Every child gets a prize, even for showing up. . . . All this is playing out in today's work force environment," Crane says.

Crane's training programs carry titles such as "Working With People Not Like Me," "BlackBerries to Business Letters" and "Popcorn & Principles." They are designed to be interactive and action-packed. A line of business products for sale from her website includes a mug with a logo that reminds you which bread and butter plate is yours, and flashcards that help you "navigate networking events, manage business lunches and dinners, follow-up with key contacts, and present yourself as the consummate professional."

Crane enjoys being president of her company: "Not exactly what I had in mind at 9 years of age, but it works!" She hopes to reach her goal of $1 million in sales in 2008. In a booming $50 billion industry of consultants and products, she's likely to succeed.

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