Three Detroit Female Entrepreneurs Share Secrets of Success

It’s Women’s History Month, and We Are Celebrating by Highlighting Some of Detroit’s Own

secrets of success //. ALEXANDRA CLARK. FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT OF BON BON BON. PHOTO GERARD BELEVENDER

Success rarely comes easy. Under normal circumstances, success takes years of work, determination, and a special something that’s different for each of us. During a year like this past one, that has knocked us each down in its own way, reaching our goals has been made that much harder. Loss of friends or family to COVID-19, job loss, or upheaval and stress of our new normal day-to-day lives, we have each met suffering in our own ways as the pandemic progressed. 

Throughout it all, however, Detroit is still a city in the business of shining on. Even if some of us need a jump, our engines are still primed and ready to start up strong. This is the Motor City after all. For those of us in need of a jump start, three Detroit female entrepreneurs offer their secrets, words of advice, and inspiration as a way of celebrating Women’s History Month and honoring successful and historical women around the globe. Let’s connect our battery cables, and dive in!

COURTNEY SMITH: FIND A MENTOR 

Courtney Smith is the founder and CEO of Detroit Phoenix Center (DPC). As a former foster youth who had seen the effects of

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COURTNEY SMITH. FOUNDER AND CEO OF DETROIT PHOENIX CENTER

the foster care system in her own life and her siblings’ lives first hand, she felt a pull to Detroit’s homeless and struggling youth. In 2016 Smith started DPC as a safe place for youth to convene and receive services and encouragement they need in order to gain or regain, footing in life. 

Smith reveals that throughout her life—the good and the hardships—her faith and her mentors have been vital in her success and ability to invest so deeply into the community. For Smith, faith “Played a very critical understanding in knowing that… my life, my story, my journey is so much bigger than me,” Smith says. “And also the women, oh my goodness, I’ve had so many women leaders, mentors, who have really, really, from the time that I was a youth to even now as an adult professional, have really… instilled and poured into me.” 

I always say, Smith continues, even through moments where I’m struggling with imposter syndrome, that like if I don’t believe in myself, I am able to trust those who have invested in me. She encourages everyone to not be afraid to speak up and ask for help when we need it, take off the superwoman cape, she says, and lean into those that love us.

Finding a mentor is no easy feat, but Smith offers her own advice on the subject, “…Be intentional about you know, establishing relationships and not being afraid to ask for what you want, and to establish what expectations are.” She pauses to discuss how a lack in communication can lead to our dependence on people who don’t have the ability or capacity to fulfill our expectations. “And that’s okay,” she says, “but [we have] to be very frank and forthright in terms of expressing our needs… we have to teach people how to treat us and vice versa, and we have to lean into that in order to have healthy relationships.” 

SUZANNE SHANK: STAY HUMBLE

As the CEO of Siebert Williams Shank & Co., LLC, a Detroit-based, independent firm that offers non-bank financial services to clients, Suzanne Shank has spent her life working hard, humbly, and ethically. Shank attributes much of her backbone to her

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SUZANNE SHANK. CEO OF SIEBERT WILLIAMS SHANK & CO., LLC

parents and to the people she works with, but to her, it is still immensely important to be who you are and do what you believe in. No shortcuts. Her strong mentality helped lead her firm to become the first minority and female-owned firm to be ranked in the top ten for municipal bond underwriters. 

To Shank, humility is a vital part of who she is and her success. She explains that her work involves improving municipalities, improving water and sewer systems, building new schools, and adding on to airports, “Those are things that impact… everyone,” she says. “And it feels rewarding to see this tangible evidence of projects we finance which improve the lives of citizens and drive economic growth.” 

But no matter what kind of work a person does for a community, Shank encourages it to be met with a heart of humility, “I always look at it with the lens of, you know, trying to do it in the best possible way so that taxpayers are not paying… too much.” She continues to discuss how her partners and staff help encourage a humble and positive mentality, “We just have great leadership, which just allows me to be better. You really can’t’ do anything alone and so I think you know, for me, I’ve just been extremely fortunate to have the best business partners that believe in… my leadership and support me as I continue to try to move the firm forward.” 

For Shank the hardest lesson to learn throughout her career has been having the courage to not let people define her. “As you can imagine,” she says, “when I started [on]…Wall Street, many of the rooms I was in I was… sometimes the only woman, sometimes the only person of color. And so continuing to work, to break through what felt like not a glass ceiling but a concrete ceiling… that made it a pretty hard journey.” 

Sometimes when people realize you’re… woman-owned or minority-owned they want to give you the small piece of the deal, Shank continues, And we’ve worked very hard not to be the subcontractor, as they say, but the prime contractor.

For Shank, the saying “anything worth having requires a lot of work,” is a truth she takes to heart and to the office every day. 

ALEXANDRA CLARK: STAY ON YOUR PATH

Alexandra Clark is the founder and president of the luxurious chocolate company in Hamtramck, Bon Bon Bon. Clark decided to pursue chocolate making at the age of 19 and to her the rest is history. But even with the career of her sweet-dreams, it’s

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ALEXANDRA CLARK PIPING CHOCOLATE. PHOTO GERARD BELEVENDER

not always a milky-smooth ride. “I love chocolate and I love customer service,” she says, “but my job requires mostly computer work in order to support my team and further our mission of bringing good people good chocolate. What I love to do and what the company needs me to do is different.” 

Clark relays advice a friend told her during their training for an Iron Distance Triathlon, something she found to be the best business advice she ever received, “Just keep walking,” she says he told her, “If you think you might want to quit, just keep walking while you decide. That way, when you make your decision, you’re that much further ahead if your decision is to continue on.”

 

She continues with her own thoughts, It’s simple, but it’s the best advice. Stay on your path, just keep going, every little bit helps, and when you are unsure, trust the course you already set for yourself, you can always adjust it down the road but for goodness sake, don’t stop.

For Clark, a huge part of her passion is manifested through her purpose—doing the best for chocolate and chocolate lovers. “Good people deserve good chocolate,” she says, “And that means not only the person eating the chocolate but everyone who participates in creating the value of that product. Bon Bon Bon is not the only answer, there are so many people in the chocolate industry doing the best they can with whatever they have. Bon Bon Bon is just on the side of doing better, or at least just doing the best that we can to make something gooder.” 

Most of us can agree that finding our own purpose that aligns with a “gooder” world like Clark does is something almost as tasty as chocolate. Maybe even tastier.

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