birthday card to each of her 86 employees, and if she’s in the office, she hand delivers it herself. “People need to know that they can count on you,” she says.
Before she ever stepped foot into the offices of Detroit Heading, Abraham was already a major force in the fastener business. As purchasing manager of worldwide fasteners for North American operations at GM, it was she who decided which companies would get GM’s business. Now she is charged with convincing companies like GM to buy her fasteners. “At GM, I knew the CEOs of companies that are my competitors today.”
Despite the seeming ease of her successes, Abraham is quick to admit that racism and sexism do exist, particularly in a male-dominated field such as her own. “It’s challenging because I’m a minority and a woman. It’s a double whammy,” she says. Her 32 years of experience with GM “doesn’t stop some people from wondering, ‘How did you arrive from where you were to where you are?’ She says that men, in particular, have seemed less willing to acknowledge her many accomplishments. But she just shrugs it off. “I don’t need accolades to drive me.” Abraham is heartened by the strides black women have made in business, and hopes her can-do attitude will spill over to other women. “I encourage women,” she says. “I want to be a living example of the fact that they can do things too.”
PREPARED TO SUCCEED
At 35, Gwendolyn Smith Iloani was on top of the world. She was a managing director for Aetna Inc., where she had invested more than $4 billion and where she oversaw a $9.2 billion portfolio throughout her career there. She had a six-figure salary and the respect of her peers. So what did she do? She walked away from it all in 1994 and founded her own investment firm, Hartford, Connecticut-based Smith Whiley & Co. (No. 4 on the BE PRIVATE EQUITY list), which was initially formed as a strategic alliance with Aetna. Now, at 46, Iloani is on top of the world again.
“When you decide you want to be an entrepreneur you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this money?’” she says, referring to a 9-to-5 salary. “You must do troubleshooting and reconcile within yourself what you want to do.” Iloani says she did a lot of soul searching, “I was a single woman at the time with no husband to turn to if it didn’t work.” But she quelled her fears or at least postponed them, “I told myself if it didn’t work, I would find something else to do.”
Iloani didn’t leave her company’s growth to chance. “It took about a year between the time I started thinking about the business and [the time I was] actually doing it,” she says. “I wanted to be sure I had enough capital to survive for three years if the company didn’t attract any customers. I wanted to make sure the people on my team wouldn’t have to get