Column: Tory Johnson Explains How She Became Her Own Boss

As you no doubt know, small businesses are the backbone of America and they're often owned and operated by entrepreneurs and their families. Small businesses are the biggest source of new jobs in America, which means that entrepreneurs are not just doing good for themselves, but for our economy and our country, too.

Obviously, the Wal-Marts, Microsofts and Disneys -- all of which were started by pioneering entrepreneurs -- reach more of us today with their products and services than any small-business owner could dream of. But for every corporate giant out there, there are millions of women like myself who are just as passionate about their own businesses and just as anxious to make them prosper and grow.

Not everything or everyone can be found in giant shopping malls, in suburban corporate parks or on Wall Street. Travel this country, as I have in recent years, and you'll find that entrepreneurship is alive and well.

Being a small-business owner is a career path that I heartily endorse, but first, let me tell you how I got started.

In 1993, at 23 years old, I was working in a prominent PR position in a network news division. The future looked bright until one day I was summoned to HR and abruptly fired. I was told that I had an hour to leave the building, but before doing so, I insisted on talking to the newly appointed president of the news division.

When I walked into his office, he leaned back in his chair, put his arms behind his head and smiled smugly. Coldly, he said, "It's a big world out there, Tory, and I suggest you go explore it."

That was some of the best advice I've ever been given.

Determined to move on, I soon landed a healthy six-figure salary as the director of communications at Nickelodeon, which is owned by one of America's biggest corporations, Viacom. At this rate, my husband and I agreed, we would be very comfortable in life.

But I was anything but comfortable in the corporate world. It wasn't exactly painful going to work each day, but it just wasn't fulfilling.

I could make a long list for you about the things that I found unsatisfactory. But it boiled down to this: I was working for the man when I dreamed of being the man -- or in my case, the woman.

So after a lot of thought, I resigned and joined a small startup outfit. Ralph Lauren's son had launched a lifestyle magazine for 20-somethings called Swing, and I was to be the marketing director. It seemed like the perfect introduction to a scrappy, entrepreneurial environment.

Gone were the big expense account lunches and fancy hotels for business trips. Instead of messengering packages throughout Manhattan, we'd deliver them by hand during our lunch hour. Even long distance calls -- at just a few cents a minute -- were kept to a minimum.

None of that bothered me. In fact, I appreciated the challenge of being tight with a buck. I think it forces all of us to learn to be more resourceful and creative.

But as I continued my work at the magazine, two things occurred to me.

First, instead of working for the man, I was now working for the man's son and helping him fulfill his dream, not mine.

And second, I realized that if he could do it, I could too.

I came up with an idea that eventually became a passion in my life, one that I hope illustrates how powerful and freeing the idea of owning your own business can be, especially if you're willing to take a chance, trust your instincts and work your butt off.

My idea was to start a company that produced career fairs for women. Even though career fairs are a dime a dozen, nothing existed specifically for women. And seeing as diversity in the corporate world is a growing priority, I thought that if I could connect smart, savvy women with some of the best employers in America, I would have a win-win-win situation.

Companies would win. Women would win. And I would win.

I started with $5,000 and began operating out of my bedroom in my Upper West Side apartment with twin babies in tow. I launched the first Women For Hire event in New York back in 1999. More than 1,000 women showed up, and I knew we were on to something.

I took the profits from that first fair, opened up an office and hired a small staff. We expanded to three cities the next season and then to six a year later. There have been many ups and downs along the way - and I've had to learn and adapt on the spot.

Now, six years later, Women For Hire produces 20 events a year in 10 markets. We're a multimillion-dollar venture with 1,500 corporate clients ranging from IBM to the FBI, and we connect with 50,000 professional women annually.

Going it on your own is not for everyone: there are millions of people who have no interest in running their own shops. And that's good: we need smart, passionate, creative people doing the "real jobs." After all, that is the main purpose of Women For Hire.

But if the idea of being accountable to only yourself intrigues you, and if you think you have the drive, energy, passion and confidence that it takes to launch your own business and grow your dream into something big, then you and I have a lot in common.

No matter how great your idea or how vast your experience, there is no substitute for motivation and determination. As a startup, there are times when the money will be low, prospective clients will say no, and friends may be naysayers. Your incredible determination will get you through those rocky times.

Good luck on the road to realizing your entrepreneurial dream.

For more information about Women For Hire's services, visit www.womenforhire.com.

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