Opportunista Alison Gutterman persevered her way into her entrepreneurial journey as the third-generation female owner of Jelmar, a producer of household cleaning products known for the CLR and Tarn-X brands. A female CEO in a predominantly male industry, Alison has worked twice as hard to establish her authority and earn the respect of her colleagues in order to lead her company. To add to her struggle, this Opportunista has put in countless hours to overcome baseless opinions about nepotism, dismissed as "just the boss's daughter."
Determination, "a desire for creation and change," and a thick skin have prepared this Opportunista for the lengths she's had to go in proving herself to her others and even to her own self. A healthy dose of courage and confidence-building has helped Alison overcome what she calls "head trash" - the mental garbage that can prevent us from being our best selves. By pushing through fear and self-doubt, Alison has become the leader she is today, not only for her company, but also for her two children that get to witness how their mother has created some incredible opportunities to live her best life.
Alison is the Opportunista.
Let’s meet Alison and learn from this Opportunista.
Name: Alison Gutterman
Location: Skokie, Illinois
Title & Company: CEO and President, Jelmar
Industry: Consumer Packaged Goods
BS - Speech Communcations | Syracuse University
MBA | Northwestern University
How did you become an entrepreneur? What skills and experiences did you have that positioned you well to lead a company?
I grew up around business-focused and innovative minds. My talent and passion for leadership were sparked early in life as I watched my grandfather, and then my father, lead Jelmar. My perseverance and desire for creation and change have given me the boosts I needed to be a successful leader. I started at Jelmar in an unusual way: without a desk or even a job title. I worked in different areas and made my way through the ranks, having to prove myself at every step certainly as much as, and really more than, anyone else at the company per the expectations of my father.
What was the greatest fear you faced in your entrepreneurial journey? How did you overcome it?
Working in a male-dominated industry and as the only third-generation female owner of a large cleaning products company, earning respect, and gaining confidence has been a struggle.
Early in my career at Jelmar, I was managing men in their 40s when I was only 25. They were more experienced than I and often dismissed my new ideas about marketing and sales. Some assumed I didn't have the drive to put in the long hours and hard work they did. I've heard it all—from being dismissed as just the boss's daughter to presumptions that I was living off of my father's and grandfather's reputation. But I was more than willing to put in the work to create my own reputation for being a hardworking, honorable businessperson in my own right.
It was a bit scary and nerve-wracking to push forward, but I've had to learn to build my confidence, better defend my thoughts and ideas – despite the naysayers — and overcome my negative self-talk, or as I like to call it, "head trash." That would be all the negative comments from yourself, likely stemming from others, you have let build up in your head that are stopping you from reaching your full potential.
One of the best things I’ve done to help me in this area is join a variety of women entrepreneur groups. These groups have provided me mentors and peers to inspire me, hit me with reality checks on my capabilities and successes, and help be grow and learn from their outside perspectives and experiences.
Find opportunities for growth and learning.
Don’t be afraid to hire people
who are smarter than you,
or knowledgeable in an area
that you are not.
What do you think is the most important decision that an entrepreneur needs to make at the beginning of building her business?
In starting a business, or taking over a high-level role in a business, one of your first steps you take should be to self evaluate. Find out what your limitations are and be aware of what you do not know. You don’t have to address these lacks or limitations as negatives, rather, as opportunities. From there, you can find opportunities for growth and learning. That may mean pursuing further education for yourself, or further surrounding yourself with knowledgeable resources. Don’t be afraid to hire people smarter than you, or knowledgeable in an area that you are not.
What advice do you have for an entrepreneur who is trying to figure out how to develop her business idea? What do you recommend as her first steps?
I would recommend two things: courage and research. The main advice I would give anyone is to have the courage to develop your idea if you are passionate about a new product or service you think you can provide. And nowadays, it is so much easier to do a great amount of research, even more so than 5 or 10 years ago. It is affordable to reach out to your networks to float your ideas by them, or to even acquire lists to do surveys with online survey sites. There is a wealth of information on the Internet that can give you ideas on how to develop costing ideas, prototypes and more.
What does building a culture for your business mean to you?
Jelmar has kept its family values strong through and through. I have a true commitment to this value as my own family history is intertwined with Jelmar’s history. Every day I work to honor its past while continuing to build its future. We have a warm, familial company culture that is evident in our staff of 15 employees. I work to foster a comfortable environment that treats family and non-family employees equally. Everyone has a voice and is heard. Our turnover is minuscule with the majority of the employees having been with the company 10 years or more. Their longstanding loyalty and expertise within the company makes for a high-performing team, in which employees know they have a long future of continued growth and career development opportunities.
If you look for employees who care and you can happily provide care for, you can easily find a match for your team.
How have you built a team that fits the culture you’ve created?
Jelmar’s family-style culture has been built over the years by myself, father and grandfather as leaders, respectively, showing respect to our employees, building their trust and loyalty and providing them opportunities to do effective and career-building work. The individuals of our 15-person company exhibit this loyalty, innovation, hard-work and appreciation for a familial atmosphere. If you look for employees who care and you can happily provide care for, you can easily find a match for your team.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are trying to determine how to differentiate their products or services to attract their target customers?
Listen to your target customers. They have ideas around improvements, changes or updates to better reflect their needs, usage and so on when considering their past experiences with your product or service. Do your research, qualitative and quantitative, to find your best next step to address this. Consider their feedback and even make some changes that reflect their thoughts. In the end, if the future users or beneficiaries of this idea are not happy with the way it performs, it will not succeed.
How are you creating your own opportunities to live your best life?
As a woman business leader, if I am helping others build and grow, I am in turn helping myself build and grow. Your help to others will come full circle. I am passionate about elevating the role of women in the business community and empowering female entrepreneurs. To help create, build, and connect a community of strong women leaders, I am a member of several of women-in-business peer groups and volunteer through various programs to help young women realize their potential for professional success.
I bring my passion for leadership and teaching home with me as well to my children, Michaela and Eli. I hope to help bring them future success, and their future success is my future success. I like to create activities that teach them important skills, such as money management, by doing chores for allowance that they use towards their hobbies and interests. Similarly, I teach them priority management and good behavior by using earned points to put towards extra special activities.
Alison is The Opportunista.
What are three words that describe you?
Innovative, strong-willed, leader, funny.
When I’m not working, I am:
Spending time with my kids.
What’s the next item you’d like to cross off your bucket list?
Taking my kids to the Galapagos Islands before the animals are extinct.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t be afraid to fail.
What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
Freedom to achieve what you may not have dreamed,
and being able to expand your skills in areas that you never thought you had a particular skill.
Let me know in the comments: How has Alison's story inspired you to build your own business?
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