Karen Wolters - With perseverance, anything is possible!
By Maci Killman
l-r: Linh Trinh, Marge Johnsson, and Karen Wolters
At the age when many people are thinking about retirement, Karen Wolters was just getting started. In a talk entitled, American Born, Globally Grown, Wolters shared the inspirational story of her entrepreneurial journey from nurse to serial entrepreneur, who founded three businesses, including one she sold for $110 million, to her current work as a national entrepreneurship education pioneer, on Oct. 19th as part of the College of Business’ Third Thursdays Entrepreneur Speaker Series at Concordia University Chicago.
Wolters’ story emphasized the importance of being a life-long learner, which she called adding skills to your toolbox. Nursing taught her to be observant. Living in Spain for seven years and Taiwan for 12 years, due to her husband’s overseas expatriate positions, resulted in Wolters’ acquisition of new language and culinary skills. When she and her husband returned to the U.S., Wolters took a risk and started leading cooking classes which focused on recipes she had learned during her nearly two decades living in Europe and Asia and utilized specialized cooking tools, such as a decorative carrot cutter for which Wolters was awarded her first patent. She manufactured the product and started shipping it around the world, with little prior knowledge about global supply chains, but she managed to teach herself.
“No one in this room is dumb,” said Wolters, “If I can learn it, you can learn it.” Wolters explained that much of her entrepreneurial success was due to being a continual learner, who built her businesses based on “inch up,” or incremental innovations, not on “jump up,” radical innovations requiring much greater risks. She wanted everyone to know that if she could teach herself, everyone else in society can also.
Doris Christopher, the CEO and founder of The Pampered Chef, Ltd, was impressed with Wolters’ specialty cooking products and The Pampered Chef soon became Wolters’ primary customer, as the business grew from $500,000 to $20 million in revenue, in just two years. Yet Wolters explained that at first she had been hesitant about taking the deal offered by Christopher. She wanted to travel the world with her husband who had just then retired.
“To this day I still look back and think about what a great decision it was,” said Wolters. Wolters and her son went on to invent applications for induction cooking technology, which Wolters first discovered being used in Mongolia as a teapot warmer. Wolters’ induction cooktops have made kitchens safer, as the heat will not activate when someone lays a hand on the surface. “It’s a black ceramic cooking surface, similar to a stove top, Wolters stated. “Only a pot can receive the heat because of a magnetic field that reacts with resistance in the materials,” she explained, “A coil is no longer needed and it’s energy efficient.” Another application of Wolters’ induction technological innovations is known to many as the lining inside Domino’s Pizza delivery bags which keeps food warm.
Ms. Wolters’ founded her third business to make a travel mug that doesn’t leak and fits inside a car’s cup holder. Instead of the prevailing travel mug lids which leak, she created a round flip-type opening to facilitate drinking. Demonstrating how her lid “inch up” innovation prevented leakage, Wolters showed how a user presses “this little button, it opens the aperture. You release it and it’s closed.” When Wolters decided to retire, the travel mug business had $90 million in annual revenue and was selling products in 40 countries. She sold the business for $110 million to a private equity firm only to receive a call about a year later saying the business had been sold to Rubbermaid for $300 million. Wolters wants people to know that “everyone can do this” and “America needs you.” She stated that the U.S. economy needs a certain threshold of annual new business start-ups in order to create enough jobs to absorb new people coming into the workforce each year, such as graduating students.
In closing Wolters stated, “The biggest thing that keeps people from starting a company is starting and fear.” Every product can be improved to better meet the needs of consumers. As time evolves so does technology and the things around us. Wolters started her first business at age 50. While risks and rewards are things entrepreneurs do calculate, “With perseverance, anything is possible,” Wolters declared.
The last of the Entrepreneur Speaker Series for fall 2017, hosted by the College of Business’ Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is on Thursday, November 16th at 6:00 pm in Krentz 120 with President of PB Industries, Inc. Andrew Park.